Higher Education Reform

When University Decolonization in Canada Mends Relationships with Indigenous Nations and Lands

January 9, 2024 620

The move in Canadian academia to “decolonize” or “Indigenize,” and commit to broader frameworks of reconciliation, pertains to how work is done within universities, as well as how universities engage with broader communities.

Commitments aim to increase the visibility of Indigenous academics, including hiring of Indigenous faculty members and staff, but they are also about the visibility of Indigenous ways of being and knowing. Until fairly recently, these ways of being and knowing have been largely absent in Canadian higher education structures.

As part of these plans, there is often an assumption that Indigenous scholars will be better equipped to interface with local Indigenous communities, both inside and outside of universities.

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This article by Deondre Smiles originally appeared on The Conversation, a Social Science Space partner site, under the title “”Indigenizing’ universities means building relationships with nations and lands.”

This has meant sustained and targeted recruitment of Indigenous students and the adoption of various “Indigenous plans” and related initiatives by institutions, including at the University of Alberta, the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto, and my own institution, the University of Victoria.

But while Indigenous scholars may share clusters of values with Indigenous communities, people should not equate that with complete compatibility of worldviews and practices. It’s also not the case that Indigenous scholars somehow have easier “access” to local Indigenous communities or that we have claim to be trusted more than non-Indigenous academics.

The Métis scholar Max Liboiron (Memorial University) cautions against these assumptions. In a critique of “decolonizing syllabi,” they refer to “adding Indigenous and stir.” This applies to “Indigenizing” in the academy as well. Multiple changes are needed in universities across departments, related to all faculty members, to address “Indigenization.”

Plans are points of pride

Reconciliation and Indigenizing plans are often points of pride for their institutions, as our Indigenous Plan is at UVic.

I have the honor and the distinction of being the first tenure-track Indigenous hire in my department’s 60-plus year history. I moved from the United States, as I felt the university’s commitment to supporting Indigenous initiatives set it apart from other institutions as far as being a welcoming space for me as an Indigenous person. For the most part, that has held true.

However, when I arrived, I found myself having to tamp down expectations. Yes, I was, and still am, excited to bring Indigenous perspectives and to engage in meaningful work inside and outside of the academy. However, I also know a much broader scope of efforts are needed to bring Indigenization to the academy in a sustainable way.

Indigenous academics outside own territories

Liboiron’s 2021 book Pollution is Colonialism, is on its face a book about plastics pollution, yet it also yields insight into how people are in “good” or “bad” relation with land.

As an Indigenous geographer, I teach extensively about relationships with land. When it comes to my presence on these lands, or when it comes to any Indigenous academic’s presence on land that is not their own, I argue that relations, and more broadly, relationships are what’s important. I refer to scholars such as Mishuana GoemanWilliam Langford and Katharine Neale, who talk about the ways that Indigenous identity can be shaped and reshaped in new or different places.

I am Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Nation, in the U.S. My people come from the Great Lakes region more generally, and live in a wide geographical range stretching from Michigan and Ontario in the east, to Saskatchewan in the west, but originally migrated from the East Coast of Turtle Island (North America). In coming to Victoria, particularly Lək̓ʷəŋən and W̱SÁNEĆ lands, I am an outsider myself.

Cultural responsibilities, accountabilities

Although the lands I live on are not my own, I have cultural responsibilities and accountabilities that I carry with me to be a good guest. I look to scholars such as Kasey Keeler, who writes about being Indigenous yet not living in our own territories.

In order to be a good guest, connecting to local Indigenous nations is important. However, these connections are not as simple as saying, “I’m Indigenous, you’re Indigenous, let’s work together.” Rather, they are multifaceted and complex. Such connections are built through slowly establishing trust and a working relationship that ultimately upholds the resurgence of local communities, and the lands these communities live upon.

We must hold true to the ideas of scholars such as Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who argues that the resurgence of Indigenous ways of being and knowing are inherently tied to land. The best way to support this is to build meaningful, lasting relationships with Indigenous nations, even if it is not to the immediate benefit of scholars and universities.

There may not be a grant, or a peer-reviewed publication or an accolade that comes out of building and tending to these relationships.

Everyone’s work

I have organizational support in this regard, as my university has instituted new tenure standards that prioritize community-engaged work, particularly in Indigenous contexts. However, this isn’t the typical way job security and tenure can be obtained. This, to me, is a major obstacle in the way of truly “Indigenizing.”

Community-based work and building and maintaining relationships with nations whose land we live upon is at the heart of what Indigenizing is. It is not simply hiring more faculty, or putting the titles “decolonizing” and “Indigenizing” on anything that might connect to Indigenous peoples.

It is recognizing that we do our work on Indigenous lands, and that we must involve the peoples on whose territories we reside in meaningful and impactful ways in the work we do.

Meaningful consultation

There are obvious answers as to how universities should do this, such as cluster hires, and increased funding for community-engaged work with local Indigenous communities (including honoraria for community participants in work). Although it is from an American institution, South Dakota State University’s Wokini Initiative provides one potential framework other institutions might learn from or adapt.

Structural changes are also needed. These include recognizing community-engaged work and relationship-building as rigorous academic activities that are viewed with the same merit as peer-reviewed articles or large research grants. They also mean including meaningful consultation with local Indigenous communities in ways that uplift their perspectives while not burdening them with extra time and labor — and fostering respectful relations with the land itself.

All of these things, to me, can bring lasting Indigenization to the academy in a sustainable way.

Deondre Smiles is an assistant professor of geography at the University of Victoria. Smiles is a geographer with research interests in Indigenous geographies/epistemologies, human-environmental interaction, political ecology, and tribal cultural resource preservation/protection. He also currently serves as the Chair of the Indigenous Peoples Specialty Group of the American Association of Geographers (AAG).

View all posts by Deondre Smiles

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