Text reads "A year of national collaborative dialogues. Indigenous Initiatives in Canadian Universities"

April 7, 2021

UCalgary co-hosts pan-Canadian discussion on Indigenous initiatives in education

Vice-Provost of Indigenous Engagement Michael Hart hosts April 14 event designed to forge synergies, share learnings, and build connections between Indigenous academic leaders

Universities across the country are stepping forward to address the Calls to Action presented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, developing programs that include Indigenous knowledge and traditions into formal university academic programming. Many of these initiatives have been implemented in isolation with limited interconnection between institutions.

A Year of National Collaborative Dialogues – Indigenous Initiatives in Canadian Universities aims to counter this, by forging synergies, sharing learnings, and building connections between Indigenous academic leaders across Canada and the initiatives they lead.

Dr. Michael Hart, vice-provost of Indigenous engagement at UCalgary, will host the first of these conversations in a discussion titled: Elevating Indigenous Knowledge Programs in University Landscapes. According to Dr. Hart, “This event is built on community, collaboration, mutual support and self-determination. It is about initiating the crucial conversations that need to take place to help our institutions move toward reconciliation. While UCalgary is honored to host the first conversation, going forward, other universities are encouraged to add to the discussion and host a dialogue that will contribute to the collaboration.”

The discussion Elevating Indigenous Knowledge Programs in University Landscapes features:

  • Dr. John Burrows, University of Victoria, Law
  • Dr. Kathy Absolon, Wilfrid Laurier University, Social Work
  • Dr. Yvonne Poitras Pratt, University of Calgary, Education

“I am encouraged by the work being done to include Indigenous programming at Canadian universities across the country and here at UCalgary,” says Dr. Hart. “Following the launch of our Indigenous Strategy ii’ taa’poh’to’p, we’ve implemented many initiatives that supported our journey toward truth and reconciliation. This includes honouring Indigenous peoples’ stories, knowledges and traditions. If we are going to do this well, we need to look at how we have created and will create space to include Indigenous practices, creativity, perspectives and experiences in each of our programs.”

About the event

One professor who is demonstrating innovative ways to celebrate Indigenous knowledge is UCalgary’s Dr. Yvonne Poitras Pratt, associate professor at the Werklund School of Education. One aspect of Dr. Poitras Pratt’s research focuses on ways to revitalize oral traditions. She has digitized storytelling and used other multimedia tools to foster inter-generational learning within Métis communities. The educational tools include learning outcomes from the perspective of the community, bridging Indigenous knowledge traditions into a formal westernized system.

Teach students to personally play a role

“It is important we protect our history, our knowledge and our traditions, and that we pass on our culture inter-generationally.” says Dr. Poitras Pratt. “To mend relations, we must build awareness of our colonial past. We have to ask ourselves, as Canadians, are we going to allow injustices to replicate, or are we going to work together to end racism? As a scholar, I hope my tools and approach to teaching in the classroom helps my students think about how they want to personally play a role in reconciliation.”

Dr. John Borrows is an academic and jurist. He is a professor at the University of Victoria Faculty of Law where he heads the world’s first trans-systemic Indigenous/common law degree. Students receive a traditional Canadian law degree that includes (not limited to) harm, consent, tort, contract and obligations modules. Building on this, students view different aspects of law through an Indigenous lens and learn about how these considerations are addressed according to Indigenous laws from the perspective of Cree, Ojibwe, Tsihqot’in, Salish and Gitxsan nations. Additionally, students participate in two four-month field courses to truly understand first-hand the applications and meanings behind the Indigenous laws.

Take lead from Indigenous peoples

“Standards for acting and making decisions can flow from Indigenous communities outward,” says Dr. Borrows. “Our laws do not take sufficient guidance from Indigenous peoples, but they should. It is in fact a combination of common and civil and Indigenous laws that guide our society. This program is important as it recognizes how Indigenous law is part of the foundation of today’s legal structure.”

Associate professor Kathy Absolon from Wilfrid Laurier University is a leader ensuring Indigenous knowledge is central to the curriculum in the Indigenous Field of Study MSW social work program. These learning experiences are steeped in ceremony, circle work and the presence of medicines, making the approach to teaching and learning wholistic and transformative. Additionally, she is the director of the Centre of Indigegogy and since 2017 has offered a Decolonizing Certificate for educators and an Indigenous Educators in Indigegogy Certificate.

Meet wholistic needs of Indigenous communities

“The Indigenous field of study is one of a few programs in Canada that employs Indigenous knowledge, Indigenous Elders, educators and prioritized Indigenous students who want to gain an MSW degree that situates social work in contexts of colonial violence, trauma and genocide,” says Dr. Absolon. “The program has been created by Indigenous faculty for Indigenous graduate students who are seeking an education that is relevant and responsive to the wholistic needs of Indigenous communities.”

Dr. Absolon continues, “Education has been a strong arm of colonization in re-socializing the minds of all peoples. Education has played a role in the colonial erasure of Indigenous peoples and the truth of Canadian history of colonization and its impact on the lives of Indigenous peoples. This program disrupts the colonial education and restores truth telling, healing and learning. It is one of its kind in Canada and picks up the important work of decolonizing mainstream social work education while re-centering, restoring and re-building Indigenous peoples’ history, knowledge and experiences.”