Entrenching Indigenous knowledge in academia

Visiting speaker Stephanie Inglis to discuss the success of First Nations programming at Cape Breton University

Linguist Stephanie Inglis will deliver three talks on First Nations issues on campus this week.
Linguist Stephanie Inglis will deliver three talks on First Nations issues on campus this week.
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When linguist Stephanie Inglis arrived to teach at Cape Breton University (CBU) in 1986, the school had few First Nations students and offered no Native Studies courses.

Thanks in part to her contributions, the school has now become a success story among the various attempts at Canadian universities to incorporate Indigenous knowledge and engage Aboriginal students.

Inglis will be offering three talks on campus this week on topics relating to her work at Cape Breton University as part of the Brockington Visitorship and the Chancellor Dunning Trust Lecture. Her visit comes just weeks after the first Indigenous language classes – Mohawk and Inuktitut - commenced at Queen’s.

“Certainly in Canada, in the last five or six years, there has been much more awareness within academia of making courses which contain and foster the study and scholarship of Indigenous knowledge [and] bring it to the forefront,” Inglis said.

“Queen’s is certainly part of that initiative, and I think it’s wonderful.”

Back when Inglis took part in creating the first Natives Studies courses at CBU in the 1980s, that area of study was relatively uncommon.

“There were one or two courses that were appearing at other universities across Canada,” she said. “The trend was to sort of have a generic-type course. That’s why it was called Native Studies, where you would talk generally about issues related to First Nations and Indigenous peoples.”

There are now hundreds of Indigenous issues-related programs at universities across the country. Inglis pointed to the Indigenous Studies at York University and Trent University and the Aboriginal Law and Governance program at the University of British Columbia as particularly successful examples.

Inglis added that initially, CBU’s Natives Studies courses were non-credit, as the content wasn’t considered “valid” within an academic setting. Today, CBU offers degree program in Mi’kmaq Studies, as the Mi’kmaw people make up a significant portion of Nova Scotia’s Aboriginal population.

CBU is also home to Unama’ki College, which aims to engage Mi’kmaq and other First Nations students.

Inglis said one challenge that the school’s First Nations students face is balancing family life with school, as many of them are parents.

The success of CBU’s relationship with the Mi’kmaq Nation is the topic of Inglis’ first talk, which will be presented at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre tonight at 4 p.m.

“Before the early ’80s there were no Mi’kmaw students at CBU,” Inglis said. “Now [over] 10 per cent of the undergraduate population is First Nation, so that’s a huge change.” The University has graduated a total of 500 Aboriginal students, many of whom have gone on to spread Mi’kmaw knowledge through teaching and other professions, she added.

Inglis is the director of the Mi’kmaw Language Lab at CBU, which is responsible for a variety of projects which engage the local Mi’kmaq communities.

The Lab’s Jilaptoq Project, a talking dictionary to be used by the Nova Scotia Department of Education’s Grade 7 Mi’kmaw curriculum, will be the topic of her second talk in Walter Light Hall on Wednesday.

The Lab’s study of Mi’kmaw “pain words” — words used to describe injury — will be the topic of her Thursday talk in the New Medical Building. Studying the words people from the Mi’kmaq Nation use to describe pain, which are location and cause-related rather than intensity-related, can be used for practical application in hospitals, Inglis said.

As for Queen’s, she said she sees the new language courses as a good starting point for improving Indigenous engagement. Queen’s also currently offers courses in Aboriginal Studies and the history of Canada’s Indigenous peoples, and is also home to the Master of Education in Aboriginal and World Indigenous Educational Studies as well as the country’s only graduate program in Indigenous public administration and policy

“I think you’ll see this only being the first step and that there will be all kinds of other initiatives which will allow Queen’s students to engage in the scholarship of those Indigenous peoples.”

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