Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
A new association that brings together Indigenous senior leaders from universities across the country will be one more means to ensure scholars don’t fraudulently claim Indigenous identity.
“I don’t think the issue will disappear completely, regardless of all our efforts across the country from different universities to the national association, but I do think we’re going to have a significant impact where it will be very difficult for someone to make up something out of the blue,” said Dr. Michael Hart, co-chair of the National Indigenous University Senior Leaders’ Association (NIUSLA).
He stresses the association was not created in response to the controversy that surrounded scholar Carrie Bourassa late last year. Bourassa, who is no longer a professor in the department of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan or scientific director of the Indigenous health branch of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, had claimed Métis heritage for decades. Her claim could not be substantiated.
“I have full confidence we’ll contribute and be impactful, but … it’s not just up to the national association (to stop these claims). It’s up to the universities, and it’s up to the nations more so. We have to reinforce what the nations want in terms of self-determination in identity. It’s a concerted effort,” said Hart, a citizen of the Fisher River Cree Nation in Manitoba.
The association has been in the planning stages for one-and-a-half years, with more informal meetings having started three years ago, he said. It was officially announced this past December.
Presently, NIUSLA has almost 40 members from universities in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan, and the Yukon. Membership is open to universities and not community colleges, says Hart, because different levels of institutions face “significantly different” experiences.
It was those shared experiences of similar challenges that brought the Indigenous senior leaders in the universities together to provide support to each other and to share resources.
“(It’s the) challenges of constantly having to explain and … justify why we’re doing what we’re doing,” said Hart of the universities’ environment. Hart serves as vice-provost of the Office of Indigenous Engagement at the University of Calgary.
Hart is not surprised by the varying degrees of lack of awareness and lack of understanding of issues that pertain to Indigenous peoples among institutions and within institutions.
“Universities are a microcosm of our larger society and while we have a number of people that are well-educated and impacting our country, indeed impacting the globe, it doesn’t mean they had the opportunity or taken the opportunity to learn about their own backyards (about) Indigenous peoples,” he said.
Subjects like the history between Indigenous peoples and settlers, the experience and expressions of oppression, the intergenerational traumas caused by residential schools and the Sixties Scoop, continued marginalization and poor living conditions aren’t taught in grade school and not included in university content, said Hart.
This is the larger, broader picture the association wants to address.
It’s not only about ensuring Indigenous scholars give voice and bring personal, lived experience to programs offered in Native Studies faculties, but it’s about ensuring there are more Indigenous scholars throughout universities teaching on a wide range of topics.
“The idea is that we’re full participants in society and we have contributions to make everywhere, and through our contributions we’re going to provide positive and impactful things to the nation beyond even our own communities,” said Hart.
The association also wants to ensure Indigenous students “have a sense of presence” when on campus, in the spaces that are made available to them to practise their traditions, in the curriculum they are learning, and in the ideas that are discussed.
As for allies, it’s about building relationships.
“From my perspective, our allies are there to help create space so that we can bring forward our own knowledge, own practices, own views, own theories. That they’re there to engage and learn from these understandings, to support them, and to push back against those colonial pieces,” said Hart.
If universities are a microcosm of the larger society then perhaps the University of Calgary is a microcosm of universities.
Hart was hired three-and-a-half years ago as one of UCalgary’s initial steps to implement ii’taa’poh’to’p, the Indigenous strategy launched in November 2017.
“I’ve seen the commitment that has been put forward by the university. There are different units at different places (of change), so I do see units needing to do far more work than they’re doing. But in the time of austerity that our province is facing, our university and the cutbacks, we recognize that there’s still a commitment there to figure out how to manage the commitment in light of other areas being cut back,” said Hart.
The strategy is in place for five to seven years.
Hart is quick to point out the challenge lies in understanding changes are “a marathon …not a sprint.”
With that in mind, Hart says although the association is only in the beginning stages, he believes it has already had an impact on the ground.
“People are coming together to share experiences so a voice … within institutions is recognized as having another degree of legitimacy. They’re not just speaking on their own. They’re speaking with some experience and knowledge that is tied to other places as well,” said Hart.
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.