Nipissing’s new president on access and #IdleNoMore

An interview with Michael DeGagne

Michael DeGagne, an Aboriginal Canadian, will become president of Nipissing University in January. The school is located in North Bay, the self-proclaimed Gateway to Northern Ontario, a region of vast mineral wealth that is also home to deep Aboriginal poverty. That poverty is concentrated in places like Attawapiskat, the James Bay reservation made famous by Chief Theresa Spence, who is now on the 18th day of a hunger strike—a protest she says will end only with a visit from Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

DeGagne, who once worked for the federal government and was executive director of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, has been watching closely. He spoke to Maclean’s On Campus about his plans for expanding access to education and offered his thoughts on the movement that made Chief Spence front-page news.

How did your work with the Healing Foundation prepare you for Nipissing?

The healing foundation had the good fortune to have a lot of resources to provide mental health healing supports to Aboriginal communities. Programs were directed to people who had been through the Indian residential schools, so we spent a lot of time in consultations asking survivors what they wanted, did a lot of professional development, community development and human resource development, so I think a lot of that work will lend itself to my work at Nipissing.

What did you learn about the relationship between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people?

It’s all about reaching out the community and having trust. In the university setting, our outreach to Aboriginal people is very important. You can talk to the people like Laurie McLaren at Nipissing who are in charge of Aboriginal outreach and they’ll tell you it’s all about relationships.

A lot of students are talking about the Idle No More movement. What do you think about it?

Interesting. Grassroots. Twitter driven. A friend of mine in Vancouver went to a rally and said that if you’re not on Twitter, you’re not going to get any of the information. It’s very much driven by social media. It’s dialing into a lot of frustrations that Aboriginal people are feeling in the last little while.

Have you attended any of the rallies yourself?

We had one on [Parliament] Hill that I attended briefly, but I haven’t been to any of the rallies from start to finish. I’ve certainly been watching, as have a lot of people in Aboriginal communities.

Does that make it an interesting time to be taking over as president of a university?

It does. The pitfall being exposed by Idle No More is that this is not a community that wants people to simply step in and do things for them. This is a community that wants to be fully involved and wants the opportunity to explain their own needs. Consultation has almost become a bad word in our community, because so often people have used the word consultation but haven’t made meaningful changes to their practices to show that they’ve listened.

I think the university sector could really do a good job here of reaching out to the community and saying, “what is it you need? What are your education needs? Let’s see how can we build a relationship here.” Universities would do well to listen to what’s happening with Idle No More.

I assume you were part of some consultations when you worked in government 15 years ago…

Yeah, including some bad ones. Ones where at the end of the day the script was written in advance and instead of going to communities and saying “what are your needs,” going to communities and saying, “here’s what I’m prepared to offer you,” and then defending that position. When you start with consultations, it’s good to look at history, but you start with a blank piece of paper and say, “what are your needs today and how can institutions deliver what you need?”

The aboriginal community may be only four to five per cent of the population, but the farther north you go, the more significant it gets in terms of the percentage of the workforce and they’re in a great position to help use northern resources for the prosperity of Canada.

Aboriginal people are important now, but they’re going to be very important in the future, especially in the north, so we’d do well to step in and focus on education. Look at the example of Saskatchewan: they’re saying that 40 per cent of the workforce in Saskatchewan in 10 years is going to be Aboriginal, so universities are going to have to step up and play an important role.

Do you think Prime Minister Stephen Harper should meet with Theresa Spence?

I think he should. Everybody appreciates the political difficulties of being forced to meet with somebody, but at the same time sometimes you just need to put your coat on and go down to Victoria Island and sit with Chief Spence to try and understand her point of view. There’s no shame in that. Chief Spence wants to be heard and she feels she hasn’t been. She wants to be heard at the highest level of government. I don’t think there’s any harm in the Governor General or the Prime Minister hearing people. I think it’s something the Prime Minister should do.

I actually didn’t realize you’re Aboriginal. Is your background something you normally talk about?

Not really. I mean, I think it’s an example of how Aboriginal people have something to offer the province. Slowly and steadily you’ll find more and more Aboriginal people delivering mainstream services, from nurses and physicians to teachers and social workers…

Tell me a little bit about your education if you don’t mind. How’d you get to where you are?

I’m the luckiest guy in the world because I had access all along to outstanding educational opportunities. I grew up in East Africa. My father was involved with CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency). I came back to Canada and went to U. Toronto as an undergraduate.

Then went to Michigan. This is interesting because at the time I graduated from U of T, there just wasn’t the type of flexible programs that would allow me access in the GTA, and then along came a couple of Michigan-based universities that would allow you to do it over the summers. I spent a lot of great summers down in East Lansing and eventually got my PhD through Michigan State.

Later went back for another master’s, in law, at York University. So much of what happens in the Aboriginal community is driven by the law. It all came down to flexibility and access.

Why did you need that flexibility?

I was working, I had kids, and the idea of going back and doing a master’s or a doctorate full-time was really daunting. I had other responsibilities. That’s very typical of graduate students, so it gave me an appreciation for what the average adult needs these days in terms of flexibility.

Do you think Aboriginal Canadians need more flexibility more often?

Oh God yes, absolutely. When you look at the relative isolation of a lot of these communities, they’re going to need different methodologies to access higher education. When it comes down to face-to-face time, we’re going to need to understand that Aboriginal people involved in post-secondary are older generally than other Canadians, more likely to have children than other Canadians, so a lot of those factors mean universities are going to have to be pretty flexible.

When you were a kid living in northwestern Ontario, were you thinking much about education?

That’s a great question because for my doctorate I followed a group of Aboriginal students who were going through Lakehead University and completing their degrees. I asked them essentially that question: what has your educational journey been like? When was the first time you thought about post-secondary education and success and what it might do for you?

What did your research find?

I was looking at success factors because so often Aboriginal communities are defined in the negatives. I took a look at a group of Aboriginal students who were going to succeed and followed them. I found that a lot of them had very strong mentors: people who said that they believed in them and inspired them to attempt post-secondary education. I found a lot of them had real misconceptions about what post-secondary life was like. Even though they were very clever, they thought they were poorly equipped and that they wouldn’t succeed and it took someone to practically carry them over the threshold to get them into school. And also how important it is to develop a relationship with the school through services, often Aboriginal education centres.

Those sound like the types of services that Laurie McLaren offers at Nipissing today?

Yep. She’s bang on. This is exactly what needs to be supported: specialized tutoring, specialized learning centres where they can go and meet other Aboriginal students. It’s all very important.

This interview has been edited and condensed.