Indigenization Reading Circle Notebook: “The Four R’s – Respect, Relevance, Reciprocity, Responsibility”

The FAUW Indigenization Reading Circle meets monthly to discuss readings relating to Indigenization and reconciliation in the university context.

At the October 4, 2019, session of our Indigenization Reading Circle, we asked what we can learn about universities by shifting our focus toward the experience of Indigenous students as they attend universities in Canada (or the United States). In “First Nations and Higher Education: The Four R’s – Respect, Relevance, Reciprocity, Responsibility,” Verna Kirkness and Ray Barnhardt argue that the underrepresentation of Indigenous students in universities and their comparably lower completion rates reflect the systemic tension between universities and the lives of Indigenous peoples. The authors’ programme for reforming universities is built around ‘The Four R’s’.

Showing respect for Indigenous students will require an examination of what kinds of knowledge count. Ensuring universities are relevant to Indigenous communities will necessitate ongoing conversations around how education fits into their life-worlds. For the relationships within universities to be reciprocal, the roles of teachers and learners must be reconsidered. As with other transformations in inter-nation relationships (governance, public welfare and justice, resource management), sharing control of universities with Indigenous communities is key to Indigenous communities being responsible participants.

This month’s circle opened with a discussion of its own rationale. Is the participation of Indigenous people in the circle essential to learning about how universities could better serve Indigenous communities and work to repudiate their colonial heritage? Participants suggested that Indigenous members of the university already face disproportionate demands on their time during the current period of societal interest in reconciliation. Nevertheless, settlers/visitors/arrivants must commit to being honest about the deceits that can arise through presuming to understand subjects who are not present (Indigenous, racialized, dis-empowered).

Is the participation of Indigenous people in the circle essential to learning about how universities could better serve Indigenous communities?

The presence of math recruitment staff (Indigenous and settlers) shifted the circle’s focus away from decolonizing-the-curriculum concerns and toward the very real institutional obstacles to Indigenous people accessing programs in STEM fields. Is ‘our’ university open to revisiting merit-based criteria that are culturally biased? If the pattern of development in a student’s aptitudes reflects the communities in which they are formed, then using a single standard that has a track record of predicting success specifically among settler-community students might create barriers to Indigenous students joining programs that they otherwise see as possessing intellectual, practical, or economic value.

Participants from the humanities and social sciences placed greater emphasis on the question, “What is the university a centre for?” Kirkness and Barnhardt critique the teacher/student dichotomy, which presumes a uni-directional process of knowledge-transfer and a separation of knowledge production from the learning environment. Instructors wrestled with how to change this teaching model when they are evaluated according to how well they perform as experts (publishing, lecturing, etc). Others responded that early career instructors could draw upon UWaterloo’s support for experiential learning as they try to secure employment and reform their practices.

University education involves some level of acculturation. Enabling disciplined, transformative inquiry remains as a project of universities. One participant asserted that claiming authority in the learning relationship appeared necessary when guiding students through controversial topics. How could the method of directing discussion become a point of reflection and an opportunity for sharing Indigenous practices of learning?

The big takeaway: Engaging Indigenous communities and university members in revising entrance processes, learning practices, and learning objectives is critical to redressing the knowledge-devaluing, relevance-presuming, authoritarian, and exclusive structure of universities.

The reading circle meets again on November 29 to learn about the concept of two-eyed seeing.


Ryan George wrote this blog post. Ryan is one of the coordinators of the Indigenization Reading Circle and a lecturer in the Department of Economics.


Verna J. Kirkness and Ray Barnhardt (2001), “First Nations and Higher Education: The Four R’s – Respect, Relevance, Reciprocity, Responsibility” in Knowledge Across Cultures: A Contribution to Dialogue Among Civilizations. R. Hayoe and J. Pan. Hong Kong, Comparative Education Research Centre, The University of Hong Kong.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.