Talking leadership 41: Kevin Hall on reconciliation with indigenous people

The president of the University of Victoria outlines how his university is welcoming more indigenous people 

九月 13, 2022
Kevin Hall, University of Canada

At Kevin Hall’s presidential inauguration, instead of the typical Canadian academic ceremony involving a large convocation listening rapturously to his hour-long speech, he followed the indigenous tradition of requesting permission to work and live on the land.

It was a first for the University of Victoria and signalled his commitment to redressing some of the harms done to Indigenous communities in Canada.

In the latest in our Talking Leadership series, Hall discusses the measures the University of Victoria have taken to support local indigenous people, the challenges they’ve faced doing it, and his view on the progress other nations are making.

For Hall, the entire Canadian education system must acknowledge its role in the systemic marginalisation of indigenous, or First Nation, people, not least because of the infamous residential schools. In operation from the 1800s until as late as the 1990s, the schools were built to eradicate the culture and languages of the country’s indigenous populations. Just last year, the remains of 215 children were found at the site of a former school in the province of British Columbia, home to the University of Victoria.

“Universities have to acknowledge and accept that we were, we are, part of the problem that has been created,” Hall says. One way to rectify the problem is recognising the systemic barriers preventing indigenous people attending university and addressing them. About 50 per cent of young people in Canada receive higher education (30 per cent attend university and 20 per cent community college), Hall explains, but the rate for indigenous people is lower than 10 per cent.

To boost intake the University of Victoria runs a programme visiting surrounding indigenous schools. “Universities often sit there and go, we’re receptors of students and so we don’t do very much in the K to 12 system [kindergarten to year 12],” Hall says.

Some may argue that co-opting indigenous peoples into the ancient Western tradition of university could be seen as a modern form of colonisation, imposing a certain culture while removing them from their own.

Hall recognises the predicament and says the university is also adapting, changing itself to fit to certain aspects of indigenous culture.

One way it is doing this is increasing the number of indigenous academics. About 65 of its 900 academics identify as indigenous, roughly 8 per cent – the largest proportion of indigenous academics in a Canadian university. Hall proudly points out that he has more indigenous academics than bigger Canadian institutions such as the universities of Toronto and British Columbia.

“We’re trying to look at what is the role of the local First Nations in the governance of the university,” he says, and the university is even looking at making their bicameral system tricameral to incorporate an indigenous decision-making body alongside its Senate and Board of Governors.

Several senior posts are already held by indigenous people, including the vice-president for indigenous, Qwul’sih’yah’maht Robina Thomas, and chancellor Marion Buller, the first female First Nations judge in British Columbia.

“We’re also trying to de-Westernise, or decolonise, some of our processes and procedures,” Hall says. For example, an indigenous PhD candidate who is an anthropologist and researched an aspect of indigenous culture did his PhD defence in his community, where local indigenous people plus university examiners questioned him on it.

Merging cultures

Hall himself was born in Brighton in the UK and moved to Canada when he was seven. He has held leadership positions in both Australia and Canada. A civil engineer by background, Hall says his approach to engineering is similar to the adoption of indigenous ideas in academia.

“I started to apply biology and nature into my engineering practice using biomimicry and things like that. And I think we just learned that sometimes, you know, this stuff we do in labs, and this way we think and do things can be challenged by things that are out there in nature.”

In some areas the University of Victoria is embracing indigenous knowledge. “Amazingly, you know, a lot of the indigenous knowledge that is held by these communities is on how to manage land, how to reduce flooding, how to make sure agricultural productivity is at its prime. And so the sort of merging of the traditional Western-based science and research with indigenous knowledge is actually creating, I think much higher-quality courses for all students.”

“Embracing some of the indigenous knowledge and traditions, I think that’s one way of getting away from imposing the Western way,” he adds.

Is there not a danger here, that the value of science is forgotten? Hall thinks not. “What we're learning slowly, is what we might perceive as conflict in the first instance actually turns out to be a benefit when you look at things in a different way.”

He makes the comparison to Asia, where some aspects of traditional medicine are being picked up by Western scientists. “We're now going oh, you know, actually, that kind of makes sense, although it’s challenged somewhat our beliefs in some of the pieces of science.”

Student and academic support

As with any minority group being brought into a university, there must also be support for them once they get there.

For students, Victoria has a First Peoples House – a building on campus specifically for indigenous people, where indigenous elders are on hand to offer support.

When it comes to academics, Hall is aware of the “indigenous tax”, the extra work indigenous academics end up doing, such as mentoring and sitting on committees. He says that they are changing how they reward academics for their work, and he thinks the issue points to a wider problem in the assessment of academics.

“Across the world we’re so old-fashioned in how we assess performance. It's still about where are these papers? And where are they published? And what’s your h-index? How many grants did you get? And how many grad students are you supervising?” This is the right approach for some academics, he says, but not all. “We do have to recognise that people create impact in different ways at universities. It's not always through writing publications in journals.”

“I myself have always kind of refused to play that game but I’ve been successful despite that.” He has measured the value of his work on whether engineers put his work to use. Engineers do not read academic journals or go to academic conferences, he says. “We play this game of silly buggers where we cite each other’s work. And it’s a bunch of academics citing a bunch of academics, and what’s that got to actually do with practice?” Instead, he has aimed to get his work into design manuals.

When questioned on his relatively low h-index, he says “you’ve got 20,000 citations but 150,000 people a day are opening a design manual and using my work”.

“And that is very important for our indigenous academics, because they do a lot of community-based work. A lot of things don’t get published in journals, but it has a huge impact on the ground, what they’re doing. The people who have been doing language revitalisation, which is absolutely critical to our First Nations, are doing some amazing work.”

Would he go as far as saying the classic publishing-focused system is preventing universities from doing more good work? Yes. It’s about mobilising knowledge, he says. “I think that’s what academia should be about. There’s got to be multiple avenues to mobilise knowledge other than just journals.”

Global change

Having worked in Australia, Hall says he was impressed by some of the country’s work to support indigenous people, in particular their enabling pathways initiative that helps mature students into university, something Canada is not doing enough of, he says.

“I was really in impressed with Australians. And nope, nobody often says that about their reputation for being racist and rowdy and ignoring this population, but they’ve really moved the needle in the last four or five years.”

New Zealand too has made great strides towards equality, he thinks. And the United States? “I'm not really aware of any US university that is leading and doing anything significant in this space,” he says diplomatically.



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Reader's comments (1)

As a former academic leader, it is inspiring and heartening for me to see President Hall's advocacy for Indigenous-led academic governance and Indigenous senior leadership within universities, waiving tuition for local Indigenous people on whose lands the university stands, connecting with local schools, demonstrating meaningful respect for Indigenous protocols and knowledge systems, making concrete efforts to broaden and deepen the academic merit system to recognize Indigenous scholarship, and calling for all Canadian universities to do more to be true partners in truth and reconciliation. I believe this is the kind of university leadership that is needed for universities to earn the right to call ourselves true partners in creating a better and more sustainable world for all.