University of Winnipeg undergraduates can choose from 60 courses, ranging from indigenous treaties to womens history, to fulfill new course requirement
Three years ago, Rorie Mcleod Arnould was shocked when he heard that on his university campus, two indigenous students witnessed their peers laughing at an elder as she gave a blessing at a convocation ceremony.
Mcleod Arnould, then a politics student and the vice-president of the University of Winnipeg Students Association, was even more startled when he spoke with members of the schools Aboriginal Students Council and heard many more experiences of racism on campus.
It was an awakening moment, says Mcleod Arnould, 26.
The incident spurred him and other students to action to make their campus inclusive of indigenous students and have a consequential effect on their education. Our minds went to what would be the most ambitious project we could undertake?
The answer to that question goes into effect this fall, when every new undergraduate student at the University of Winnipeg must meet an indigenous course requirement to graduate. Lakehead University, in Thunder Bay, Ontario, is also introducing an indigenous content requirement this fall for new undergraduate students, making the two universities the first in Canada to mandate a baseline knowledge about indigenous people and culture for all students, regardless of faculty.
It feels good to learn about our own history, says Kevin Settee, an Anishinaabe and Cree student who is president of the University of Winnipeg Students Association.
So far, there are 60 courses approved or in development that students can take to fulfill the requirement, ranging from a course on indigenous people and treaties, to an indigenous womens history class.
For Settee, his experience taking an optional native studies class at his high school in downtown Winnipeg, a city home to Canadas largest urban aboriginal population, motivated him to advocate for mandatory indigenous classes.
The class marked the first time Settee wanted to go to school and learn. I thought if I can learn this kind of stuff in university, Im going to stay on my educational journey, says the 25-year-old.
Settee considers the indigenous course requirement equally important for non-indigenous students. Its an opportunity for people to wake up a little bit, he says. No matter what field youre going to be working in, youre going to be interacting with indigenous people. Everyone needs to have that baseline understanding of history and culture.
The adoption of mandatory indigenous courses at two Canadian universities comes as indigenous issues are increasingly in the spotlight in the country. Since Justin Trudeaus election victory last October, helped in part by a record number of indigenous voters, issues plaguing First Nations have been a focus of the new government.
Were at this point in time in Canada, particularly following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where Canadians understand theres been something structurally and terribly wrong with the relationship with indigenous peoples and we need to change it, says Peggy Smith, an associate professor in the faculty of natural resources management at Lakehead University.
For the past 15 years, Smith has taught a mandatory course, Aboriginal Peoples and Natural Resources, for third-year natural resource management students. Smith, who is of Cree ancestry, says the reluctance from students she occasionally encountered when she started teaching the course has largely disappeared.
Students are grateful to graduate with a sense of knowledge about indigenous people and their role and relationships with lands and resources, says Smith, whose classroom experiences led her to join the push for the university to adopt an indigenous content requirement.
The process to implement the indigenous requirement at both universities has involved challenges. Settee, with the University of Winnipegs students association, says he heard from faculty and students against the move, with some students leaving racist comments in an online feedback form about the requirement. Smith has heard heard worries that instructors are not qualified to teach indigenous content, but believes the universitys move to hire an indigenous curriculum specialist, who will provide support to faculty as needed, will help.
Back on the University on Winnipegs campus, preparations are under way to welcome the schools newest undergraduate students, the first cohort to which the indigenous content requirement will apply. Theres excitement on campus, says Settee, but also a sense that theres much work still to do. Education is one of the best ways to raise awareness and create change, he says. I just hope that people can make change with the knowledge they can get from these courses, and I hope it inspires people to take more of these courses.