Carleton University moves to mandate Indigenous teaching

National move to reconciliation tests boundaries of academic freedom, say some observers

May 23, 2020
North American indigenous totem
Source: iStock

Carleton University is promising to infuse “Indigenous knowledge” throughout its departments and to require that all students be taught Indigenous culture as part of Canada’s national reconciliation process.

The commitments, part of Canadian higher education’s response to the nation’s 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, also offer Indigenous students dedicated housing and gathering opportunities, special courses, physical protection and representation on university governing panels.

“We have a responsibility to ensure that the education being provided for students is enriched by including Indigenous knowledge, perspectives and pedagogies,” said Benny Michaud, assistant director of Carleton’s department of equity services.

For some Canadian academics, however, the idea of politically motivated shifts in graduation requirements and assessment processes − occurring at Carleton and at other institutions − has been taking reconciliation ideals too far.

Such changes amount to “attacking the academic mission of the university”, said Frances Widdowson, an associate professor of political science at Mount Royal University.

Academic culture should mean constantly challenging claims and arguments, said Mark Mercer, a professor of philosophy at Saint Mary’s University. “Indigenisation initiatives often seek to replace cultures of disputation with cultures of celebration,” he said.

The Canadian government created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008 as part of a court-approved settlement over the nation’s long history of extensive abuses and deaths of Indigenous children in residential schools.

Although that did not directly concern universities, many institutions have absorbed the commission’s call in its 2015 report to protect the languages and cultures of Indigenous people and to improve their educational opportunities.

The University of Toronto, in its 2017 response to the report, said that while it did not operate any residential schools, it had “educated generations of political leaders, policymakers, teachers, civil servants and many others who were part of the system that created and ran” them.

The Toronto plan, like many others adopted by Canadian institutions, pledges extensive efforts to help Indigenous students gain admission and succeed academically, with new courses and experiences designed to their community preferences.

The Carleton plan is among a subset promising more expansive ambitions. Signed and embraced by the institution’s president, Benoit-Antoine Bacon, it calls for “every student graduating from Carleton University” to achieve “basic learning outcomes with regards to Indigenous history and culture”.

It also describes infusing Indigenous teaching approaches throughout the college, including placing “Indigenous Knowledge Keepers” who lack traditional academic credentials directly into graduate and doctoral assessment processes.

“At Carleton University,” said Ms Michaud, one of three co-chairs of the committee that drafted the plan, “we believe that every student has a right to know how this country came to be, and at what cost to Indigenous people.”

Ms Michaud said she did not regard the requirements in the plan as representing instructional and assessment mandates. “We’re not telling anybody how to teach,” said Ms Michaud, whose family is of Métis heritage. “What we’re doing is we’re offering supports for those who would like to include these perspectives in the classroom, so that they feel empowered to do so.”

Such matters have been politically tense, with advocates on both sides feeling overreach by the other. Several academics seeking bigger roles for Indigenous thought in their institutions have quit or been forced out in recent years, complaining of intolerance. Other departures have involved non-Indigenous instructors citing complaints that they had no right to teach topics that concern Indigenous matters.

Professor Widdowson said she recognised that Canada’s Indigenous population had truly been suffering from discrimination and economic disadvantages. But many of the steps that Carleton and other universities see as corrective, she said, amount to protections for staff and beliefs that could not otherwise survive normal academic scrutiny.

Some, Professor Widdowson continued, such as the special rooms built for the Indigenous smoke ceremonies known as smudging, amount to academic promotion of religion. Universities instead should pursue more substantial steps to help Indigenous communities with their educational and economic challenges, she said.

One leading expert in Canadian higher education, Alex Usher, the president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, said many institutions do appear to have gone beyond the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report’s call for students in relevant professions to better understand Aboriginal conditions.

Some of the more controversial requirements, however, are not likely to translate into meaningful differences in teaching at Carleton or elsewhere, he said.

A spokeswoman for Dr Bacon, asked to clarify, said Carleton does not expect every student to take an Indigenous course before graduating, but does plan to “ensure that Indigenous content is added to each programme”. The goal, the university said in the statement, is “to make certain that all Carleton graduates are socially responsible citizens who can become ethical and informed future leaders”.

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Reader's comments (3)

This is a fantastic initiative that more Canadian universities (and indeed, universities around the world) should consider making part of their practice.
The opportunity to learn about traditional knowledge while I was a student at Carleton University (Engineering, Canadian Studies) really helped me develop my critical thinking skills and gave me a wider understanding of Canada's knowledge traditions and place in the world. Spending time learning from my mentors - indigenous friends and elders as well as my professors - guided me towards what became my academic disciplines, the history and philosophy of science and human geography. Excellent therefore to see these new partnership and strategic initiatives at Carleton University. Wishing them every success! Michael Bravo, University of Cambridge.
I have addressed this issue in UBC's peer-reviewed, Critical Education with a piece titled "The Indigenization Controversy" available online. In short, consider the proposal a vital requirement that all of higher education must embrace for not only the sake of Indigenous Peoples but all of life on earth. Read also what the UN report on biodiversity says about the importance of Indigenous worldview in this regard. As Noam Chomsky writes on the back of my book about Indigenizing Mainstream Education, "The grim prognosis of life is a result of forgetting (Indigenous ways of knowing)."