Take-aways from the 2018 CAUT Aboriginal Academic Staff Conference

Karen Sunabacka is an Associate Professor of Music at Conrad Grebel University College. This past October, FAUW sponsored her to attend the Canadian Association of University Teachers’ Aboriginal Academic Staff Conference.

The 2018 conference theme was “Advancing Indigenization,” and plenary topics included: new Indigenous scholars, advancing Indigenous academic staff, Indigenizing the academy, Indigenous knowledge, and the state of Indigenous Studies programs in Canada.

After the conference, Karen sat down with FAUW’s Indigenization Working Group to share her reflections on the conference. She was gracious enough to answer a few questions for us to share with members of our broader community.

What were your expectations or hopes going into the conference?

As a Métis scholar and musician, I was hoping to meet other Indigenous academic staff and hear how Indigenization was going at other institutions in Canada.

What was your biggest take-away?

Indigenization means different things to different groups of people. I was surprised to learn about the differences between the ways University administrations tend to think of Indigenization and the ways individual faculty and/or faculty groups are approaching Indigenization. Faculty are looking at ways to incorporate Indigenous Knowledge into the curriculum, they are thinking about incorporating Indigenization into different ways of teaching, and they are looking at organizational structures and how to differently arrange the University structure as a whole (some talk about this as “Decolonizing” the University). Whereas Administrations tend to think of Indigenization as simply having more diversity of faculty, staff, and students.

Who attended the conference? Who do you think should attend?

The conference was attended mostly by Indigenous academic staff and students, as well as academic allies. I think there should be a priority on Indigenous academic staff and students, as it was a good way to find support. As a Métis woman from Manitoba (and new to southern Ontario) I found it particularly helpful to make connections across Canada. But I also think it is good for academic allies to attend, as it does help those who want to support Indigenous issues to get a sense of where things are in terms of Indigenization and Indigenous-related issues at Canadian Universities.

Did the conference change your mind about anything? How did it help shift your thinking on that issue?

Before the conference I had thought it would be a good thing to require all undergraduate students at a Canadian University to take a course about Indigenous issues in Canada or an Introduction to Indigenous Studies. However, at the conference we heard from a faculty member from the University of Winnipeg, where this type of requirement was implemented. Unfortunately, this had a negative impact on the Indigenous Studies program, mostly because more Indigenous faculty were not hired. Instead, the Indigenous Studies department went from a strong and thriving department offering numerous courses to a department that is now providing a service to the University. The full-time faculty spend most of their time teaching the intro course and have very little time for upper level courses (and the upper level courses with small enrollments are being cancelled.) The University didn’t hire new tenure-track faculty, so sessionals (or part-time Indigenous faculty) are filling the extra needs.

I think if a University requires all undergraduate students to take an intro to Indigenous studies course, it should also be required to hire tenure-track faculty to help support this new requirement. But I would want to look more fully at this issue before I would make a recommendation of this kind.

Do Indigenous faculty across the country describe similar experiences and challenges, or is there regional variation? Were there other ways in which experiences varied across Canada?

Mostly there are similar issues. There are, however, some regions that are further ahead with Indigenization and who can offer good advice to the regions or Universities that are well behind. (The University of Waterloo is years—or really, decades—behind in terms of Indigenization). Funding is a big issue everywhere—although where there is a determination to support Indigenization and Indigenous scholars, things are better.  

Did you learn about any new resources that you want to share with FAUW members?

A fantastic article about Indigenization that everyone should read is Adam Gaudry and Danielle Lorenz’s “Indigenization as Inclusion, reconciliation, and decolonization: navigating the different visions for indigenizing the Canadian Academy,” published in AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples. 2018, Vol 14(3).

I also was interested by a new resource for sharing stories online: the National Centre for Collaboration in Indigenous Education to help communities share their stories (NCCIE.ca).

Did you get any ideas about things that we can do here?

The following are the main ideas I took from the conference, some of which I think FAUW members could help implement or promote at UWaterloo:

  1. Always focus on building meaningful relationships.
  2. Be mindful about Indigenization efforts you take. In general, we need to push for Indigenous control of Indigenous Education – the worst six words in Canadian History are “We are here to help you.”
  3. Keep fighting for the basics that support all faculty but are especially important for Indigenous scholars: defending academic jobs, push against the growth of managerial systems and the tendency to only hire Indigenous staff on a part-time basis, etc (to be productive, academics need stability, support and infrastructure that full-time faculty have).
  4. Make sure there are Indigenous voices at the table—this means there must be more Indigenous tenure-track faculty.
  5. As scholars and teachers, recognize Indigenous Knowledge, community learning, and the excessive workloads of Indigenous scholars who whose work in their communities is a major part of their work and who they are. Our Memorandum of Agreement could also include language around this recognition.
  6. Think about how your Faculty, or department/school’s tenure and promotion guidelines might discriminate against Indigenous scholars. Scholars and Elders are hired for their expertise and incorporated into the University’s promotional system. Trent University’s Indigenous Department has three categories of scholars and Elders. The scholar chooses the category in which they fit, and there are different tenure requirements depending for each. Many scholars and Elders have achieved tenure at Trent University with this system. Other Elders are the peer assessors when an Elder is up for Tenure.
    • Indigenous Scholars with typical PhD degree from a University
    • Indigenous Scholars with Traditional Knowledge
    • Dual Tradition scholars

Other University-level initiatives that FAUW might advocate for include:

  • A paid Elder Council to advise on Indigenization and Indigenous Education. Partnership educational programs that help students stay in their communities.
  • Supporting language development in Indigenous communities, for all ages. Language retention or reconnection is an important part of healing, wellbeing, and resilience.
  • Free tuition for Indigenous students. In BC, this is being considered at all major universities; there is a precedent there because children who have been in the foster system get free tuition.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

We all need to work more on building meaningful relationships. It is not Indigenous people who have to change; Canada and Canadian society need to change. Reconciliation is not just the work of Indigenous people; it is the work of everyone.

We’d like to thank Karen for these great reflections. On Karen’s recommendation, the Working Group’s Indigenization Reading Circle read the Gaudry and Lorenz article. We found it to provide a helpful framework for thinking broadly about Indigenization in the academy, and more specifically about the concrete ideas that Karen brought forward from the conference.

If you’d like to stay up-to-date on FAUW’s Indigenization efforts and related events on campus, email laura.mcdonald@uwaterloo.ca to join our Indigenization mailing list.

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