What is being called a landmark agreement between Canadian universities and aboriginal communities was signed at Concordia last week for the promotion of programs that better reflect indigenous people and allow First Nations to have a voice in the framework and method of their education.
The Accord on Indigenous Education is intended to lead to the development of teaching methods catered to the specific cultural needs of the large aboriginal population of Canada. The eight-page document outlines the goals of the agreement, which include creating respectful and welcoming learning environments and curriculae, as well as affirming and revitalizing indigenous languages.
Tasha Hubbard, a PhD graduate from Calgary University and a member of the Cree Nation, is just one of many indigenous Canadians who faced difficulties in her post-secondary education. She said she sometimes found her university studies as an aboriginal woman and single mother difficult. While trying to pursue studies in First Nation Literature, she faced roadblocks that prevented her from studying.
Hubbard often felt isolated in her department. “I felt like I was the only one,” Hubbard said, referring to her aboriginal origins.
She explained that there were educators who wanted to help, but they had no knowledge of how to build a learning space in a deeply colonial-rooted education system where many aboriginal students feel ill at ease.
“In many situations we feel like we are by ourselves and who is going to support us?” Hubbard asked, noting that the effect of the residential school system is still deeply ingrained in the memory of aboriginal learners. With the last residential school closing in 1996, Hubbard continues, many communities are mistrustful of universities and only eight per cent of aboriginal students proceed and complete some form of higher education.
Daniel Heath Justice, a PhD graduate from the University of Toronto and a member of the Cherokee Nation, reiterated Hubbard’s words. He believes that for aboriginal students to feel welcomed in education, universities must value the First Nation culture at the same level as their own.
“Let’s not call for inclusion, because inclusion is to say we are making a contribution to someone else’s story,” Justice said.
He instead wants universities to accept that aboriginal students have a history and culture of their own and should thus have a place in the education system where they can study without being judged.
Justice explained that this is not simply a problem for aboriginal students to solve, but that it also requires the assistance of everyone in the learning community.
The signing of the accord between universities and indigenous people hopes to provide a deeper mutual respect and an educational working partnership.
“Heal wounds of oppression by engaging and placing higher expectations,” Justice said.
The agreement occured during the 79th annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, held at Concordia in late May and early June. The signing of the accord was attended by Concordia president Judith Woodsworth, and aboriginal leaders like Mike Delisle, the Grand Chief of Kahnawake, as well as many educators.