Maclean’s: How schools across Canada are bringing Indigenous knowledge to the fore
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a report that outlined 94 calls to action for the Canadian government. More than a dozen directly addressed shortcomings in the education system, from elementary school to post-secondary. “Institutions of higher learning are getting it: Indigenous knowledge is valid knowledge,” says Charlene Bearhead, education lead for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba. Here are some schools doing exemplary work.
University of Manitoba, Winnipeg
Native studies, three- or four-year B.A.
From April to September in 2012, Leo Baskatawang walked from Vancouver to Ottawa with a copy of the Indian Act chained to his waist. A veteran of the Iraq war, he called it “March 4 Justice,” and he was protesting both the existence of the Act and the lack of Indigenous representation in Parliament. Then 33, he’d come a long way since quitting university. “After I dropped out in the second year of my undergraduate program, I had feelings of shame and guilt; I felt like I had become the very statistic I had read about Indigenous peoples in textbooks.”
So he joined the U.S. army. “That military experience equipped me with the life skills I needed to succeed in school.” He later returned to take the Native studies program at the U of M, completing a bachelor’s degree and a master’s, and is now pursuing a Ph.D.
Niigaan Sinclair, associate professor and acting head of the department, says many students go on to work for Indigenous non-profit organizations and advocacy groups. “In this atmosphere of resource extraction and climate change, it’s only natural that once you learn about Native studies, you want to take action.”
In 2008, Belinda Nicholson, then 26, was at U of M studying science and considering a nursing program; one of the requirements was a Native studies course. She had enjoyed her courses to that point, but felt disconnected from the material. Completing Native studies inspired her to change her major. Although Nicholson, a graduate student and co-president of the Native Studies Graduate Student Association, is not Indigenous, she was deeply moved by the program, which covered everything from residential schools to the lack of clean water in Canada’s Indigenous communities. “My Native studies class changed everything for me. It was the first time I’ve felt so personally drawn to a course’s topics, and so horrified of the things I had not known as a Canadian.”
In 2013, she graduated with an advanced double major in Native studies and psychology. From psychology, she gained an understanding of basic human behaviour, and from Native studies, she says, a critical eye for privilege, race and racism.