An Argument for Indigenous Content Requirements

How Indigenous Content Requirements Can Help Uproot Canada’s Colonial Identity and How They’ll Help us Build a Stronger Future

The Importance of Indigenous Course Requirements

Over the past few years, academic institutions like Lakehead University and the University of Winnipeg have implemented changes that require all students to take a course on Indigenous knowledge as apart of their program requirements. At the University of Winnipeg, students can choose from approximately 100 courses to fulfill the Indigenous knowledge degree requirement. At Lakehead University, “all of their undergraduate degree programs require at least one course containing at least 50% of Indigenous knowledge and/or Aboriginal content.” While these initiatives are not perfect and have been met with a variety of criticisms from students, university administrators, and Indigenous community members — namely, that some of these courses are not developed or taught by Indigenous instructors — they represent a broader movement towards implementing Indigenous content requirements (ICRs) into programs of study in universities across Canada.

Along with the platform offered by participating universities, ICRs have been propelled to the forefront of academic conversations by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action. While some universities do not have Indigenous content requirements, they have incorporated new forms of Indigenous learning into their programs in crucial ways, such as the University of Alberta’s Aboriginal Governance Program or University of Victoria’s various programs in Indigenous peoples and communities. While not required, these programs are a positive step towards realizing the TRC’s Calls to Action and decolonizing our places of learning.

Why does this continue to be relevant today? 2017 marks the 150th ‘birthday’ of Canada, and throughout the year there have been and will continue to be ongoing celebrations of Canada as a country. Missing from these celebrations is the historical context to which Canada came to be, and the projects of exploitation, violence and ongoing colonial attitudes that allows Canada to emerge. We cannot allow the celebration of Canada’s 150th year to drown out the voices of Indigenous activists and communities. If anything, we should incorporate these activities as a platform to incorporate Indigenous voices into our institutions, specifically the university.

How can ICRs Work Towards a Larger Project of Decolonization?

According to Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail, the vast majority of Canadians believe that Canada is not a colonial state. In 2008, Stephen Harper made an official apology towards the effects and lasting impacts of residential schools, a violent assimilation project that the government undertook in order to ‘kill the Indian in the child’. A year later, he was quoted at the Pittsburgh G20 conference stating that Canada has no history of colonialism. The juxtaposition of these two statements convey the common perception the Canadian state and their settler populations have in regards to Indigenous history. We believe this is where valuing Indigenous knowledges and perspectives, through ICR’s, is imperative in understanding the ways in which our society remains colonial in the present and realizing how these ongoing colonial conditions continue to negatively impact Indigenous peoples.

Decolonization must become a process that we collectively value as a society. Without raising the importance of decolonization, we will continue to live in a world that devalues Indigenous lives. Colonialism has flourished partly on undermining Indigenous knowledge. This undermining includes the outlawing of Indigenous languages, traditions, ceremonies and freedom of movement for over 60 years. In North America, this deprivation has taken place through suppression of Indigenous agency, specifically through the legislation of Indigenous bodies, and with actions such as residential schools. This has also taken place through forceful removal from the land and community (which are vital to accessing knowledge) in the shape of the 60’s Scoop.

Canada continues to be a colonial state because the condition of drinking water in dozens of reserve communities continues to be abhorrent and undrinkable. Moreover, the urgency of these situations is rarely met with a proportional level of urgency to solve these issues.

Canada continues to be a colonial state because the amount of Indigenous children present in the welfare system is far too high and disproportionate to non-Indigenous populations. The TRC Calls to Action offers mechanisms to change this problem, yet the problem persists.

Canada continues to be a colonial state because a disproportionate number of children  in children services are forced into the prison system as adults. Again, the TRC offers a wide amount of recommendations directly around the justice system that serves to solve these issues.

Canada continues to be a colonial state because everywhere we look, the education system does little to centre Indigenous knowledge and teaching in any setting; it rather lacks the tools or fails to access the tools needed to see the value in centralizing these teachings, not only for Indigenous youth but also all Canadian youth.

Canada continues to be a colonial state because while it recognizes all the above, and more, as issues, there is little effective work put into ensuring that any of these issues fail to exist in the way that they do.

The Potential of Indigenous Content Requirements

The potential of Indigenous content requirements is multifaceted. ICR’s offer an opportunity to to engage with Indigenous knowledge and history in a deeper sense. These requirements possess the potential to disrupt colonial narratives, but also the potential to improve the ties between Indigenous and non-Indigenous treaty partners. The colonial project, along with racism, thrives on the deprivation of knowledge and information from everyone, and gaining knowledge around Indigenous pasts, presents and futures is a resistance to this project. In increasing the diversity of knowledge, we can help to increase diversity in general and resist colonialisms attempts to homogenize as many people as possible.

Indigenous content requirements are important for non-Indigenous people, not only because they allow these people to engage with their surroundings in a deeper way, but also because as Wab Kinew has said, ‘Indigenous cultures have infused every aspect of our public sphere and common identity and yet, in spite of those things, we don’t always grow up with a good understanding of those contributions, much less an education which celebrates them and highlights them in their proper role’. Through the inclusion of these programs, students are encouraged to widen their worldviews, develop new perspectives and push them outside the boundaries of the nation-building myths their education has previously been built upon. These skills are important for people in all aspects of Canadian society from engineering, to education, to healthcare. While principally ICR’s makes sense, they also possess the ability to enhance education in very practical ways.

In Canada, many universities recognize that they exist on Indigenous lands. However, the land recognitions that we make here at the University of Alberta, and many universities across Canada, do not relieve us from seeking a deeper understanding of the land that we exist on, and instead should act as a catalyst for understanding the reasons why we need these content requirements. Instituting ICR’s shows that these universities are dedicated to ensuring that the words they say and the claims they make turn to actions. Universities in Canada want to be bastions for positive change they must find ways to centre Indigenous peoples and experiences. By ensuring that ICR’s exist and are well-done, universities ensure that their students and the world around them are set up for creating a different future.

Some institutions have expressed a hesitancy around the ideas of incorporating these larger structural changes. For example, Tina Mai Chen, a senator at the University of Manitoba, was quoted by the school’s student newspaper in saying that ICRs have the potential to lower the “world-class standing” of the university. However, as shown above, these changes encourage practical growth in students, in addition to expanding the capacity of the university itself. ICR’s help universities incorporate new forms of knowledges, welcomes the speakers of different languages, encourages a widening of student’s world views, all while combating the active processes of colonialism that occur today.

How Have Indigenous Content-Based Courses Impacted Our Class?

Much of this piece has been dedicated to show a more comprehensive understanding about how Canada continues to be a colonial state and why we believe that Indigenous Content Requirements can help to combat the misconceptions the Canadian state uses to ingrain its nationalistic ideals. One of the main reasons we chose to undertake this project as a class was due to the experiences many of us have had throughout our university experience. At one time or another, each of us had gone out of our way to find classes that contained Indigenous knowledge, or reflections of the historical and current experiences these communities face. After leaving these classes, we have a more profound understanding of how Canada can be described as a colonial state, and at times were taken aback by how the Canadian national identity has been built around the oppression of Indigenous peoples. A majority of our class is made up of settler-identified students, who have come to the understanding of this identity only through the experiences of these courses. Before, while we may have understood that Canada had a history of assimilation and disregard for its Indigenous populations, these assumptions did not fully disrupt the thinly veiled racism that continues to silence the colonial history of Canada. Our national narratives have been created in such a way that ensures we have a perception of Canadian society that speaks to our peace-keeping, multicultural and accepting society, one that has no room for violent narratives of the past.

The courses we have taken shattered the perceptions that Canada has worked so hard to maintain. Again if we look back to the ways in which Canada has invested in nationalist discourse, we can turn to the example of the 150th celebrations where millions of dollars are going towards nation-building projects, while countless communities still do not have accessible, clean drinking water. As unpleasant and uncomfortable it may be to accept Canada as a colonial nation, it is a necessary step forward in dismantling colonial power. While ICR’s will not solve the issue of colonial violence in the university, it is a pathway to unravelling the myths many of us have been taught to subconsciously uphold.

Indigenous content requirements are needed and important because in a world that thrives on misinformation, holding all sorts of diverse knowledge is important. As shown above, we must be prepared to take the Canadian state at it’s word, that it is committed to healing the wrongs it continues to perpetrate. While ICR’s are not an end-all solution to combating ignorance and solving colonial violence in Canada, (nor are we suggesting that they will be), they are a step towards marking a future with a renewed relationship between the Canadian state and the various Indigenous nations who live within Canada’s borders. If we  want a better future, part of this is recognizing that this cannot be done without having the knowledge needed to end colonialism in Canada.