Increasing inclusion of Indigenous traditional knowledge in post-secondary education

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) called for funding “to educate teachers on how to integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms” (see Call to Action 62(ii)). The focus thus far has been on training K-12 teachers. However, in the spirit of reconciliation, and in service of a full and comprehensive education, it is critical that Indigenous traditional knowledge and ways of thinking be incorporated into the Canadian post-secondary education system outside of just our Faculties of Education.

Some institutions have already risen to this challenge. Keyano College, in Fort McMurray, Alberta, now offers a Community-Based Environmental Monitoring Certificate, a four-month program explicitly designed to take advantage of the differences between Western scientific traditions and Indigenous traditional knowledge. Sithara Fernando, the certificate instructor, described the program as “braiding Western science and Indigenous knowledge together”, and recognized that this juxtaposition can create tensions. Indeed, the program’s courses are divided evenly between two communities with very different compositions – Fort McMurray (where only one in 13 individuals identify as being Aboriginal, including First Nations, Inuit, and Métis) and Fort Chipewyan (a Cree, Dene, and Métis community, where eight of every nine individuals identify as being of “Aboriginal identity”) – and will be co-taught by Western scientists and Indigenous Elders. Fernando welcomes this contrast: “if you have ever braided your hair,” she told the CBC, “you actually need to pull for the braid to be strong.” It is exactly that tension between Western and Indigenous knowledge systems, and the holistic approach of the program in considering both views, which will make the certificate worthwhile to students.

Keyano College is not alone in recognizing the benefits of incorporating traditional knowledge into the predominantly Western traditions of our post-secondary institutions. Earlier this year, the University of Victoria created a joint JD/JID (Common Law and Indigenous Legal Orders) program; this dual degree, promoted as the first of its kind in the world, is designed to facilitate the interaction between Western and Indigenous legal traditions, preparing students “to interact in a good way with those who possess knowledge within [Indigenous] communities” and “help[ing to] build institutions that are grounded in the people’s principles and procedures.” Students will complete their JD/JID in four years – the same amount of time as other dual discipline systems, such the dual Civil/Common Law program at McGill, or the dual Canadian/American JD at the University of Ottawa. The uVic program will also include two full semesters spent on field schools, where students will have the opportunity to learn directly from experts in an Indigenous community, experience first-hand how Indigenous traditions intersect with the law, and give back to the community through projects related to their legal studies. Alongside a new Indigenous Legal Lodge – a physical space designed partially to house the JD/JID program and partially to serve as a forum for education and debate on “Indigenous legal traditions and their use, refinement, and reconstruction” – this initiative from the University of Victoria earned high praise from the Chief Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Senator Murray Sinclair.

“[These programs] are precisely what we had hoped would follow from the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and they promise to form the very best of legacies: a set of initiatives that reject and reverse the pattern of denigration and neglect identified in our report, and that establish the conditions for effective action long into the future.”

Senator Murray Sinclair

Other schools are slowly incorporating elements of Indigenous traditional knowledge into their academic programs as well. In 2014, McGill University established an Indigenous Studies Program, which they say focuses on “engagement with Indigenous knowledge, with its distinct methodology, norms, and expectations.” One year earlier, Queen’s University launched their Indigenous Studies program, but, like McGill’s offering, it exists only as a minor (or a general, three-year degree), not as a major program. At McMaster University, students can complete a minor in Indigenous Studies or a general, three-year program, but also have the option to complete a full, four-year “Honours B.A. in Indigenous Studies”, which McMaster claims “incorporates a very unique teaching structure of Indigenous knowledge which involves many Native peoples and Elders.” 

The University of Ottawa has also made indigenization of the curriculum a priority. In addition to academic offerings in Aboriginal Studies (as either a major or minor), uOttawa’s Faculty of Medicine now offers an Indigenous Program designed, in part, to improve awareness of traditional knowledge within the curriculum. Within the law school, uOttawa has created an Option in Aboriginal Law and Indigenous Legal Traditions – and, in the last three years, has begun to offer an Indigenous Law Stream that incorporates Indigenous laws and legal traditions into the standard Common Law curriculum as soon as the first year.

It is important that Indigenous Studies is not an afterthought for developers of post-secondary programs, so it is encouraging that, according to a Universities Canada survey in 2017, Indigenous-oriented academic programs have increased by 55% since 2013. However, as Universities Canada noted, “still much more remains to be done.”  Certificate programs, while not a replacement for rigorous and comprehensive degrees or diplomas, are a useful way of introducing students in otherwise-unrelated fields to Indigenous knowledge. An increasing interest in the provision of Indigenous language courses is another way to connect students more closely with Indigenous traditions, while simultaneously revitalizing and helping to preserve endangered languages; starting this fall, Queen’s University launched a Certificate of Indigenous Language and Culture, with the goal of “fostering greater understanding of Indigenous cultures and ways of knowing,” and the Canadian Federation of Students has made a push for Indigenous language courses to be offered at more universities as a way of improving the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge. 

There are many positive signs that traditional knowledge is being increasingly considered by post-secondary curriculum developers. That same Universities Canada survey in 2017 found that 65% of universities are now “incorporating Indigenous knowledge, methods and protocols into research and teaching policies, programs and practices”. To what extent traditional knowledge has been incorporated is unclear, but in the spirit of reconciliation – and to improve the education of Canadians of all backgrounds, who will benefit from the sharing of knowledge and from different ways of thinking in their education – post-secondary institutions should continue to push for inclusion of traditional knowledge in their curricula.

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