Truth & Reconciliation – Will Your Next University Program Have a First Nations’ Content Requirement?

How the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommendations are creating opportunities for First Nation students.

Truth & Reconciliation – Will Your Next University Program Have a First Nations’ Content Requirement?

During a recent research project on students’ unions in Canada I came upon a motion passed by the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union (USSU):

[Be it resolved] that the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union call on the University of Saskatchewan to commit to implementing Indigenous content into the curriculum of every University of Saskatchewan College and degree. (USSU)

The motion was a surprise because I wasn’t aware of the background, and curious to know if something similar had been considered at AU. After a little discussion with fellow students, it became clear that many of us need more information. But first, a little background information is needed:

In 2015 Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released a series of reports on the enduring impact of residential schools in Canada; these included a number of Calls to Action for government, educators, health care providers, and the legislators to help “advance the process of Canadian reconciliation” for Canadian First Nations’ peoples, which comprise more than 600 bands and about 4.3% of the Canadian population (from the 2011 census).

The Calls to Action include many points directed toward post-secondary education, including requests to:
– Repeal Section 43 of the criminal code of Canada (which protects parents and teachers who physically punish children using “reasonable force”)
– Develop strategies to eliminate educational and employment gaps between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians
– Eliminate funding discrepancies affecting First Nations’ children accessing education on and off reserves, and provide funding to end the “backlog of First Nations’ students seeking a post-secondary education”
– Take measures to improve education attainment and success of First Nations’ students
– Provide culturally appropriate curricula including post-secondary courses in First Nations’ languages, to support the preservation of language and culture.
(Paraphrased from the TRC Calls to Action)

Saskatchewan has taken a lead in addressing the TRC recommendations for post-secondary learning; in November, 2015 executives for all 24 post-secondary schools in the province met with aboriginal leaders to examine “how universities can respond to the ? TRC calls to action for post-secondary education” (USask News). The summit resulted in an accord thought “to be the first province-wide commitment of its kind in Canada.” University of Saskatchewan president, Peter Stoicheff, commented that U of S is “committed to strengthening our efforts across the institution to ensure the success of our Aboriginal faculty, students and staff, and to working together with other post-secondary partners provincially and nationally to rebuild some of the trust that has been lost in the educational system and advance reconciliation” (USask News).

The USSU motion came as a response to these comments, but what is most interesting is that it goes a step further than the TRC goals and asks for First Nations’ content not only to be available to U of S students, but to be incorporated into every degree the university offers. The goal of the motion is to bridge “the gap in education and in general between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous people, ? and [combat] stereotypes, prejudice and racism [while giving] ? indigenous students a sense of belonging, identity and culture that” was lost through the residential school system and colonization (USSU).

AU and the TRC goals
To learn more about the issues, and AU’s response to the task force, I had a preliminary interview with Priscilla Campeau, chair and program administrator of the AU Centre for World and Indigenous Knowledge and Research (CWIKR), and Dr. Maria Campbell, AU’s Elder in Residence. CWIKR currently offers 23 undergraduate courses and 1 graduate course, and two business degrees with a focus on indigenous nations and organizations. Among the courses are two on the Cree language which are offered as group study (in person) offerings.

At this time, AU doesn’t offer an arts degree in Indigenous Education, but I’m told that one is in the works. There is no estimated date on when it will be offered. A lack of funding is the main cause of the delay but it seems to be a glaring omission from the program offerings given AU’s apparent status as a school with a strong First Nations focus (more on that later).

We spoke about many issues related to the TRC and AU’s indigenous content offerings, and I learned a great deal about the current status of AU’s indigenous content and how it might adopt the TRC recommendations. The following overview should help students get up to speed about pending changes to Canadian post-secondary education in light of the TRC review.

Preserving languages with a verbal history
Toward the goal of preserving languages, AU offers two grouped (in-person) courses in Cree studies: the choice of language is based on the location of the main AU campus. Other universities offer First Nations’ languages relevant to their locales (there are 60 or more indigenous languages reported across Canada). While all of these courses are of value, students today would have to take courses from a number of schools to get a good overview of the various indigenous languages in Canada. There is no university in Canada currently offering a comprehensive degree in indigenous languages. Another problem is that AU’s Cree offerings may not be as useful for students who are studying at AU from other provinces where the dominant aboriginal languages differ; there is a clear need for broader language coverage either at AU or through coalitions with schools across the country. The current offerings tend to be focused on teaching the language for use; there are few (or no) courses focusing on critical analysis of First Nations’ stories or writing. An interesting challenge is that there are few people qualified as experts in formally teaching First Nations’ languages: this issue is likely to persist until there is an increased pool of indigenous language scholars to offer inquiry and development into improved language instruction. Because much of indigenous history is based on verbal communication, there are limited written resources to which scholars can refer.

For my own interest, I did some research to find out how someone could learn First Nations’ languages in Canada outside of the university system. At this time, neither Rosetta Stone nor duoLingo (two major language learning software packages: the latter is free) offer any indigenous languages. Further, while the ATPN network in Canada runs some shows with indigenous language content, Dr. Campbell notes that the subtitles are typically word-for-word translations that fail to account for the structure of the language; as a result, the translations are often difficult, if not impossible, to decode. At present, there are no easily-accessible resources to help Canadians learn First Nation? languages, and this issue must be addressed to achieve the goal of language preservation. I’m told that a language software company from the U.S. has been in contact with CWIKR about developing indigenous language courses, so there is a clear interest and it is possible one will be offered in the future. DuoLingo (which is an excellent resource in general) does not have any indigenous languages on its list of modules in development: curious, considering that it is 21% done development on a language course in Klingon (yes, Klingon).

Adding indigenous content
Regarding the initiative to include indigenous content in all university programs, no one ? not USSU, University of Saskatchewan, or AU’s CWIKR team ? are certain at this point how it would work, if indeed it does become a reality. It could mean that increased indigenous content may be included in existing courses where appropriate, or, students could be required to take a specific course, such as AU’s Indigenous Studies 203. Several AU courses outside of the CWIKR department already include indigenous content, including many of the anthropology courses and several from the English department. It is not likely that this requirement would be grandfathered into degrees in progress, but at this time any details are merely conjecture.

Currently, though, all of the courses offered by the CWIKR department are taught by First Nations’ instructors. The department has the smallest budget of AU’s centres and a very small faculty, but offers a wide range of courses to about 200 students at any given time. There is considerable room to build new content toward both the goal of an Indigenous Arts degree and increased indigenous content at AU overall.

Funding, of course, remains a major issue but there are increasing reasons for students to ask for this content, beyond the obvious benefits of enhancing our knowledge and understanding of one of the fastest growing populations in Canada. The government of Canada, the Provinces, and the Colleges and Universities of Canada are taking the TRC recommendations very seriously, and this has resulted in an increase in jobs available for people with the knowledge and skills to help with implementation. Many people working in government are also increasingly accessing First Nation’s language training to help them with their jobs. There are likely a number of additional opportunities that will arise from implementation of the TRC asks, for students who have education in First Nation’s languages, issues, and history.

At this time, there is much to learn about how Canada will adopt the recommendations of the TRC, and how it will affect post-secondary education in the country. It is, however, important that students learn more and understand the changes that may be coming. For those who are not aware of Canada’s history of residential schools and their impact on indigenous populations, see the sidebar for a short history.

An oft-asked question
I also had an opportunity to ask Dr. Campbell and Ms. Campeau about an issue that, in my experience, has long been puzzling to AU students: that is, AU’s use of indigenous symbols and presumed status as a First Nations’ school. The confusion stems from AU’s inclusion of significant First Nations’ content in its convocation ceremonies, including the prominent inclusion of the Ceremonial Mace, annual booking of First Nations’ entertainers, and the use of indigenous animal symbols in the new University coat of arms. Yet, AU actually has a very small First Nations’ student population (exact numbers are impossible to determine since AU does not ask First Nations’ students to declare their status), despite ties to the University of the Arctic (curiously, AU still lists this collaboration on its web site, yet UArctic no longer lists AU as a supporter) and collaborative classes at several northern First Nations’ schools. Dr. Campbell explained this apparent discrepancy: AU’s main campus is in Treaty 8 territory, and in accordance with tradition offers recognition and thanks to the indigenous people of the region for hosting the university. I note that students have long expressed curiosity about this; it is clear that AU needs to better inform students of its relationship to northern peoples.

It is likely, though, that the TRC recommendations will empower many schools to increase resources in the development of indigenous content toward the goal of increasing university access and success of indigenous learners. AU seems uniquely poised to offer this content to learners across the country, and develop much richer First Nations’ content.

Additional links:
Truth and Reconciliation Committee
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation

Writer, editor, programmer, designer, and perpetual student from Calgary, Tamra is working (slowly) toward a second AU degree.