Mandatory indigenous courses add value

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In the wake of Maclean's naming Winnipeg "the most racist city in Canada," the University of Winnipeg considered a proposal from its student associations to have all undergraduates fulfil an indigenous studies credit before graduation.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/03/2015 (2741 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the wake of Maclean’s naming Winnipeg “the most racist city in Canada,” the University of Winnipeg considered a proposal from its student associations to have all undergraduates fulfil an indigenous studies credit before graduation.

Whether majoring in business, political science, psychology or chemistry, students would be required to complete at least one course focused on indigenous issues.

More than 100 courses from across 17 departments have been identified as meeting the criteria for the requirement, including indigenous literatures and cultures, management and financial administration in aboriginal communities and organizations, indigenous knowledge and biodiversity, and indigenous women and resilience.

Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press Sadie Lavoie says the intent of the proposal is to break down misconceptions students may have about Canada's indigenous population.

New courses will likely be developed.

While the university’s senate has passed the proposal in principle after hearing widespread support from students, faculty and administration, a small faction has argued strongly against it and many online commentators have been less than supportive, to put it mildly. A repeated argument is that mandating an indigenous course requirement impinges upon student choice. To be sure, students deserve choice and flexibility in shaping their degree programs according to their career goals, interests and sense of relevance. This allows them to be active participants in their learning and to claim ownership of their education.

But as educators, it is also precisely our job to introduce them to new perspectives and to challenge them to think critically about the substance of what they find interesting and relevant in the first place. Exposing students to the often lesser-known but vital contributions of indigenous thinkers to their respective fields is a way of both adding value to their education and recognizing the unique geographical context of our campus in the heart of Winnipeg, a city with the largest urban indigenous population in Canada.

All degree programs have mandated credits. At the U of W, there is a long-standing science course requirement for arts students, and a humanities course requirement for science students. These are compulsory and upheld in the spirit of a liberal arts education intended to expose students to a range of ideas and perspectives on the social and material worlds we live in.

The science requirement, in particular, is not seen as encroaching upon student choice. What its uncontested status makes clear, then, is that resistance to the implementation of an indigenous requirement is actually not about requirements or student choice in general; otherwise all mandated courses would be up for debate. Rather, it is a claim to the superiority of western scientific knowledge over and above other knowledge paradigms, including indigenous ways of knowing.

As we continue to live with the traumatic effects of the Indian residential school system in North America, such a claim should ring alarm bells for us all. The student choice argument reveals a thinly disguised complaint that indigenous issues and so-called political correctness are being unfairly imposed upon non-indigenous students. Let the injustice of this complaint also be made clear. The University of Winnipeg is built on Treaty One territory, traditional land of the Cree, Dakota, Assiniboine, Anishinaabe and Métis peoples, and yet its academic programs, like most Canadian universities’, are almost exclusively based in Euro-centric and non-indigenous conventions of thought.

Implementing an indigenous course requirement is but one small step toward acknowledging this disparity. For U of W students, learning about the history and significance of the place where they have invested their time, energies and hard-earned resources can only enhance their experience of connectedness to it. Again, this is value-added to their education.

And students are not the only ones who stand to benefit from this initiative. The process of reviewing our own departments’ course offerings in anticipation of its implementation has been instructive. We now notice gaps in our curricula, sparking new ideas for collaborations with indigenous scholars and communities. We have also been prompted to re-evaluate our own research programs, to trace connections to indigenous concepts and critiques that will no doubt strengthen the integrity and relevance of our findings. Indeed, as faculty and staff, many of us from outside of the indigenous studies department, have our learning cut out for us. Let’s make the most of it. This is an opportunity for growth for our whole university community.

Up to 12 per cent of students at the U of W have identified themselves as First Nations, Métis or Inuit. As well, 20 per cent of students are already meeting the indigenous requirement through voluntary course selection. This means many students, indigenous and non-indigenous, already understand the value of these courses for their education.

More importantly, the proposal comes from our students themselves. It was born of an inspiring collaboration between the U of W’s Student Association (UWSA) and the Aboriginal Students’ Council (ASC) in consultation with the U of W’s indigenous advisory circle.

While the UWSA and the ASC may not be representative of every individual student view, they were elected to be student leaders and they have done their homework to be present and involved in local and national forums on the pressing educational issues of our time.

Let us follow the example of our students and do our homework to become leaders in indigenous inclusion. The University of Winnipeg is the place and the time is now to move from recognizing in principle the knowledge and experiences of indigenous peoples as central to building a better shared future together, to making it a reality in practice.

 

Angela Failler is an associate professor and chair of the women’s and gender studies department and the University of Winnipeg chancellor’s research chair. Craig Willis is an associate professor of biology and a former University of Winnipeg chancellor’s research chair.

History

Updated on Tuesday, March 31, 2015 7:16 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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