Interviews with Gaudry and Betasamosake Simpson

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An Interview with Dr. Adam Gaudry

Allison: Do you think that a mandatory Indigenous content requirement is an effective way of educating settlers and beginning a process of decolonization?

Adam: I would say yes, but it also something that needs to be done in a way that is effective. It’s really easy to make a requirement, but it’s a lot more difficult to deliver those courses to students effectively. I think part of the difficulty is teaching material that is challenging on its own. There are a lot of issues that go into making an effective course requirement and a lot of this revolves around having a critical mass of scholars to teach these courses. There are lots of students who actually want to learn about these topics. There’s plenty that don’t, too.

If the required content is not taught effectively then students will dislike the course. But they’ll also think ‘well I’m being forced to take this’ and can undercut the goal of the whole requirement project. So I think it’s really important to make sure that when the requirement is put into place that all of the necessary structures are already there to successfully deliver it. Because if you create the requirement first, then there’s going to be a period of trouble. There’s also a lot of places that have required content already but it’s usually program-specific. Education has a required Indigenous education class and you have to take it to graduate, which effectively means that in the province you need some sort of basic understanding of Indigenous issues. Social work programs often have a requirement and nursing often has one too. I’ve heard of law schools discussing it as well. But as soon as you get out of the ‘caring’ disciplines I think that it’s a different kind of justification. In order to be an effective teacher with a growing Indigenous population with a substantial number of Native kids in school, you can easily make the argument that teacher candidates need to take this required class because they need it to be an effective teacher. Same with social work and with nursing. When you make that argument with law and you make it with political science it’s much more abstract. It’s usually goes something like, in order to be a good citizen and a good Canadian, you need to know this, which is not necessarily as convincing as the argument that in order to do your job you need to have this information.

And so I think that there is a challenge in developing a compelling reason for students to take this if they’re not already inclined to do so. And I think it’s really important that all of this stuff is already put in place. So yes, I think that’s very much a viable way to address these concerns but it is something that does take a lot of work – a lot of resources and a lot of very careful organization to do it effectively.

Allison: Why do you think there’s so much resistance to this idea?

Adam: I think there are two things — privilege and inertia. A lot of people have this idea that Canada doesn’t oppress Indigenous people anymore and things are generally fine. They don’t see Canada as based on Indigenous dispossession and expropriation. They don’t see the connection between this dispossession and how wealth is generated in Canada. Canada is largely a resource extraction economy, particularly in Western Canada. And so there’s a lot of stuff that this kind of education requires us to unpack and I think that is inherently challenging, especially with oil and gas-based economy. We need to have some really tough discussions about whether or not Indigenous people are able to okay development on their lands. A lot of people aren’t totally comfortable with questioning this situation. I think it makes sense in that what exists now works for a lot of people and they believe if we can just continue to do that, we’ll be fine.

There’s an inertia here too and I think a lot of people go to university just to get a job, so we have to have different conversations, and I think a lot of students didn’t initially come here to be challenged to think differently to try to make a better world. They went in for four years. And I think to ask people to rethink that is challenging. Some people aren’t really prepared emotionally and mentally to do this kind of thing. I think that’s the other kind of resistant element is that people are comfortable with the way things are because it works for them and they don’t necessarily feel comfortable, and I think these courses by design are discomforting because they need to be.

Allison: What is the settler role in decolonization?

Adam: Decolonization, I see as the end goal. I don’t think in our lifetimes we’re going to see a proper decolonization of relations. I think it’s going to exist more or less as an idea for us to strive for.

But I think that a lot of settlers can work on relationship building in terms of treaty fulfillment, and strive to live up to the obligations defined there. You know, trying to live in good relation with one another whatever those types of relationships are.

Non-Indigenous people can educate other non-Indigenous people and can encourage them and support them. I think that a lot of the time there’s an expectation that Indigenous people teach non-Indigenous people. But there’s also concern that if Indigenous people are constantly called upon to educate non-Indigenous people that’s taking time away from their responsibilities to their community. Some people are willing to teach non-Indigenous people, but others just want to work in their community. There should be a conversation about how non-Indigenous people can take up this task in a way that supports Indigenous community needs without taking time and resources away from that community. So I think that there’s kind of like a balancing act there, but I think it’s really important to have that kind of conversation.

Allison: What do you think decolonization looks like?

Adam: Decolonization, I see in the Fanonian sense of dismantling the colonial relationship in which there are no more colonizers and no more colonized. The liberal myth of Canada is that you can just make sure that there is no more colonized people without dismantling other side of the relationship. The structures of oppression and dispossession would still be in place, we need to eliminate that whole relationship. I think this is an economic thing, but I think it also has social, cultural, and political elements in breaking down these kinds of oppressive structures which privilege some at the expense of others. This system needs to be dismantled in favour of a totally different framework. I think decolonization is the end game, or at least the start of a different type of relationship so we need to start working to dismantle this relationship to get to that point. But I think we’re a ways off from that still – like I said, it’s an ideal.

Mariah: From my perspective it’s appealing to look at this because it feels as though we are working toward a solution in concrete ways. Listening to your critiques though, it’s evident that there’s a lot of groundwork that does need to be done and that putting it out there without that would not be beneficial. How do you see this moving forward, in terms of concrete steps?

Adam: I was involved in helping the College of Art and Science at the University of Saskatchewan implement a content requirement. One of the discussions we had there was around sufficient faculty – I think  that’s really the key element. It doesn’t necessarily need to be just Indigenous faculty, but people that have specific disciplinary training who are comfortable dealing with the complexity of the issues in these classes. One of the things that Indigenous studies educators pick up when you’re teaching is how to deal with racist outbursts in the classroom. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does you need someone at the front of the classroom that can manage that situation and to deal with the subtleties of the topic. I think a lot of colonial narratives that we’re used to get reproduced subtlety. If you don’t have someone with that kind of critical mindset at the front of the class, it’s very easy for people to lapse into what they already know about Indigenous people. For these classes to be effective, they need to be very self-consciously critical and have a certain outcome in mind from the very beginning.

So there is a lot of complexity in putting this stuff together but most faculty who are trained to teach Indigenous content are confident in their own teaching abilities and want to teach these classes. Most Indigenous faculty believe they would be able to deliver a class that changes students’ minds. I’ve heard a few stories where the most disruptive person at the beginning of the class becomes a staunch defender of the class at the end – it’s people processing things out loud and in public. Things that you experience in the classroom teach you how to deal with these issues. So you don’t want to include just any course that deals with Indigenous people. Looking at 20th century Indigenous art is not necessarily going to provide you with the ability to analyze the unequal political reality in which we live. But if taught the right way, an art history course could very well be transformative politically and socially for students. This is true for any discipline, but I think that’s where the curriculum needs to be self conscious.

Allison: In developing our project, we came to the consensus that the implementation of an Indigenous Content Requirement would have to be lead by Indigenous voices. So you said there’s like been lots of support within the academy. What do you think the reception would be like from Indigenous communities?

Adam: Yeah I think there’s some skepticism in Indigenous communities, and I think there’s a lot of valid reasons for that. But I also think that there’s kind of a recognition of widespread and willful ignorance on Indigenous issues. I think that there is some community support with a healthy dose of skepticism because a lot of people feel like they’ve heard this before. I hope though we’re in a different time now – it seems like there are institutional shifts in a way that there wasn’t before. But accountability to Indigenous communities is really important and it’s important to engage community in this process because ultimately the benefits–and repercussions–are going to be felt most by those communities. So there needs to be some sort of engagement built into the process. That’s why having a lot of Indigenous academics involved is important, but at an institutional level there needs to be some sort of broader dialogue.

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An Interview with Dr. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

Mariah: Do you think that a mandatory Indigenous content requirement is an effective way of educating settlers and beginning a process of decolonization? Why or why not?

Leanne: I think that it depends on how it’s done. I think that the mandatory Indigenous content needs to come in a lot earlier than university within the state education system. So I would bring it back to junior kindergarten and then we need to go all the way through the curriculum. So I think that’s important but I think it depends what the content is for. Sometimes there’s a tendency to want to do a local cultural awareness sort of approach. And for me as an Indigenous person I think what I want non-Indigenous people to understand is colonialism and the history of colonialism and how it manifests itself in contemporary times and in my life. So I don’t necessarily need non-Indigenous people to have any actual understanding of my culture or my language. But I do need them to understand the sort of asymmetric violence that has been a fixture in my life through white supremacy and capitalism and heteropatriarchy. I also think there’s a tendency in universities to not put enough resources into the mandatory Indigenous studies requirements and that puts a tremendous amount of pressure on young Indigenous faculty, sessional instructors. So I think that’s a really important consideration when institutions are thinking about implementing this. For me, this is an unapologetic political project designed to fundamentally change Canada. For this to work, mandatory curriculum has to be born and actualized out of a political project that embodies Indigenous freedom, nationhood, and self determination. It is no help to Indigenous peoples if mandatory curriculum is locked in the colonial replication of neo-liberalism.

This is to me a major change. It’s the transition into doing something differently and so it requires time and thought and financial resources. It requires universities to privilege Indigenous expertise which has been difficult for them to do. It requires giving back land, and being accountable about the damage colonialism as caused and continues to cause for Indigenous peoples. It has to also be about the regeneration of our political systems, languages and intelligence, on our own terms. It requires talking about heteropatriarchy and the role of sexual and gender violence in the on-going dispossession of Indigenous peoples. It involves talking about homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism as dispossessing forces. It involves talking about anti-blackness and it’s relationality to colonialism and Indigeniety.

I also think there needs to be sort of a discussion around the impact of these kinds of courses on Indigenous students, because in my experience as an Indigenous student, it can be very difficult. And it is very traumatizing to actually sit through a course where you’re dealing with these topics that are difficult for Canadians to deal with. And it sort of elicits a racist backlash that I don’t think Indigenous students should have to sit through. Indigenous students are telling me they need something different than mandatory courses. Mandatory courses are in a sense a way of continuing to centre whiteness in the academy and we need to talk about them in this way. A curriculum deficiency has been noted (Canadian students know very little about Indigenous peoples by the time they get to university) and these courses are developed in response to that. This has nothing to do with what Indigenous students need and deserve.

Mariah: Why do you think there is so much resistance to the idea? And then, how do we confront this resistance?

Leanne: Well I think that is that Canada is a colonial entity, and I think that the education system is designed to replicate that. And so I think that this intervention where we’re trying to educate and to tell a different truth is difficult to hear, because it calls into question the foundations of Canada. And it calls into question the power relationships that we’re all replicating right now. So I think it’s not an easy thing just to say we’re going to take a course and learn how to get along better. I think there is a reckoning with pretty damaging and pretty violent processes that are a reality for Indigenous people. When non-Indigenous students get to first year university and they don’t know whose territory they’re on, they can’t name the closest Indigenous community, they’ve never heard of the Oka crisis, and  there’s a segment of them that are also carrying really negative stereotypes – there’s a lot of resistance in that segment of society because it has been built into them. That has been strategic on the part of the state through the education system. We don’t want to talk about this because we want to continue to replicate this system because we want these resources and we want this relationship with Indigenous people. So I think the resistance is is to be expected. And I think it’s strategic and I think it’s deliberate.

Mariah: What do you think the settler role is in decolonization, more broadly?

Leanne: I think there’s a lot of work that settlers have to do to undo colonialism and colonial thought and its manifestations in Canada right now and to figure out a different way of interacting with the land and with Indigenous peoples in general. Again, I don’t think this requires knowledge of Indigenous cultures so much, but it requires an acknowledgement and an accountability for the violence of colonialism that they’re beneficiaries of. That they’re replicating and inheriting and living out. So I think that that’s very difficult work but it’s very very important work and it’s the kind of work that’s not going to get you a lot of rewards because it’s challenging a very dominant power structure.

Mariah: How do you see decolonization? What does that look like for you?

Leanne: I think about what I want for my theoretical grandchildren or that next generation. And I want them to be able to live unfettered and unharassed in their territory. I want them to fall in love with every aspect of being Anishnaabe. I want them to know their language and I want them to know freedom. I want them to be able to govern themselves according to our political practices in our territory and to develop relationships with other nations according to our international diplomacy. I want them to feel loved and cherished and to be operating at their best selves, no matter what their gender or sexual orientation or any other sort of makeup. That’s not just the future that I want, that’s the present I want. I want to be able to figure out how to live that and embody that. And live within Anishnaabe practices and processes and ethics and ethos and an Anishinaabe world which is a network of intimate, intense relationships. I think Canada needs to figure out how they interact with that in a respectful, nonviolent, reciprocal, consensual way. It feels like freedom.

Juan: In the past you’ve written about how Western theory of resistance ignores the pains, traumas and experiences of Indigenous people. Do you think non-Indigenous people should learn to use non-Western theories of resistance and what is the role of ICRs in this?

Leanne: Well I think for me it’s been important in my life is to learn Anishinaabe theory.

It’s a good process to be able to think with inside of intelligence systems and to be able to think theoretically within that system and I think we have a story about when the world was created traveling around the world was a way of learning through that direct lived experience, through interacting and making all these relationships with different beings in different nations. And to me that sort of sets the course for Anishnaabe internationalism and for learning about different liberatory theories from different Western theoretical traditions and sort of bringing them back home and interpreting them. So I think that is the part that I’ve thought a lot about and I think once Indigenous thinkers get good at doing that and get good at articulating our theories and get good at building this base then I think the next part of that is how we share that with Indigenous people and how we negotiate that. But I think right now for me there isn’t very many people that can do that. Our elders and our fluent language speakers and our land users are doing really really well but they’re also very very attacked and very marginalized in a place like this. So for me I think Indigenous intellectuals and my generation has to really think about about that and how we’re sort of building and supporting and affirming and thinking about that system not to the exclusion of Western theory. But I think with western theories it’s easy because it’s accessible here. It’s the dominant sort of thinking, whereas Indigenous knowledge systems take several decades and mentors to learn the language and you know what this other stuff. So I think eventually we should get there and we need to get there, the world needs us to get there. But I think for me right now the responsibility for Indigenous intellects is figuring this part out first.

So these are my responsibilities. Non-Indigenous peoples have a different set of responsibilities. The first of which is to be accountable for colonial violence.

Allison: When we were developing our project we came to the consensus that the implementation of Indigenous content requirements would have to be lead by Indigenous voices. Do you think Indigenous communities would be open to working within the academy on this project?

Leanne: I think that there is a history, there is a historical relationship that institutions have had with our communities that’s been very exploitive and that is still pretty exploitive. So I quit a tenure track position 15 years ago and that’s been a very good decision in terms of my work but a very difficult decision financially. So what I noticed is that we bring our elders in for like two hundred dollars a day or we bring them in for the prayer or we bring them in marginalized ways and we’re not supporting them economically and otherwise to continue their work as intellectuals to the same degree that we’re supporting Indigenous academics. I did my Ph.D. I graduated in 1999 and there were very, very few Indigenous academics at that time and there were very few people working in the universities and that’s changed very very quickly. I think the Indigenous academic community is doing incredible job negotiating space and criticality within Indigenous studies and within the institution. But what’s happened is that there were actually more elders and knowledge holders at the University in the year 2000 that there are now because those have been replaced by Indigenous people with with Western credentials and with Ph.D.s. I think that there will be people in the community that would be interested in contributing. But I think that we’d have to start to think of these experts in the same way that we think of Western trained experts and I think we need a variety of Indigenous voices at the table for these courses as well because we’re a very diverse group of nations.

There is a community of Indigenous academics in Canadian universities that could do this work. They are uniquely set up to do it really because they have community connections and responsibilities to the university community. But, this is a huge task. So administrations have to be willing to fairly compensate Indigenous academics for this work. This means hiring more of us into full time tenure track positions.  It is unfair to ask junior scholars to take on this work, when they are being evaluated for tenure based on research and publications, when we are already asking them to teach new courses and develop curriculum.

Mariah: Where do you see spaces for students like us to be involved in the process of decolonization?

Leanne: When I think about those mandatory Indigenous studies courses, I think that would be the worst job in the world to teach them. I feel like the pushback and the resistance for the people that didn’t want to be in the course would make my life as an Indigenous woman professor very difficult, so it would be really difficult for me to hold up a learning environment. I’ve taught for 20 years now, and in that situation when you have people who are very racist or very vocal or very aggressive or who are not open to hearing what you have to say, it sets a dynamic in the classroom that it’s very difficult to navigate. And I think that there’s a gendered aspect to that in terms of seeing Indigenous men as having more authority than Indigenous women. So I think that often Indigenous women professors are targets. Also a lot of times these classes are cross-cultural. So there’s Indigenous students in the class and I feel like I have this really important responsibility to hold space and to address racism and to address  whatever isms come up in class, because I’m the Indigenous person in the classroom with the most power. So therefore I carry that responsibility and this is not my gift to be teach this kind of course but there are people in our community who like doing this work and who are very good at it and this is their gift.  And so I think a lot of thought needs to take place. Do Indigenous students need to take these mandatory courses? Who’s teaching them? What’s the content? There’s been a lot of trouble at Thunder Bay around the Indigenous students and the course. There are a lot of concerns around the content, and a lot of times these classes are big. They’re taught by the junior faculty so the emotional labor and the stress of dealing with the kind of hostile classroom or racist classrooms are very tricky, hard, difficult teaching relationship. I think Indigenous women often times in these departments bear a heavy amount of the emotional labour. I know for me there’s a massive amount of emotional labor because the university is still a pretty hostile place for Indigenous students so almost every course I’ve taught there’s been a disclosure around sexual assault or sexual abuse. There’s a level of emotional support that gets built into the job when you’re open to that and when you’re an advocate for students and then students come to you, that sort of unpaid work takes requires a lot of time from Indigenous women. And not exclusively Indigenous women do this work, but it takes away from your research time and your teaching time and the things that you’re being measured for.  So I think that this this is such a great opportunity right now to have this conversation and I think the fact that you guys are asking these questions and doing this research is an incredible contribution because I think that’s the step that so many universities have missed. The TRC says “we need to do this, we’re going to do this, we’re going to implement it right now”, without doing the research around what are all the different models? What are all the concerns that Indigenous faculty have? Listening to Indigenous faculty and Indigenous students is really, really, really important. Because I’ve worked outside of the academy for so long, I am I just a little nervous to be sort of thinking about it in terms of of this because I think there’s people that have been working inside the academy for decades now that have a lot of expertise on it. I don’t know that this was a bunch of Indigenous faculty or students that came up with this idea and I think that actually makes a difference too as who’s pushing it and why and what kind of courses.

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