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.”