Graeme Hamilton, National Post, May 25, 2018
On paper, Mount Saint Vincent University professor Martha Walls seems perfectly suited to teach a course called Selected Topics in North American History: Residential Schools. An expert on First Nations history, colonialism and gender, she has crafted a curriculum giving priority to Indigenous narratives and primary sources.
But according to her critics, Walls is missing one important qualification: she is not Indigenous. And when news spread that a “settler” would be teaching students at the Halifax university about residential schools next fall it prompted an immediate backlash.
To Rebecca Thomas, a Mi’kmaq woman and Halifax’s poet laureate, assigning Walls the course perpetuated the notion “that non-Indigenous people have the right and expertise to speak on Indigenous topics.” The proper voice is that of someone with “the lived experience of what it’s like to be a product of these systems within Canada,” she told the Canadian Press. Patricia Doyle-Bedwell, a Mi’kmaq woman and Dalhousie University professor, said the choice of Walls highlights the lack of space for Indigenous professors and “Indigenous knowledge perspectives” in Canadian universities.
After Mount Saint Vincent convened a meeting of faculty and senior administrators last week, it decided that Walls could teach the course as planned. The university stressed in a statement that Walls is a “true” ally to Indigenous faculty and is “committed to honest reconciliation.”
That the fitness of a white academic to teach Aboriginal history became a topic of national debate, however, shows how quickly the climate is changing on Canadian campuses: as they respond to the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report on residential school abuse, universities are in a race to Indigenize.
Declarations acknowledging traditional First Nations territory are standard at most schools before meetings and ceremonies. Universities poach relatively scarce Indigenous professors from rival institutions, and some set quotas for hiring Indigenous professors and enrolling Indigenous students. They are rethinking curricula, a few schools introducing mandatory Indigenous-themed courses and others incorporating Indigenous knowledge in existing courses. And questions are getting louder about who is entitled to teach about Indigenous people.
Administrators have embraced the reforms, presented as steps toward correcting historic injustices and making the university welcoming to Indigenous students and academics. Universities Canada, the non-profit organization representing 96 institutions across the country, endorses the “Indigenization of curricula” and promotes “the cohabitation of Western science and Indigenous knowledge on campuses.”
But amid the chorus of well-intentioned reformers, a few academics are sounding alarms about the impact on universities’ commitment to free and open inquiry. Some point to a politicization around Indigenous issues on campus that can be hostile toward critical thinking. Others are troubled to see universities hiring professors and admitting students based on race. And there are concerns that the embrace of Indigenous knowledge undermines a commitment to science.
“There’s much to say in favour of various Indigenization initiatives at the universities, but what worries me is the tendency many of them have to push us toward a culture of celebration,” said Mark Mercer, a philosophy professor at St. Mary’s University in Halifax and president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship.
“Good universities have a culture of disputation, a culture of critical inquiry and critical discussion. We interrogate identities. In a culture of celebration, on the other hand, people are to be confirmed and strengthened in their identities. Critical inquiry in such a culture is seen as disrespectful and even harmful.”
The reluctance to criticize is understandable. At the source of the current Indigenization push is a desire to atone for the psychological and physical abuse inflicted on generations of First Nations, Inuit and Métis children who were sent to residential schools to be assimilated into white culture. “Education is what got us into this mess … but education is the key to reconciliation,” Truth and Reconciliation Commission chairman Murray Sinclair told the CBC in 2015.
Universities, though not directly involved in running the residential schools, are owning up to their role in allowing the system to operate. Last year, as University of Toronto president Meric Gertler received an internal committee report condemning his school as a one-time “instrument of oppression of Indigenous peoples,” he acknowledged the university’s “responsibility in contributing to the plight of Indigenous peoples” and committed to leading the reconciliation.
The report, commissioned in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said the university was complicit because it “educated generations of political leaders, policy makers, teachers, civil servants, and many others who were part of the system that created and ran the residential schools. More than that, our researchers failed to investigate and challenge the system even when society began to know how profoundly damaging the schools were to Indigenous people.”
Some schools have issued formal apologies, beginning with the University of Manitoba in 2011. “Our institution failed to recognize or challenge the forced assimilation of Aboriginal peoples and the subsequent loss of their language, culture and traditions,” university president David Barnard said at the time. “That was a grave mistake. It is our responsibility. We are sorry.”
Last month, University of British Columbia president Santa Ono apologized for his university’s role in educating those who ran the residential-school system and for failing to address the “the exclusion from higher education that the schools so effectively created.”
There is much ground to make up. The latest census data shows the Indigenous population making gains in achieving post-secondary education but still lagging behind the population at large. In 2016, 10.9 per cent of Indigenous people aged 25 to 64 had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 28.5 per cent of all Canadians. A survey published last month by Universities Canada reported that in 2017 five per cent of undergraduate students, three per cent of graduate students and 1.4 per cent of professors identified as Indigenous.
The recognition of the harm caused by residential schools and the associated guilt has led to a reluctance to question today’s Indigenization initiatives, says Massimo Pigliucci, a City College of New York philosophy professor who is contributing to an upcoming book on Indigenization. He is a critic of pseudoscience and is worried when he sees traditional Indigenous knowledge elevated to the level of science in classrooms. It is no better than religious schools teaching creationism, he says.
“There is a danger, I think, because of the sensitivity to emotional distress and guilt — which should be there — that if one does not act reasonably on those emotions and on that guilt, then you are diminishing the quality of education,” Pigliucci says. “And at that point everybody loses.”
Frances Widdowson, a politics professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, has been one of the most outspoken critics of university Indigenization. She has crossed swords with colleagues over territorial acknowledgements, which she says are hollow gestures reinforcing the notion that the land truly belongs to local First Nations.
She recounted a 2016 speaking engagement at which angry audience members tried to silence her by saying she was a guest on their land. “I was saying the university is not on Indigenous lands. It is a public institution. It’s all of our land,” she said. “Nobody should think they are a guest, or that their ethnic background is going to make any difference in terms of how we’re going to interact here.”
In a paper delivered to the 2016 meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, Widdowson said the emphasis on respecting traditional Aboriginal knowledge in academia undermines “the intellectual foundation of the university.” Two years later, as she teaches at a university where “respecting and valuing Indigenous ways of knowing” is official policy, she remains pessimistic.
“Most quote, unquote, Indigenous knowledge is not knowledge. It’s spiritual belief. And in order to respect something or value something, we have to look at the evidence,” she says. “This is what a university is about, trying to figure out what it is that we should value — not having university administrators tell us, ‘Thou must value X.’ They’re doing it as a public-relations exercise to show how they really do care.”
There are certainly examples of traditional Indigenous knowledge contributing to science. One of the most frequently cited is the discovery of the active ingredient in Aspirin — acetylsalicylic acid — in the bark of willow trees, which Native Americans used to relieve pain. More recently, observations by Inuit have helped identify climate-induced environmental changes in the Arctic, and Heiltsuk elders inspired biologists to classify a distinct population of seafood-eating wolves in British Columbia.
But Pigliucci cautions that there is a difference between accumulated knowledge and scientific investigation. Indigenous people knew tea made from willow bark relieved pain, but it took science to isolate the chemical responsible and allow for its mass production.
“The problem is when people start talking about Indigenous science as if it were a different kind of science, based on different principles,” he says. “You don’t think that the effects of a medicinal plant is a result of specific chemical compounds and how they interact with the human body, but you start going for more mystical or supernatural explanations. That is definitely not science.”
And yet in a statement last year calling for a greater place for Indigenous science in mainstream education, the high-profile signatories spoke of “multiple ways of knowing” and described Indigenous science as “an alternative paradigm” to Western science.
Those questioning the Indigenization of the academy are battling a strong current. If anything, demands are increasing. Eve Tuck, professor of critical race and Indigenous studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, this month called on fellow Indigenous academics to make use of their newfound influence to help the cause of black scholars and other groups that face discrimination. “Let’s not be manipulated by university leaders’ fake woke justifications for prioritizing Indigenous investments over investments for Black students and faculty and staff,” she wrote in one tweet. “Universities seem to think that ‘indigenizing’ is just add Indigenous people and stir,” she added. “No. It will need to mean that the university stops harmful practices.”
Robert Innes, head of Indigenous studies at the University of Saskatchewan and a member of Cowessess First Nation, argues that Widdowson’s dismissal of Indigenous knowledge is based on a “racist idea” that Indigenous culture is Neolithic. “She says the arguments Indigenous scholars are making are based on spirituality,” Innes says. “But what we’re doing is looking at the perspective of Indigenous people. What informs the way they view the world? What informs their thoughts?”
Contrary to her contention that invoking Indigenous knowledge stifles debate, Innes said it is always fair game to challenge an Indigenous scholar’s argument. “But you can’t say that what Indigenous people think is wrong,” he says.
Kiera Ladner, a professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba, believes universities need to shed their “Enlightenment approach,” which holds that there is a right and wrong way of knowing. “There is not a hierarchy of knowledge. There are parallels of knowledge. I think until we actually transform the institutions to recognize and deal with this, we’re going to be in trouble when it comes time to Indigenize the academy,” she told a 2011 conference.
Peter Kulchyski, a professor of native studies at the University of Manitoba, sees room to incorporate Indigenous knowledge in universities. “One thing that science does not do very well, if at all, is ethics,” he says. To illustrate, he speaks of his work with a Cree trapper assessing potential impacts of a hydroelectric dam. Kulchyski was focused on endangered species of caribou and sturgeon, considered “valuable ecological components” in the impact-assessment jargon. The trapper kept coming back to the birds, squirrels and rabbits along his trapline. Finally the coin dropped for Kulchyski.
“He feels an ethical responsibility for these birds, these squirrels and these rabbits, that we’re not even allowed to talk about,” Kulchyski says.
“Our scientific approach gives us a cost-benefit of all of these things, and it reduces our ethical responsibility to zero for killing a whole bunch of living beings that he has insisted all along are part of the cost of the dam.”
A professor at University of Manitoba since 2000, Kulchyski calls himself “one of the last non-natives standing” in the field of native studies. The field of study was born in the late 1960s when, as Shona Taner wrote in the Canadian Journal of Native Studies in 1999, “many well-intentioned academics wanted to do something about the ‘Indian problem’.” But while they were alert to the need to study Indigenous communities, the field was slow to recognize the need for Indigenous scholars. Now the tables are turning.
“We’re at a stage where Aboriginal people have finally managed to leverage some elbow room within the university. Reasonably enough, they’re trying to make that elbow room as big as possible and get more aboriginal people hired,” Kulchyski says. “There is an outstanding generation of aboriginal scholars emerging.”
But he worries what will happen if native studies becomes the exclusive domain of Indigenous professors. “If Aboriginal people are just talking to themselves, if we’re generous, that’s seven per cent of the population. That’s not going to achieve change,” he says.
Jeff Muehlbauer has experienced the downside of the rising Indigenous empowerment on Canadian campuses. Hired to a tenure-track position by Brandon University in 2013 with a PhD in linguistics, Muehlbauer taught Plains Cree to classes of largely Indigenous students. He lasted less than two years before packing it in and now works for a tech startup.
He says his lectures were regularly interrupted by tirades from students who questioned what right a “white man’ had to be teaching the Cree language. When he used passages in class from a woman who spoke “impeccable” Cree but had attended a Catholic residential school and become a devout Christian, he was denounced for supporting residential schools because the woman described her schooling as a positive experience.
He says faculty members seek to politicize Indigenous students, leaving non-native professors on the defensive. “With the Aboriginal student, there is no fighting back,” he wrote in a 2016 article for the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship. “You must stand at the plate and take the fastball to the face, again and again.”
Philip Salzman, an anthropology professor retiring this year from McGill University, takes exception to the confrontational dynamic that he sees shaping the Indigenization debate.
“The idea is that the rest of us are settler colonialists victimizing the Indigenous population, and therefore all kinds of measures should be taken to benefit the oppressed and the victims,” he said. He is critical of measures to favour the hiring of Indigenous professors, including at his own university, which committed last year to adding 10 new Indigenous, tenure-track faculty members within three years. That means other candidates, regardless of their talents, will not be considered for those positions. “It’s extremely illiberal to treat people according to their category and their race and their religion, rather than as individuals,” Salzman said.
The push to transform universities coincides with a time of heightened Indigenous activism in Canada flowing from the Idle No More movement. Academic appointments are seen as levers to reverse the harmful effects of colonialism.
“Advocacy is often in the eye of the beholder, but in the Indigenous studies context, much of what we do is about speaking truth to colonial power,” said Chris Andersen, dean of the faculty of native studies at the University of Alberta. At a 2011 conference looking at how to Indigenize universities, D’Arcy Vermette, now a native studies professor at the University of Alberta, said he had one recommendation: “Ensure that if you are on a hiring committee, that you hire people who see the liberation of Aboriginal peoples as their primary objective.”
Innes says it is natural for Indigenous professors to seek to help their communities, but that does mean they are cheerleaders.
“Most Indigenous scholars are explicitly working towards ways in which to improve indigenous people’s lives, whether they are literature scholars talking about novels or they are doing legal scholarship that can lead to $50-million land claims,” he said.
“For some people, that is advocacy as opposed to scholarly work. But, of course, there are very few people who become academics and say they don’t want their research to make any meaningful contribution to society. People in Indigenous studies are more explicit about that.”