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Some universities look to adopt indigenous course requirements

U of Winnipeg and Lakehead University plan to implement new requirement for all undergrads starting next year.

By JENNIFER HALSALL | JUN 23 2015

The University of Winnipeg has approved a new degree requirement that would have all undergraduate students, regardless of program, take a three-credit course on indigenous knowledge. The student-led amendment comes on the heels of Lakehead University’s 2014 decision to implement a similar requirement. At both universities, the changes are expected to take effect in September 2016.

Although some universities mandate an indigenous knowledge component for specific degrees, U of Winnipeg and Lakehead appear to be the only universities to date to require it for all undergraduate students.

“I look at it as value added,” says Wab Kinew, associate vice-president of indigenous affairs at U of Winnipeg. “Especially at the undergraduate level, this is supposed to be the time in your life where you come and get exposed to many different ways of thinking.”

Both Lakehead and U of Winnipeg have stated the requirement won’t apply to students who have already begun their degrees.

Moira McPherson, the provost and vice-president, academic, at Lakehead, says an indigenous content requirement will benefit students not only during their studies, but also after graduation when they enter the workforce.

“This requirement is about our commitment to social justice,” she says, “but it’s also about integrating pertinent, real and contemporary information into discipline-specific fields, dispelling stereotypes, and ensuring our students are better informed and prepared for their careers when they do leave our university as graduates.”

At U of Winnipeg, Mr. Kinew says the requirement will also provide students with a better understanding of Canada’s cultural and historical identity. “We live in a country where regardless of whether or not you have indigenous blood, there’s an indigenous component to your identity,” he says. “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.”

At both universities, there’s been a strong push away from a “one-size-fits-all” indigenous course. Instead, students can choose from a variety of existing options – a range broad enough that Dr. McPherson says between 30 and 50 percent of Lakehead’s undergraduate students would have already fulfilled the requirement, if it applied to them.

According to Rorie McLeod Arnould, president of the University of Winnipeg Students Association, the university boasts over 120 courses to choose from, and there may be more in the works. “We’re looking at a large list of courses, so it’s not one course a person has to take,” he says, which has helped to dispel some initial resistance from students. The proposal has also received “overwhelming support” from administrators and faculty, he says.

But the requirement isn’t meant merely to address gaps in indigenous learning. Mr. McLeod says it’s meant to reach beyond the university’s walls and combat discrimination against indigenous people in Canadian society.

“There is a systemic racism and discrimination in this country that’s experienced by indigenous peoples, and it’s not okay for anybody to sit on the bench and watch that happen without taking action,” he says. “This requirement is an attempt to spread information among those who are going to be the leaders of tomorrow, to hopefully not replicate the mistakes of the past. Ignorance is combatted by knowledge, axiomatically.”

Mr. McLeod says he hopes the requirement at U of Winnipeg will inspire other universities to follow suit. “The road to reconciliation and the road toward a peaceful future for all Canadians is a long one,” he says. “Modelling it successfully and making sure that it’s done in a way that reflects well upon our institution and encourages other institutions to adapt similar programs is really important.”

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  1. PJBarber / June 24, 2015 at 2:54 pm

    I’m wondering what is meant by Aboriginal ‘knowledge’, and I’m concerned about making such coursework ‘mandatory’. The only schools that make a particular religion’s worldview mandatory coursework are private religious institutions, not public schools, which are to be (for example in BC) ‘conducted on strictly secular and non-sectarian principles’ (BC School Act). I’ve noticed in public grade school also that aboriginal religion and spirituality has been made mandatory for all students, which violates the School Act as well as Canada’s charter. There’s a reason we no longer have Christian prayer and theology in public school, why are we now having aboriginal theology (and I’ll throw in hindu/buddhist/jainist prayer in the form of yoga here, which is mandatory for my kids in elementary now) required in public schools? I agree we need to love one another and try to understand each others’ views. But we know from the past that making such learning mandatory for all only backfires, and in any case violates our protected religious freedoms. No religion is to be required in public school!

  2. Ernie Prokopchuk / June 24, 2015 at 3:21 pm

    Good for LU and UW introducing these requirements.
    Maybe they are the first universities, but they are not the first post-secondary institutions to look at something like this. Yukon College introduced a First Nations core competency requirement that applies to students graduating in 2016 (and beyond). Not only that, but they have also made this core competency a requirement for permanent employees at the college and offer a convenient and informative a day-long course for anyone that needs it to satisfy this requirement.

  3. Naomi Mensink / June 25, 2015 at 9:14 am

    I think this is a marvellous move! University/college undergraduate education especially is at least partially about learning to think differently from a variety of perspectives. Core assumptions are examined and conclusions about the shape and processes of a “just society” can be examined collaboratively among students from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. The First Nations ways of thinking are an important part of that. Congratulations to Lakehead and others!

  4. WAnda ChiCheemaun / June 26, 2015 at 8:20 am

    Perhaps I missed it, but I’m wondering where the article mentioned religion? Being aboriginal is not a religious choice that one makes on Sunday, but something you are everyday and cannot change on the whim of ones views. Perhaps PJBarber you need to take a look at the class offerings to better understand what being aboriginal is. An educational option like this is wonderful to present different aspects of a people that although are part of the Canadian landscape are often misrepresented and misunderstood. Hopefully it will enlighten the mind and not create a plethora of “crystal lickers”.

  5. universitystudent / June 29, 2015 at 5:02 pm

    I understand that people (including myself) are too ignorant about the history and culture of Indigenous people in Canada.

    My problem with this is that I don’t see how this type of course content should be prioritized over some other mandatory content.

    Why not a general history course? Is Aboriginal history more important than the impact of 18th century colonialism? More important than Europe in the 20th Century? Most 19 year olds have no idea how Canadian government works – grade 10 civics is a joke. Why don’t we have a mandatory course that informs students about how our Parliament and Legislative Assemblies work?

    This concept may not necessarily impede on our religious freedoms (PJBarber), but it’s definitely politically slanted enough that it feels like a certain value system is being imposed on students. So again, Indigenous history has merit, but I have to question whether it’s ethical to impose any particular set of values onto students unless there’s proof that this course content is somehow relevant to these students’ degree requirements.

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