Decolonizing the Mind: Indigenous Knowledge in the University

Jennifer Bonder

The Walter Gordon Symposium is an annual conference co-hosted by the School of Public Policy and Governance and Massey College. In the lead up to the 2016 Walter Gordon Symposium, students, speakers, faculty, and community members are invited to share their reflections on the theme of reconciliation between Canada and its Indigenous Peoples in the aftermath of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its calls to action. The symposium will take place on March 22 and March 23, 2016.

The Truth and Reconciliation report had 94 recommendations, including mandating Aboriginal studies for Canadian students from kindergarten through grade 12. But what about educating Canadians at the post-secondary level? Beginning next fall, undergraduate students at the University of Winnipeg and Lakehead University will be required to take an Indigenous culture or history course before graduating. This has prompted debates and petitions at campuses nationwide, lobbying for the adoption of such a policy. Even as a student of Canadian history, I never had to take such a course at either the undergraduate, Master’s, or doctoral levels. Is a mandatory Indigenous course what reconciliation in this country looks like? To answer this question, we need to start by looking back to when college campuses were havens of peace, love, and rock ‘n’ roll…

Across Europe and North America, the 1960s student protests were movements for social change that, for the most part, disguised racial, gender, and ethnic divides. In Canada, students challenged the in loco parentis authority of administrators and demanded greater student representation within the governing structures of their universities. During the winter of 1968-69, student occupations, boycotts, and vandalism occurred at Simon Fraser University, the University of Saskatchewan, Université de Moncton, Sir George Williams University, and Laurentian University. But by the 1970s, whether for Quebec nationalism, women’s or Aboriginal rights, students were again identifying themselves based on their culture, language, and experiences.

During this time, the Native nationalist movement gained force and focused attention on Aboriginal rights and the struggles of First Nations. In search for a distinct identity, Native youth took to the roads during the 1970s looking for freedom, ceremonies, and traditional teachings. Native youth were part of the larger transient Canadian phenomenon in which nearly 100,000 students, hippies, and draft-dodgers escaped the cities and travelled across the country every summer. In response to the massive proportion of the movement, Pierre Trudeau’s government created a national hostel program investing more than half a million dollars to create make-shift accommodations, some in old railway cars. The interactions between Canadian youths and their teachings during these trips helped create a generation of politicized and aware students.

The publication of new government reports added impetus to the Native nationalist movement. After the 1951 amendments to the Indian Act, section 88 outlined the concept of general applicability whereby, in the absence of federal law, provincial laws would apply. Whether jurisdictional responsibility for post-secondary education applies to the federal or provincial governments has been historically unclear. While legal responsibility for status Indians in Canada – including their primary and secondary schooling – rests with the federal government, the Indian Act is silent on the provision of higher education. The 1966 Hawthorn Report on Indian Conditions in Canada labelled Natives as the most severely disadvantaged group in the country and advocated for increased education and decreased segregation. Two years later, the Hall-Dennis report on Ontario’s education recommended that at least one Ontario university establish a special institute for Canadian Indian studies. Then, in 1969, the Trudeau government’s White Paper was released. To mitigate segregation and integrate Aboriginals as equal citizens, the White Paper called for the abolishment of the Indian Act, which defined the federal government’s relationship to First Nations people and Aboriginal identity, status, and treaty rights. Instead of solving the so-called Aboriginal question, the White Paper instead ignited Native groups to fight to preserve their languages and customs.

Together, these conditions gave rise to the initial interest in Native affairs in higher education circles. In 1969, the first Native Studies program opened at Trent University. After graduating from Victoria College in the University of Toronto, Reverend Edward Newbery was determined to launch a similar program in Northern Ontario. He envisioned an interdisciplinary program that would encourage Aboriginal university attendance, foster Aboriginal culture, strengthen Native life, and train future Indigenous leaders. Critics argued that, at best, the program was merely make-work for the Department of Indian Affairs, and, at worst, did not meet post-secondary standards. In response, students protested inside the Laurentian University library carrying signs that boldly stated “Native People Live Native Studies Lives,” and explained that “Indian Culture is a Way of Life” and that their courses were “Academic Excellence with Spiritual Insights.” The founding director of Trent’s program concluded that these controversies were based in the dichotomy between the academic and spiritual philosophies of education. Newbery eventually saw his vision through, as Native Studies at Laurentian developed from a single course to an institute, and finally to a department by 1975.

Northwest of Montreal, Manitou Community College was founded in 1973 by the Department of Indian Affairs and offered an Indian curriculum as well as technical and college-level courses. Modeled after Navajo Community College in Arizona, Manitou was supposed to provide education opportunities for adults. Yet low enrollment made it hard to justify federal funding dollars. Amongst protests, the College was closed over Christmas just three years after its opening.

The next attempt at an Aboriginal controlled institution came in 1976, with the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, later renamed the First Nations University of Canada. Founded through an agreement between the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and the University of Regina, this independently administered university college was designed to follow a Native governance and teaching structure with a curriculum of Indigenous philosophies and history. The First Nations University of Canada, with its main campus in Regina and satellites in Saskatoon and Prince Albert, is the only Aboriginal-based and entirely Aboriginally staffed university in the country. However, since gaining university status in 2003, the school has suffered management and spending scandals and has been unable to expand with new initiatives such as international programs or doctoral degrees.

Renewed interest in Indigenous affairs began in 1994 with the founding of the Aboriginal Studies program at the University of Toronto. Today, Canadian universities appear to be experiencing a new wave of interest in Aboriginal history, culture, and language. Academics debate the role of education in the movement for Aboriginal rights. Cree-Sailteaux scholar Blair Stonechild considers higher education to be the “new buffalo” that will ensure a strong and prosperous future for First Nations. In his interpretation of Aboriginal schooling in Canada, education has developed from paternalism, to integration in the postwar period, and now to an Aboriginal determination to increase their participation in the post-secondary arena.

Education has always been subject to the divisive forces of discourse and ideology between Western and Indigenous ways of knowing. Elder Michael Thrasher has explained that these differences are based in the processes of knowledge and understanding. In the mainstream Eurocentric model, awareness leads to knowledge, and then understanding and wisdom follow. In the Indigenous framework, understanding is necessary before knowledge or wisdom become possible. Western education is also based on individual learning, where understanding comes from books and written texts. Conversely, Indigenous knowledge is collective and relies on oral testimony, and thus its authenticity comes from the community and from relationships. Both ways of knowing have lessons the other can learn from. But for many elders, this divide between individuality and communal power is one of many factors preventing Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relations from embracing nation-to-nation interactions.

The rise of the Native nationalist movement in the 1970s sparked protest and debate for the preservation of Aboriginal traditions and culture. Still, according to the 2001 Canadian census, only 20 per cent of the Aboriginal female population aged 20 to 24 achieved a post-secondary education, compared to 45 per cent of the total female population. Similarly, while 34 per cent of the same male age group achieved a post-secondary degree, only 19 per cent of Aboriginal males earned such qualifications. This gap in post-secondary education between the Aboriginal and total populations will not close without action. If the seventies sparked the movement, there is still a long way to go. As Manitou College and the First Nations University of Canada have showed, Aboriginal controlled post-secondary institutions have not met with great success, but Aboriginal education within mainstream institutions is growing. Successful Native Studies departments also bring Indigenous scholars, Native students’ associations, and open up the hive of social and cultural activities they entail for the entire university community. Education represents an opportunity to bridge Western and Indigenous knowledge and relations. This sounds like a course where we could all learn a lot.


Jennifer is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Toronto studying Canadian foreign policy, and a Junior Fellow at Massey College and The Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History.


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