Faculty falter when addressing Indigenous topics

While services for Indigenous students surge ahead, their classroom experience is often neglected

When professors are unprepared, Indigenous students are forced to educate the educator

For Misko McGregor, (Comm '21), an Algonquin-Ojibwe student from Kitigan Zibi First Nation in Québec, it was a strange experience weighing in on his classmates’ presentations with his professor during the Indigenous component of his second-year Business Ethics course.

“It’s not really my job to teach people. I’m not getting paid,” he told The Journal in an interview“But I was the only Indigenous student in the class, so I had an obligation to set things straight.”

When he arrived at Queen’s, McGregor was reluctant to discuss his identity because it often led to difficult discussions or being called out in class.

McGregor isn’t alone in his experience. Across faculties and departments, professors are turning to Queen’s Indigenous students to take the lead when subjects of Indigeneity are raised in the classroom.

From Global Development Studies to Commerce, Indigenous students report being singled out as ‘experts’ in the classes they attend based on their lived experiences, regardless of their familiarity with the subject matter and without consideration of the diversity of Indigenous experience in Canada.

Rachel Agnew, (ArtSci '19), an Anishinaabekwe raised in Toronto, whose home territory is the Garden River First Nation, is regularly confronted with professors’ lack of knowledge when they try to promote inclusivity in her Global Development Studies courses. Not only have teachings leaned heavily on popular stereotypes, but topics of Indigeneity have often been raised for debate.

“People are debating my existence and my rights, and I have to sit there and listen to it,” she said. 

A problem Queen’s faces, Agnew said, is creating an environment that makes students feel comfortable enough to self-identify—allowing them to gain access to the resources available to them.

Educating faculty about Indigenous peoples, histories, and cultures can have a significant impact on campus culture because they have access to the student body that shapes it.

However, the University is struggling to engage faculty in the decolonization process. This disconnect leaves Indigenous students, like Agnew and McGregor, in the lurch.

Accessing faculty  

The KAIROS Blanket exercise, led by Laura Maracle, the Four Directions’ Aboriginal cultural safety coordinator, is a significant component of the training offered by the University to teach Indigenous issues.

An interactive education in Indigenous history, the stand-alone workshop is the first step to completing Four Directions’ Indigenous Cultural Safety Training. This leads into a module on Terminology, Legal Definitions and Self-Identity, and on Indigenous Paradigm and Relationship Building.

Along with this year’s addition of the Land Acknowledgement workshop, this is the current training offered by the University to inform its students and staff about Indigenous culture and politics.

Since the release of Queen’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report in 2017, the Office of the Principal, Office of the Provost, and Office of the Vice-Principal (Finance and Administration) have all completed Indigenous Cultural Safety Training.

However, faculty members aren’t mandated to complete the training. Rather, the onus is on the individual departments, or faculty members themselves, to actively seek out information.

As a result, faculty members often lack an awareness of the resources and training available to them, and fewer still have utilized them.

According to Director of Indigenous Initiatives, Kanonhsyonne (Janice Hill), the divide between senior administrative staff and faculty has been one the University hasn’t yet managed to bridge.

She said although certain faculties—most notably Health Sciences—have taken an active role in hiring Indigenous staff and engaging faculty in awareness and sensitivity training, many haven’t yet engaged with the Indigenous community on campus.

Structural barriers have made increasing the reach of Cultural Sensitivity Training difficult.

Without the support of more professionals and community resources, Kanonhsyonne said the University has left her department and Maracle’s team overworked, limiting the efficiency and scope of their programs.

However, the practice of mandatory training itself is considered by many Indigenous faculty members to be counterintuitive to the process of Indigenization.

Kanonhsyonne said in 2017, Principal Woolf mandated every faculty member complete a five-year plan to indigenize curricula. However, the autonomy of departments has left the Office of Indigenous Initiatives uncertain about whether that progress is actually being made.

Professor Ian Fanning, an Algonquin member of the Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation who teaches Indigenous Politics in Global Development Studies, said he hasn’t been contacted by his department or University Administration to encourage, participate in, or raise awareness for Cultural Safety Training.

Neither has Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures’ Professor of Mohawk language, Thanyehténhas (Nathan Brinklow) of Tyendinaga, nor Skelton-Clark Post-Doctoral Fellow Adrienne Davidson of the Political Studies Department.

“There are key allies who have taken it up and taken it upon themselves to incorporate it into their coursework,” Kanonhsyonne said, “but whether deans are picking it up and encouraging faculty to do it, I think probably not.”

The urgency for education

Fanning is continually surprised by the lack of knowledge exhibited by students at the university level. More striking still, he said, is the same lack of knowledge exhibited by faculty.

“The reality is, there are a lot of faculty members still here who are very resistant to learning about Indigenous people, and resistant to giving up any of their privileged time or space to learn,” said Fanning.

“I'm still shocked at the faculty I meet that know nothing about Indigenous people. [...] They don’t know about the issues that impact Indigenous communities, and they have no depth of knowledge about how the University has played a part in oppressing Indigenous people.”

The study “What Queen’s Students Know About Indigenous Realities in Canada,” led by Geography and Planning Professor Anne Godlewska, reports that Queen’s students who haven’t taken courses with Indigenous content have shown a lack of awareness of the basic facts of the Indigenous experience in Canada.

According to Godlewska’s study, many students have little knowledge of Indigenous presence or traditional territory, consigning Indigenous peoples primarily to the past. Most lacked knowledge of the ongoing existence of colonialism, the impact of policies such as the Indian Act, and the concept of Indigenous sovereignty.

Kanonhsyonne said students in the Faculty of Engineering have been resistant to suggestions of a mandatory Indigenous Studies course. This was a suggestion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report, but according to Kanonhsyonne, they didn’t perceive it as relevant to their studies. 

Moving forward

For Agnew, the University’s approach towards Indigenous issues has significantly improved during her time at Queen’s.

“In just my short five years here, the amount of services that I’ve seen have tripled,” she said. 

The efforts of Four Directions and of the Office of Indigenous Initiatives, in collaboration with Indigenous students, have not gone unnoticed. The environment they’ve fostered has been instrumental in providing future Indigenous students with positive spaces here on campus.

“I was really reluctant to access the services that existed for Indigenous students [in first year] because I was a stubborn 18-year-old and I thought I didn’t need them. I thought I didn’t need community, but it’s changed my life,” Agnew said.

Brinklow, who teaches Mohawk language, has incorporated many diverse teaching methods into his curriculum. Creative projects and shared meals reflect an indigenization of education in his courses. 

“I don’t justify the way I do things, or my position in the system,” Brinklow said. “I just do it.”

“I don’t kid myself, very few people are going to remember the language past [the end of term]. […] But the cultural understanding they come away with is important for people that are going to be teachers, lawyers and bankers,” he said.

Still, knowledge isn’t enough. As Professor Brinklow notes, more needs to be done on the part of faculty to learn how to interact with Indigenous peoples in the Queen’s community.

Part of this includes beginning to collaborate with Indigenous administration to learn ways of weaving Indigenous knowledge throughout their courses. 

“Where is the advanced training for professors, for faculty members? Where’s the sensitivity for the Indigenous students in your classes today? It’s something to be aware of, and that’s to make better professors out of all of us.”

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