Hunt elk, read Dickens

August 14, 1998

Diversity within the Commonwealth's universities will be high on the ACU's agenda, with contributions from writer Carol Shields and Canadian Indian university head Eber Hampton

Canada's native peoples used to dismiss tertiary education as irrelevant to their needs and traditions. But things are changing. Philip Fine reports

Canada's indigenous population is being drawn to the country's higher education system in increasing numbers. In ten years, the number of native students enrolled in full- and part-time studies in Canada's post-secondary institutions more than tripled, from 8, 000 in 1983-94 to ,000 in 1994-95.

Historically Canada's First Nations people have felt it was impossible to safeguard their traditions inside an institution with a European perspective. How could such a place, where fellow learners are strangers and knowledge is very hands-off, compete with creation stories and being given the go-ahead to take down your first moose?

But higher education is increasingly attracting a bigger slice of the indigenous population, both from the more than two-thirds who live in urban areas and members of remote northern communities. They are using university to learn mainstream disciplines and to get more intimate with their histories.

Eber Hampton, president of the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (SIFC), the 22-year-old First Nations-run university on the Canadian prairies, feels part of the reason for this explosion of native scholarship may rest with the political climate between Canada and its native population.

In the past decade, federal, provincial and territorial governments have shown an increased willingness to deal with natives as nations with historical rights and not as simply another minority. Native determination to escape high poverty levels and to rise above previous hamfisted government initiatives have also helped to strengthen indigenous networks. These in turn have brought traditional knowledge into places of higher learning.

While there is an increasingly larger pool of educated aboriginal people, the other side of the equation, the academic field of native studies, has also begun to bear fruit. Canada's 80-plus universities now host 15 undergraduate native studies programmes, four long-standing scholarly journals in native studies and native programmes in fields such as law, education, social work and environmental studies. There is extensive scholarly activity relating to aboriginal peoples in virtually every university in Canada.

This is all taking place under immense cutbacks never experienced before by the country's academic community, which has also stemmed some of the growth of native education. Dr Hampton will be looking more at this explosion and what it means to mainstream Canada during this week's ACU conference, where he will be speaking on the topic of "The Diverse Society: Education and Indigenous Peoples". The session offers the chance to compare Canada's initiatives with other countries, such as New Zealand, South Africa, Kenya and India.

The next milestone, in Canada, is being marked with the creation of a PhD programme in native studies at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, the first of its kind in this country and the second in North America. Trent is a leader in the discipline, with the largest faculty of its kind in the country. The PhD, which will accept its first four students in September 1999, will help fill a gap in native teaching and research.

"The establishment of a PhD programme is a natural step for the intellectual development of the university," said Mr Hampton.

Trent professor and native historian John Milloy sees a changing tide when it comes to the university's claim on the truth. His research for Canada's Royal Commission on Aboriginal People, which covered myriad aspects of native life, unearthed much of the findings of sexual and physical abuse of native children, who, in the 1960s were sent off to residential schools away from their parents. Many of the commission findings led to a Can$350 million healing fund announced by the government earlier this year.

Although he has felt the backlash from historians who see affiliations with native causes as a crack in objectivity, he finds a kinship with his black history colleagues "who saw that western knowledge was not the truth but one that was predominantly white and male".

Native scholar Marlene Brant Castellano, former chair of Trent's native studies department, says that native education still has a long way to go, especially in the northern communities where many elementary and high-school students have had high drop-out rates and been subjected to "a parade of itinerant teachers".

Like Harvard-educated Eber Hampton, she was among a handful of natives of her generation who attended university and said she often felt like Alice through the looking glass, with her university colleagues knowing nothing about native reserves and her own people not interested in her new passion for Dickens and Shakespeare.

With tens of thousands of her people now attending university and non-aboriginal students welcoming a shake-up of their solid views, the trip for others, now finding their stories in textbooks, may not be one through a warped looking glass but through one that offers a more accurate reflection.

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