THE year 2012 was an exciting time for indigenous education at the University of Manitoba.

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This article was published 14/11/2016 (1643 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

THE year 2012 was an exciting time for indigenous education at the University of Manitoba.

I was a brand-new hire — one of two in the department of native studies — and one of three new indigenous scholars on campus. This brought the number of indigenous scholars to 24 — behind nearly every major western Canadian university — but a good foundation.

More was happening. The university just built its new Indigenous Student Centre. President David Barnard gave a much-publicized apology on the role the university played in residential schools. There was a new university-wide initiative called "Indigenous Achievement" with an "executive lead" in charge of indigenous education.

These were encouraging steps. In fact, these were the reasons I chose the U of M over two better-paying job offers.

At that time, there was also much excitement in the department of native studies. We then had nine professors, ran around 40 classes, enrolled 20 graduate students and taught approximately 800 undergraduates.

Then something unexpected happened.

The University of Manitoba tried to indigenize without indigenous faculty.

Administration hired an "executive lead" with virtually no academic experience. The president hired a personal indigenous adviser. A five-year strategic plan was developed with commitments to "indigenous research and teaching" without consulting actual indigenous researchers or teachers. Then came cuts to librarians, support staff and a hiring freeze — resulting in no new indigenous professors until one was hired in 2016.

In fact, indigenous faculty was reduced during the time of "Indigenous Achievement" — bringing the total number at the U of M closer to smaller schools such as the University of Winnipeg and Brandon University than comparable schools such as the University of Saskatchewan and University of Alberta.

Indigenous Achievement has consisted mostly of shiny websites and pamphlets, one-time events, increases to student recruitment and counselling and an unprecedented growth of administration over all things indigenous. Faculty now has so many layers demanding incorporation of indigenous content and practices, it is confusing. It reminds me of the ways band governments report to multiple Indigenous Affairs bureaucrats.

Meanwhile, support for indigenization has fallen at the feet of the department of native studies. For the past three years, nearly every department, faculty and colleague has needed an indigenous consultant or "guest lecture." Four faculties make our courses mandatory for entrance. Advisory groups have sprung up alongside countless requests to increase enrolment caps, offer online classes and join committees.

The stress on our department in the age of indigenization has been unbelievable, contributing to the departure of two faculty and another going halftime.

Not one of these individuals, in the age of budget cuts, was replaced.

Then the unthinkable happened: our department head died in 2014.

In another budget-saving move, her position was not replaced, either.

After senior faculty members filled in, I was hired in 2015 as an un-tenured department head. During my time, I have fought cuts and tried to support a rotating, stressed-out administrative staff. We now offer around 30 classes (25 per cent fewer than 2012), experience growing enrolment every year (40 graduate students and about 1,000 undergraduate students) and carry unsustainable workloads.

With just five professors now (one halftime), native studies has become the department with the highest demands and the least support to meet these demands.

And we are not alone.

Workplace issues at the U of M are well-documented. Faculty have had their workloads increased exponentially. Class sizes have been increased without consultation. Hiring committees cannot attract top-level faculty while offering the lowest salary amongst similar-sized universities in Canada.

Now, with new budgetary measures, faculties will be asked to increase course enrolments while reducing student supports.

This is what the strike at the U of M is about.

Indigenous Achievement has largely been a non-academic initiative, resulting in increased administration and administrators, bigger classes, fewer librarians and courses, and fewer indigenous faculty.

There is some hope. Recently, U of M administrators and a new executive lead announced three new initiatives promising to hire indigenous professors, support indigenous initiatives and fund indigenous research. These are good steps, but with the gap produced over the past four years, just a starting point.

I’m cautiously optimistic. I remember 2012.

Without new, energetic indigenous faculty and adequate, well-supported training and working conditions for our non-indigenous colleagues, Indigenous Achievement will repeat Canada’s mistakes when it comes to indigenous peoples.

The important steps taken at the U of M will be for nothing if the university does not commit to empowering all faculty in all areas of indigenous education. This will be unfortunate, for we have one of the most engaged faculty in the country.

Just look at the picket lines.

No issue is more important to the country than reconciliation with indigenous peoples. Even the prime minister says so. The U of M is perfectly located to lead this movement.

The department of native studies must be the centre of any future Indigenous Achievement, for we are the best-trained, most experienced and most knowledgeable faculty to guide the U of M into this future.

With our colleagues, we stand on the picket line to ensure education is about equipping our students to create a Canada full of healthy, sustainable and meaningful relationships between all peoples.

So that we all achieve. Together.

Niigaan Sinclair is an associate professor and acting head of the department of native studies and a proud UMFA member.

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair
Columnist

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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