It has been almost 20 years since I did research in the homes and schools of indigenous people of Quebec. I obtained ethical approval for that work at my university. This consisted of me showing my grant proposal to a colleague down the hall who had no experience with indigenous people and asking her to sign off on it. In my work with Inuit communities in Nunavik, Inuit conducted the interviews, transcribed the videotapes and advised me on my findings. Two Inuit colleagues published articles with me. In the end, only I obtained a PhD out of that work.
Our findings were communicated in workshops for Inuit and non-Inuit teachers, and integrated into courses that were taught in Inuktitut in Northern communities as a part of a remarkable teacher education program offered by McGill University. Some of the students in these courses had never had formal schooling. Others had been sent to a residential school or to the south to live with families and attend school there. The younger people had attended high school in their home communities.
It was a point in time in Nunavik when people still spoke their language fluently and when Inuktitut was taught full-time from kindergarten to Grade 2. The courses enriched the language environment of the teachers enrolled in them. The classroom was filled with Inuktitut – rally, in readings and on blackboards. The courses led to certificates, diplomas and bachelor’s degrees and, in a few cases, to master’s degrees. When I look back, I wonder why university degrees taught in this way happened so sporadically and took such a long time to come about. Overall, as a country, we have missed many crucial years of indigenous language fluency both in university education and in public school classrooms. Clearly, we have also missed many possible and exciting ways that postsecondary education could be delivered.
This past year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action (PDF) have brought us back on track. In the area of research, it was preceded in 2014 by the Tri-council Policy Statement on Research Involving the First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples of Canada. That statement lays out how an ethics framework in indigenous contexts should work – fortunately, one can no longer run down the hall for a rapid ethics sign-off as I once did. The core principles of respect for indigenous governing authorities and structures, the recognition of diverse interests in a community, and respect for community customs and codes of practice are all clearly spelled out. Again, it is spellbinding and frankly shameful to think that it took so many years for this basic framework to have been put in place.
The TRC Calls to Action concerning education are numerous and specify among them the importance of adequate funding for postsecondary education, the enactment of an Aboriginal languages act and the nature of professional postsecondary education. For instance, teacher education must provide education on indigenous knowledge and indigenous teaching methods. Social work education must provide education and training about the history and impacts of residential schools. Research funding and programs for advancing the understanding of reconciliation are also called for.
Finally, although this is not specified per se, indigenous research will increasingly be conducted by indigenous researchers using indigenous ways of knowing. This will mean new theses, tenure and promotion, and grant review processes and programs. Less than one percent of today’s PhD holders in Canada are indigenous people. Recently, one of them spoke to the advisory panel reviewing federal support of fundamental research (of which I am a member) about how she and others are called upon to do many things in their communities. Research may not be the first order of priority, and this means that indigenous people with doctoral degrees have a heavy load of demands on them.
Some years ago, I discovered that indigenous Alaskans at the University of Alaska were explicitly taught different genres of writing: how to write on a subject in an academic manner, how to write on the same subject to inform their home community and, finally, how to present the same information at a negotiating table. Indigenous Canadian scholars will also have to meet community needs while fulfilling tenure requirements. Their education, employment and research will need to be shaped by and responsive to those varying demands. In so doing, they will change our educational and research institutions in new and unforeseen ways. We are back on track but we still have a long way to go.