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Paving the way to Indigenizing Concordia

by The Concordian February 18, 2020
Paving the way to Indigenizing Concordia

“These Indigenous teachers, they’ve overcome all those barriers all through their lives, in high school and going through university,” said Director of Concordia First Peoples Studies, Cathy Richardson/Kinewesquao. “It shows that they’ve really advanced themselves through education and they are ready to step up, and take on these leadership roles.”

In January, Concordia became the first university in Quebec to offer an Indigenous program, strictly taught by Indigenous people.

The First Peoples Studies, which was created nearly a decade ago, currently has 117 students, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. The program, which includes courses on language, culture and history, offers knowledge on Indigenous social and political issues.

While it used to be only Richardson/Kinewesquao, Dr. Louellyn White, a Mohawk woman from Akwesasne and Dr. Elizabeth Fast, with Métis and Mennonite ancestry teaching, the FPST program can now count three new Indigenous part-time teachers and two Indigenous teaching assistants.

When Richardson/Kinewesquao was hired last June, part of her mission was to Indigenize Concordia.

“What we typically find in universities are scholars, anthropologists, historians with different backgrounds teaching about Indigenous people,” she said. “What we want are Indigenous people with their own life experiences, with their people and community, with an Indigenous worldview and perspective. We want them to teach, because the pedagogy and delivery are also Indigenous, not just the content, to get away from that; not to only talk about them, but to teach about me, and us and we.”

This change also came as a result of many complaints from students, but also from across the board, said Richardson/Kinewesquao.

“We had quite a lot of complaints in the past about teaching style or things a teacher said, not knowing they weren’t saying the right thing,” she said. “But you don’t know what you don’t know. I do think the complaints, from an Indigenous point of view, were justified. I met with students and heard what wasn’t going well, but it takes time and we are trying.”

Autumn Godwin, a student in the FPST program, has experienced first-hand the lack of Indigenous teachers and the colonial roots of the curriculum within the department.

“[Indigenous faculty and staff] are an amazing team, super supportive but they’re stretched thin,” said Godwin. “I’m grateful for Concordia doing this, I just wish to see that we have a little bit more support when it comes to having more land-based programs and bringing in more future [scholar] talks but again, we’re stretched thin.”

One of the things that Richardson/Kinewesquao is currently working on, from now until the summer, is reviewing the FPST curriculum. The department created a review committee, with all but one member being Indigenous.

“The world turns, it’s really different than what it was 10 years ago,” she said. “We need to have more courses on land rights, on LGBTQ2+ (Two Spirits) issues. We need to talk more about the ceremonies, the environment and human rights.”

Universities across Canada have been responding to calls for action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, but having a university as supportive as Concordia makes a difference, Richardson/Kinewesquao believes.

“When I started, I had a community already. I had the people from the Aboriginal Students Research Centre, I got Donna Goodleaf in the Teaching and Learning Centre, and Manon Tremblay in Indigenous Direction. The people in the School of Community and Public Affairs are very helpful and supportive, even the Dean has been very supportive of me, so I feel like I’m well held-up and it’s gonna be okay moving ahead. But it’s always going to be slow when you work in a big institution, in a big university, we have lots of little barriers to overcome.”

Obstacles 

During an event titled Four Directional – Four-Chair Panel hosted as part of First Voices Week on Feb. 4, students, Indigenous elders and faculty discussed how colonialism is still prevalent in education today and how it continues to affect both students’ and educators’ lives.

Many will find out, to their dismay, that despite Concordia’s most significant efforts to decolonize its curriculum, the school remains subject to a sizable amount of criticism, which universities face nationwide.

“Indigenizing the curriculum [at Concordia] benefits both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students,” said Director of Decolonizing Curriculum and Pedagogy, Donna Kahérakwas Goodleaf. “Every student can gain from an enriched educational experience.”

Goodleaf, who recently served as Concordia’s interim senior director of Indigenous directions, is now in charge of advising and making suggestions to faculty on how they can integrate the recommendations set out in the IDAP, which emerged in 2019 in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations.

She stresses that students need to be the ones to ask themselves what kind of education they want to receive, emphasizing that they have more power than they realize, and that they have to “take ownership of [their] educational curriculum.”

“I think it’s great, especially for the Haudenosaunee class where you have a Haudenosaunee woman teaching it,” said Godwin. “You have that matrimonial aspect that’s included as well.”

Although much progress has been made in the FPST program, a significant amount of work remains in other faculty departments.

“I’m getting all these invitations now from these different faculties,” said Goodleaf. “But I’m like an after-thought.” She paused as the audience took this information in; a remark that left the room in breathless silence. Goodleaf went on to say that in order to decolonize these events, Indigenous peoples have to be invited to participate in their creation.

The director emphasized that including the voices of First Nations peoples, Métis and Inuit on every level is crucial in order to decolonize academia––in other words, an invitation will not be sufficient.

Elder Vicky Boldo, from the Aboriginal Student Resource Centre, said that, like Goodleaf, she too noticed that faculty members would invite her to events but would never involve her in the actual planning of the event. Boldo, who is an adoptee from the ‘60s Scoop Era, pointed out that her Cree/Métis heritage did not make her a “spokesperson for multiculturalism,” and that faculty members should consider doing more than just inviting Indigenous peoples to fill seats.

 

 

 

 

Text by Virginie Ann & Laurence Brisson Dubreuil

Photos by Laurence Brisson Dubreuil

Graphic by Florence Yee

 

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