How schools across Canada are bringing Indigenous knowledge to the fore

Don’t consider it specialized education—it’s knowledge with broad application and lots of potential

Melissa Brazier
Content image

Students on aboriginal day at U of M. (Mike Latshislaw)

Students on aboriginal day at U of M. (Mike Latshislaw)
Students on aboriginal day at U of M. (Mike Latshislaw)

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 British Columbia, Okanagan Campus, Kelowna

Indigenous studies, four-year B.A.

Jordan Coble, 33, cultural and operations administrator for the Westbank First Nation’s Sncewips Heritage Museum, graduated with a major in cultural studies from UBC Okanagan in 2013. He also took more than 10 courses in Indigenous studies, one of which was research applications, a fourth-year course where students choose a local project and work with Indigenous community groups to solve a problem. Coble focused on a loaded one: the government’s refusal to acknowledge Indigenous land use.

He started a three-month mapping project with Westbank, one of eight members of the Okanagan Nation, to identify their hunting and gathering grounds and better understand land and resource use. Maps like these are vital to securing Indigenous land rights and are often used during intergovernmental meetings.

Coble also took two language courses, which he credits for his ability to speak Okanagan confidently in a professional setting. “Language and oral histories are really the foundation for everything I share in the museum,” he says.

READ: The University of British Columbia | Vancouver, B.C. | Founded 1908

Gayle Liman, former curator and heritage officer for the Westbank First Nation Repository, says she hired Coble after graduation in part because he’s an excellent liaison between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities.

The strength of this program comes from its deep connection to the Okanagan Nation, or the Syilx, descendants of the original inhabitants of some 70,000 sq. km of land stretching from Revelstoke in the north to Washington state in the south, and from Nicola Valley in the west to Kootenay Lake in the east.

Assistant professor Jeannette Armstrong, coordinator of Indigenous studies for the Okanagan Campus, says the school’s ties to the community set the program apart. Some courses, for example, are offered in partnership with the En’owkin Centre, an adult learning institute on the Penticton reserve; many of the faculty come from the Syilx community, and Indigenous artists and scholars regularly visit classes as guest speakers.

This leads to study and research that produces Indigenous expertise, which “is vital to a successful road to reconciliation,” says Armstrong, the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous philosophy. She herself studies the Syilx language, Nsyilxcen, to reveal, document and analyze it for traditional knowledge. Graduates from the program go on to work in environmental conservation, land-use management systems, legal and political frameworks, health and social well-being fields.

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.”

READ: University of Manitoba | Winnipeg, Man. | Founded 1877

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.

Georgian College, Barrie, Ont.

Aboriginal community and social development, two-year diploma, co-op program

In the first year, students explore self-identity and self-care; during the second they study Indigenous communities and how they can help others.

Curtis Copegog has been doing that since graduating in 2012. The 28-year-old Ojibwe from Beausoleil First Nation, just outside of Midland, Ont., now works as the Kizhaay Anishinaabe Niin (I am A Kind Man) coordinator at the Georgian Bay Native Friendship Centre. He facilitates a 12-week counselling program for men, covering topics like anger management and cultural teachings and knowledge, as well as healthy relationships and communication.

The Georgian program includes two work terms, and Copegog completed his first with the Orillia Native Women’s Group, which included developing and promoting a men’s program, and his second at the college’s Aboriginal Resource Centre.

READ: Georgian College of Applied Arts and Technology | Barrie, Ont. | Founded 1967

Program coordinator Michele O’Brien says the smaller program size (17 to 25 students per year), allows for more one-on-one support of students, about a third of whom are non-Aboriginal. Part of Copegog’s work in the resource centre included offering peer support to other students.

Copegog’s work placements cemented his passion for counselling and program planning, and led him to the school’s one-year graduate certificate in addictions treatment and prevention in 2014. “Learning about Indigenous communities’ high rates of suicide, substance abuse and violence—I knew right away that I was going to reach my educational and career goals so I can help in any way that I can.”

Co-op placements may involve working at friendship centres, school boards, social-services organizations, healing lodges and mental-health centres. One student had an interest in anthropology, so Kathy Marsden, the Native education counsellor, helped him find work on an Aboriginal dig for the summer. Another student worked for Elephant Thoughts, an educational charity based in Collingwood, Ont., and flew to remote communities in Canada to teach science and provide leadership to youth.

Cape Breton University, Sydney, N.S. 

Learning from knowledge keepers of Mi’kma’ki, 12-week online course


With 5,326 online course registrants from 26 countries around the world, this free, online course was opened to anyone in January 2016. Each class, which is webcast live and can be attended in-person at a campus auditorium, begins with a smudging ceremony and ends with drumming and singing.

READ: Cape Breton University | Sydney, N.S. | Founded 1974

Janice Esther Tulk, 37, a senior research associate for the Purdy Crawford Chair in Aboriginal Business Studies at CBU, says it created a connection between the academic and the outside world. “Certainly, it is possible to read about the residential schools, but once you have heard a survivor speak about his personal experiences having gone through that system, you cannot help but be changed. You engage with course content on an emotional level,” she says.

Hearing from the elders of this community is part of the reason the course was so popular. Beyond looking at residential schools, classes also covered the Mi’kmaq creation story, Indigenous governance, the impact of the TRC as well as oral history and traditions.

Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning, Yellowknife, N.W.T.

Indigenous governance and leadership

Kristen Tanche, 31, of Dene and Icelandic background, first tried the University of Northern British Columbia almost a decade ago, but it was hard to be away from her family, so she returned home and tried online courses in management and microeconomics with Athabasca University. Nothing stuck. “My academic history was one of non-completion,” she says. Dechinta changed that.

Now in its seventh year, Dechinta has had more than 300 students go through its Indigenous guardianship program and boasts zero dropouts, with 100 per cent of graduates working or continuing in post-secondary education—Tanche included.

In 2012, she completed a semester of hands-on, land-based courses where she lived in a remote eco-lodge accessible only by bush plane, snowmobile or dog team, learning everything from moose hunting and making dry fish to academic writing and research. “Options after high school don’t reflect the reality of northern communities,” explains Erin Freeland Ballantyne, dean of land-based academics, research, and innovation at Dechinta. “We needed a program that reflected who we are and where we are from.”

In 2010, Dechinta began offering courses accredited by the University of Alberta. Each has an Indigenous Ph.D. instructor who is an expert in their field as well as an elder, and students can bring their children to live at the school with them, which helps redress some of the barriers for Indigenous people: lack of relevant studies and childcare.

Tanche then joined a pilot project last August: the Indigenous boreal guardians program launched at the Dechenla Lodge near the Yukon-N.W.T. border. It’s designed to train leaders who can advocate for better resource-management practices (while helping their communities create their own boreal guardian programs).

For three weeks, students, elders and professors lived in and trekked through the wilderness as a group. Every day a different student set the agenda, which ranged from checking the fishing nets and hunting to independent reading time or having a lecture. The pilot will continue in spring 2017.

Tanche practised her leadership skills and learned to push herself to do more. “My experiences at Dechinta included a lot of firsts, but at the same time there were a lot of reminders: the importance of land, culture, community and education,” she says. This fall she will head to Aurora College to study social work.

Six Nations Polytechnic, Ohsweken, Ont. 

Ogwehoweh (Cayuga and Mohawk) language, three-year B.A.

In 2009, Lindsey Brooke Johnson Gayęniyóhsta, then 26, was enrolled in Six Nations Polytechnic’s two-year diploma in Ogwehoweh languages. In January 2016, the school began offering that course as a stand-alone three-year degree—the only one in Canada. Johnson already had the diploma, but she enrolled to upgrade to a degree.

Although she thought it would simply be a refresher, the program helped her understand cultural ceremonies and the conventions around working with elders—vital to Indigenous community development.

Rebecca Jamieson, president and CEO of Six Nations Polytechnic, says the goal is to “directly support the revitalization and retention of two Hodinohso:ni languages: Mohawk and Cayuga.”

Since enrolling, Johnson has put her language skills and cultural knowledge to use by presenting in front of her community’s council of chiefs. Protocol dictates that this group must grant permission for any community initiatives to move forward. Johnson was able to ask for the council’s blessings—in fluent Cayuga—to run a community-based project aimed at rebuilding relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities surrounding the Six Nations. “This program has also given me the motivation to pursue my goal in revitalizing the language for the coming generations.”

Trent University, Peterborough, Ont.

Indigenous environmental studies/science program. Two-year diploma, three or four-year B.A. or B.Sc.

The Indigenous environmental studies/science program officially launched in 2009 and is the only degree-granting program of its kind, part of the oldest Indigenous studies department in North America.

Emily King, 21, a member of the Georgian Bay Metis community, is in her final year of the four-year honours B.Sc. program. King learned to apply Indigenous perspectives to environmental policy during a student placement at the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry this past summer.

READ: Trent University | Peterborough, Ont. | Founded 1964

The program started with 30 full-time students and now has almost 300. Daniel Roronhiakewen Longboat, associate professor and director of the program, says there are few people who have the expertise required to mediate between Indigenous communities and governments or industry around natural-resource development, environmental protection and ecological integrity. “It’s a niche skill that’s needed,” he says. Longboat’s students have gone on to work in First Nations communities, at consulting and research companies, and in all levels of government.

First Nations University of Canada, Regina. 

Cree immersion, intensive four-week course

For First Nations University of Canada students, this short immersion course can be applied to a degree in Cree language studies or taken as an elective. Otherwise, students receive a certificate of completion.

This crash course for beginners, offered in various forms for more than three decades, was opened to casual students in the summer of 2016 and can now be taken as a non-credit option.

Noel Starblanket, 69, an iconic First Nations leader and former president of what is now the Assembly of First Nations, completed it at the end of July. He wanted to revisit the Cree language so he could better understand spiritual and cultural traditions. “As a Cree-speaking person, I have enhanced my abilities to speak more fluently and to teach young people about the Cree language,” says the elder, who leads workshops and cultural camps for non-Cree-speaking high-school and university students.

About 80 per cent of the program’s students are Indigenous, according to William Cook, a Cree language instructor. “This course is merely a baby step forward in language revitalization and reconciliation within Canadian culture.” The most important part of the course, he adds, is the connection between students and the elders.

[widgets_on_pages id=”Education”]