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Yellowhead Institute puts Indigenous policy expertise first

How the Indigenous-led think tank is forging its own path through community, not competition.


As an Indigenous-led think tank, Yellowhead Institute offers an important and overdue framework for holding both Canadian and First Nations governments accountable, by centering on Indigenous knowledge and community as it produces critical policy perspectives in a way that other think tanks simply never have before.

“Ultimately Yellowhead responds to this gap that exists in community politics,” says Hayden King of the Beausoleil First Nation. He is Yellowhead’s founding director, advisor to Ryerson University’s dean on Indigenous education and an assistant professor of sociology. “There’s no real organization out there that provides this level of analysis that [Indigenous] community leadership has been calling for over many, many years.”

Yellowhead began as Ryerson’s Centre for Indigenous Governance, where Dr. King served as director from 2013 to 2016. “We really didn’t have the support from the university at that time or from the faculty of arts, and the centre sort of just languished.” Dr. King recalls. He credits the leadership of Ryerson’s current dean of arts, Pamela Sugiman, with reviving the project and asking Dr. King if he’d return to lead it. He joined with colleague Shiri Pasternak, an assistant professor of criminology, to co-develop and conceptualize the rebirth of the centre as the Yellowhead Institute in 2018. They named it, with family approval, after William Yellowhead, an Anishinaabe leader who defended their jurisdiction against British encroachment around the time of the War of 1812. He eventually founded Rama First Nation (Mnjikaning) near what is now Orillia, Ontario.

“[Dr. Pasternak and I] recognized from our own experiences and backgrounds that there was really this need for a non-partisan, independent, rigorous, well-connected, community-grounded organization that could provide analysis and research for communities that were really struggling against federal, provincial [and] territorial policies,” Dr. King explains.

The university’s commitment to giving Yellowhead the support it needs this time around includes fulfilling the institute’s ongoing vision to create opportunities for Indigenous students and researchers. Dr. King notes that Ryerson has gone from employing three Indigenous faculty members to 10 over the course of three years. Eva Jewell (Deshkan Ziibiing), who joined as associate fellow at Yellowhead and assistant professor in sociology at Ryerson in 2019, also sees the relationship as a reciprocal one. “It’s really notable that the faculty of arts has been just overwhelmingly supportive of our work and understands the importance of it. The fact that many of us are housed in the faculty of arts as associate fellows speaks to that support,” she adds.

Though it’s housed on a university campus, Yellowhead is nevertheless a self-determining organization that sets its own goals, perspective and values – an academic freedom that is represented in the breadth of its published work. Apart from the institute’s annual special reports on reconciliation authored by Dr. Jewell and Ian Mosby, an assistant professor of history, it has published numerous research reports and briefs, co-authored by the institute’s staff, associate fellows, and research fellows on issues as vast as “land back” and land dispossession in Canada, Bill C-92, Jordan’s Principle, the erasure of Black Indigenous identity, 1492 Landback Lane, and on.

“What is notable about Yellowhead is that we are Indigenous scholars from Indigenous communities who are writing critically about Indigenous issues. So when there is an issue that we are speaking to, we are the experts on that,” Dr. Jewell says. The staff and fellows who work at Yellowhead also include researchers who identify as settlers, including Dr. Pasternak and Dr. Mosby, as a part of their mission to build solidarity with non-Indigenous scholars and researchers.

If Yellowhead is accountable to a particular group or interest, it’s Indigenous communities first and foremost. “When we’re thinking about doing a research project it generally begins by holding a community workshop with Indigenous experts on whatever issue we’re talking about.” Dr. King says. The respective experts provide direction and feedback once a report has been published on what the institute got right and what could change. “We recognize as primarily Indigenous researchers that we have this obligation to our communities to serve them. That’s how we take what is effectively an Indigenous methodology and transplant it onto a university research center,” he says.

This emphasis on community also takes shape in how the think tank shares its work, which isn’t published in academic journals, but on the institute’s website. There, the longer research papers are broken down into digestible overviews with interactive visual aids, glossaries and other resources.

As an experienced journalist and journalism instructor, Candis Callison (Tahltan), associate professor in the school of journalism writing and media, and the Institute for critical indigenous studies at the University of British Columbia, sees Yellowhead’s work as having value and impact beyond policy-making. “What really stands out to me about the kinds of reports [Yellowhead] has released and the kinds of research they seek to do are the questions that they ask – questions that show they’re embedded in Indigenous communities, Indigenous concerns and in Indigenous histories of concern,” she says.

Having started her career in the 1990s, Dr. Callison has witnessed how Indigenous knowledge and expertise has been routinely shut out of both the media and the think tanks that speak on Indigenous issues. She says Yellowhead is shifting that dynamic by making itself and the concerns of Indigenous communities legible to media, researchers, and policy-makers that “sheds light in a way that wasn’t available 30 years ago,” she says. “There’s no one else doing this kind of work.”

Dr. King says that much of the original planning around Yellowhead’s mission came as a response to think tanks like Frasier Institute, Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the McDonald Laurier Institute and their work on Indigenous issues, which lacked an understanding of the lived reality of Indigenous people. However, he no longer sees Yellowhead as their competition. “That conversation really just dropped away. We put our head down and we just started to do the work and we never revisited that conversation,” he says.

Yellowhead does not take funds from the federal or provincial government, or any organization that might be infringing upon Indigenous land rights, meaning they’re not often competing for the same pool of funds other think tanks are accessing. Instead, they target foundations, such as the Laidlaw Foundation and Inspirit. “We don’t have any major multimillion dollar gifts that some of these other think tanks have, but we’re also trying to manage our growth and be deliberate about how we do that,” Dr. King says. “We want to grow into this national leader on Indigenous law and policy, and I think we’re on our way there.”

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