Wpg Free Press: Mandatory course in Indigenous culture promotes tolerance
The following is an Op-Ed written by Frank Deer, an assistant professor and director of Indigenous initiatives in the Faculty of Education. It was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Feb. 19, 2015.
History is important. Not just for the sake of filling some time in school. Not just for giving historians something to do. It’s important for us all in our shared journey of discovering moral truth in our world. Knowing events of the past can guide, inspire, and give us pause to consider and reconsider how we think, feel and act.
Perhaps most important for me is how history allows me to better understand the people with whom I share this world. As Benjamin Disraeli once intimated, history is principally biography — it is the stories of people.
Canada is, broadly speaking, a transcultural society. The merging and melding of histories, traditions and worldviews of people from around the world are lending to the development of a Canada that is, essentially, transcultural. Some communities may believe they are culturally homogenous, but immigration, foreign workers, social media and other factors have brought the presence of other peoples’ ethno-cultural backgrounds into our lives in a multitude of ways.
We may hide from this phenomenon. We may even resent it. But this is the society in which we co-exist. A significant part of Canadian society is our First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.
Recently, the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association circulated a letter stating their desire for a new campus-wide requirement for all undergraduate students in order to graduate, namely the successful completion of one course (three credit hours) with a focus on Indigenous content. Indigenous history, culture and experience were the principal referents in the UWSA statement.
The University of Winnipeg has strived to be inclusive of the Canadian Indigenous experience. There are benefits for us all with this sort of institutional initiative. It has increased the entry to and successful completion of university programs by Indigenous peoples; campuses may be sites of mutual understanding and appreciation amongst all students; and, successful university experiences for Indigenous students may lead to increased participation in the labour market.
But there is a more fundamental issue that may merit discussion. The University of Winnipeg is home to a growing number of Indigenous students, but that is one portion of their undergraduate student population. So one may ask: Would an Indigenous-content requirement be relevant for all students regardless of their respective ancestries?
This is where the UWSA statement may lead to valuable discussion. The UWSA cites “commitment to increasing access to post-secondary education for Indigenous learners.” As noble as this commitment may be, the intent of the UWSA statement may be understood as a benefit for all students. We need equality in our learning experiences, but little of the Canadian Indigenous experience has been a part of the history made available to us compared to that of non-Indigenous peoples. We need balanced public consciousness, yet Indigenous issues are too frequently fraught with tension, despair and resentment. And initiatives such as the one suggested by UWSA would help us to live harmoniously, with mutual recognition across cultural groups.
Making this course required of students will not end racist attitudes, but it may rightfully be seen as a means of affecting the transcultural dialogue amongst Manitobans. Not only can this be one of the few developments that have affected public discourse in this area, but in professional areas such as education, social work, health and law, the potential benefits may be crucial.
When I first entered university 20 years ago, initiatives such as this in a large university were unheard of. The UWSA should be applauded for their initiative. After all, the Canadian Indigenous experience is a part of our shared history.