Aboriginal courses are relevant to students, so make them a priority

Effective and useful courses require a university-wide strategy

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Expanding learning about Indigenous peoples is essential for the Canadian education system — but force-feeding it to students doesn’t make it any more palatable. 

In light of Canada’s prioritization of truth and reconciliation, universities are integrating Aboriginal issues into our education. 

For some universities, like the University of Regina and the University of Winnipeg, that involves creating a mandatory Indigenous course requirement for all students. 

While mandating core courses may make sense for universities with high Aboriginal student populations, like Regina and Winnipeg, it doesn’t for others like Queen’s.

Forcing students to take Aboriginal topics without addressing their significance to students’ education does a disservice to the importance of that subject. 

The problem with mandatory courses is that they try to force people to find a subject relevant to them, but often backfire because they’re perceived as a waste of time. 

When you reach university, the expectation is that you’ll get to specialize in what interests you. 

The perceived uselessness of mandatory courses is only compounded by a lower impetus to maintain their quality, since students will take them anyways.

Long-lasting change requires Queen’s and similar schools to take on a form of affirmative action, where Aboriginal content is incorporated in such a way that people take it of their own accord because of its relevance. 

Mandating learning about Aboriginal peoples for noble or politically correct reasons — despite the validity of those reasons — mistakes the essential point behind a university education. 

Arguing for education on Aboriginal issues on the basis of our moral duty ignores the far more pertinent reasoning: that learning about Aboriginal culture is entirely relevant to most, if not all, current and future university students’ careers. 

Interacting with Aboriginal people and communities is necessary for most major professions in Canada — from law, to medicine, to politics, education, engineering and commerce. The list goes on. 

Queen’s has already recognized this within certain disciplines, such as ConEd, where it’s mandatory for future teachers to be educated on Aboriginal culture and issues. 

Whether someone is a healthcare provider who needs 

to know about the health risks of boiled water advisories on reservations, or an engineer working on treaty-contested land, the practical value of learning about Aboriginal issues is undeniable. 

This isn’t, however, self-evident for many university students, nor is its relevance to their career path. 

So, one mandatory course that has nothing to do with a student’s course of study, while beneficial to learn for its own sake, won’t impress relevance of this learning to the student’s own life. 

It’s better to teach Indigenous issues in a manner that’s compatible with each discipline’s aims and pedagogy, based on what students going into that field really need to know. 

Many people are completely unaware of Indigenous issues, or they simply don’t care. The topic receives a lot of lip service that doesn’t put its money where its mouth is. 

New courses take money. But there are always ways to take action. 

Queen’s Principal’s Dream Course Initiative, which provides funds for enhancing existing courses, lists Indigenous content as a potential criteria for funding, but that’s a tiny drop in a huge lake, and we need a rainstorm. 

There’s no tried and true way to introduce Aboriginal content that will work across all faculties. 

And there are many potential routes: a special fund set up to distribute funding for courses on Indigenous topics; an advancement campaign to raise funds for new courses; or updating the criteria set by each department for course approval to include Indigenous perspectives.  

Whatever strategy Queen’s ends up using, we need to commit to it. 

Knowing the University, ‘Indigenization’ at Queen’s will involve the creation of multiple different committees, review boards and advisory bodies. 

Reviewing each faculty with the objective of creating a unique strategic plan to introduce Indigenous content based on the faculty’s needs might be an exhaustive process.

But it has to start somewhere.  

— Journal Editorial Board

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