Indigeneity on campus: Education and scholarship

Indigeneity on campus: Education and scholarship

Catching up with the University of Guelph’s Indigenous hires one year later

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation released the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in June 2015, containing 94 calls to action as restitution to the Indigenous populations of Canada who survived the residential school experience.

The calls to action ranged from child welfare, to education, to language and culture, to health, and legal justice.

In June 2016, the Canadian Public Opinion on Aboriginal Peoples report revealed how Indigenous people are understood, or misunderstood, by non-Indigenous Canadians.

According to the survey, 52 per cent of non-Indigenous Canadians consider Indigenous people to have “unique rights as the first inhabitants of the continent,” though another 41 per cent believe, “They are just like other cultural or ethnic groups in Canada’s multicultural society.”

The statistics vary between the prairie provinces and the other provinces and territories, and among different age demographics and socioeconomic groups.

However, 59 per cent of people surveyed acknowledge that there is a large gap between Indigenous peoples’ standard of living and that of Canadians in general.

One year ago, the University of Guelph made the commitment to hire five new Indigenous professors and provide more support to Indigenous researchers at all academic levels.

Since then, U of G hired six professors across the disciplines to join its faculty: Dr. Kim Anderson, Dr. Christopher Collier, Dr. Sheri Longboat, Dr. Brittany Luby, Dr. Melissa Perreault, and Dr. Anita Tucker. These scholars joined faculties across the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC), engineering, history, rural planning and development, family relations and applied nutrition, and molecular and cellular biology.

The Ontarion sat down with three of U of G’s Indigenous faculty hires to talk about the University’s initiative and the future of education for Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Denia Anderson

Dr. Kim Anderson

Dr. Kim Anderson, a Métis woman from Ottawa who works in Family Relations and Applied Nutrition (FRAN), was the first to be interviewed.

In 2003, Anderson was part of the community team that founded the Aboriginal Resource Centre (ARC) on campus. She completed her PhD at U of G from 2005 to 2010.

Anderson’s research interests lie in gender and Indigeneity, as well as gender and urban Indigenous people. Of the six new hires, she is currently the only professor with tenure.

“People have been asking, because I do a lot of reconciliation work, ‘What can we do?’ If we want to see change, if we want to see Indigenous students, for example, get education, we have to support them,” explained Anderson.

“We have to have mentors—people that will nurture them—but we also have to bring Indigenous ways of knowing into the academy so it’s not such a foreign environment.”

For Anderson, coming to the University as an Indigenous researcher is a success in and of itself.

“The very fact that my Métis body is sitting in this room and that I’ve been given space to be able to research, teach, and so on—that’s reconciliation,” said Anderson.

“This is stuff that was unheard of, even when I was an undergrad student, there were no Indigenous faculty, there were no Aboriginal centres, there was nothing.”

Anderson is hopeful for the future of Indigenous peoples in Canada, as equity and justice receive more media and government attention.

For Anderson, as for many others, there is still disparity between “acceptable” and actual living conditions for Indigenous peoples in Canada.

“Let’s start with clean drinking water,” said Anderson. “Let’s have water that people can drink in their communities.”

Claire Wilcox | The Ontarion

Dr. Sheri Longboat

Cue Dr. Sheri Longboat, who specializes in water security and environmental governance in Indigenous communities.

Longboat is a Haudenosaunee Mohawk from Six Nations of the Grand River. She works in U of G’s School of Environmental Design and Rural Development (SEDRD).

“At any given time, 100 of 600 communities cannot drink safe water, or don’t have access to safe water—in some of these communities, it’s been chronic,” said Longboat.

Since her arrival at U of G, Longboat has successfully created and delivered a graduate studies course in rural planning.

“It’s not a research project that you put down at the end of the day. It’s something that you live with,” said Longboat. “Your research is more than just the paper that you put out. It’s [asking], ‘How does this represent the community? How is this going to affect the future? How is this really paying respect to what we’ve learned and what we’re supposed to be doing?’”

For Longboat, the University’s hiring commitment resonates far beyond city borders.

“It indicates the institution’s position on recognizing the importance or perhaps responsibility to begin to Indigenize the institution,” said Longboat. “It’s being felt in other communities and it’s being heard.”

The initial hiring commitment, however, is just one piece in a large, complicated puzzle with a troubled legacy and much progress still to be made.

“It’s towards reconciliation,” said Longboat. “It’s setting the compass in that direction.”

Longboat has high hopes for Indigenous scholarship in Canada.

“I’m hoping this [hiring] just stimulates more. That we’ll get more master’s students who will go on to do their PhDs, and begin to emerge through the University,” said Longboat, “having that scholarship inform policy development across the disciplines.”

Scholarship and progress across the disciplines seems to be part of the University’s aim, considering that each of the new hires works in a different discipline.

Claire Wilcox | The Ontarion

Dr. Melissa Perreault

The Ontarion also spoke with Dr. Melissa Perreault, a Métis woman who works in the department of molecular and cellular biology.

Perreault’s research specializes in neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases like depression, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s.

For Perreault, the extent of her Métis identity has been a relatively recent discovery.

“I always knew that I had a background in Indigenous peoples through my mother’s side, but didn’t really find out how much so until about eight years ago when my dad told me that members of the family were applying to become citizens of the Métis Nation of Ontario, and that I had the bloodlines, and that I should do that.”

Although Perreault’s Indigeneity does not permeate into her discipline the way it does for Anderson and Longboat, she exemplifies what non-Indigenous people might overlook.

“When you look at granting agencies, there are all kinds of grant opportunities available to research Indigenous people, but there aren’t a lot of opportunities for Indigenous people. I may be an Indigenous researcher, but I don’t do Indigenous research,” said Perreault.

For Perreault, the key to attracting more Indigenous scholars (especially in science, technology, engineering, and math) lies in more outreach to inform Indigenous youth of their educational options.

“It’s about the young people getting the opportunity to get educated,” said Perreault. “If we really want to make a difference in recruiting Indigenous students, it needs to be done at the high school level. There need to be scholarships in place specifically for these groups of students.”

If anything, the hiring of six Indigenous professors has demonstrated that the national education system has much ground to cover in the coming years. But the University of Guelph’s initiative is the first of its nature, and pushes the community forward in seeking reconciliation through higher education.

Quick facts

According to the 2011 National Household Survey, 43 per cent of on-reserve First Nations households were in need of major repairs. That’s 30 per cent for Indigenous people and 13 per cent for Métis (compare to national non-Indigenous seven per cent).

A StatsCan survey, “Projections of the Aboriginal population and households in Canada, 2011 to 2036,” predicts that the national Indigenous population will grow to over two million by 2036, which will account for approximately five per cent of Canada’s population (compare to current Aboriginal population of 1.4 million).

According to a 2012 Aboriginal Peoples Survey, the proportion of Inuit aged 18 to 44 with a postsecondary education who said that they had moved to complete their education is 47 per cent. About 39 per cent of off-reserve First Nations people and 42 per cent of Métis with a postsecondary education had relocated to pursue their schooling.

According to the survey, there is no centralized child welfare system. Aboriginal children account for 48 per cent of all children in foster care, though they make up only seven per cent of all Canadian children.

The survey also reports that 77 per cent of Métis, 72 per cent of First Nations, and 42 per cent of Inuit people aged 18 to 44 possess a high school diploma or its equivalent.

Photo by Dana Bellamy/The Ontarion.