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Interview / Shelly Johnson / Mukwa Musayett

Interview / Shelly Johnson / Mukwa Musayett

Shelly Johnson / Mukwa Musayett (meaning “Walking With Bears”) is of Saulteaux and Norwegian ancestry and is the first Canada Research Chair in Indigenizing Higher Education. She is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at Thompson Rivers University.

What does the Indigenization of higher education mean to you?​

My understanding of Indigenization differs from the ways it’s enacted in Canadian and Indigenous post-secondary institutions. Indigenization of higher education means that all faculty and staff — as well as student unions, university foundations, human resources, and management teams — develop goals, objectives and time frames to meaningfully integrate Indigenous knowledge, Indigenization practices and protocols in collaboration with the First Nations, Métis and/or Inuit representatives of the local territories.

Some institutions view Indigenization as simply recruiting and hiring limited numbers of Indigenous faculty and staff to teach, research and work with students and community members. These institutions typically leave the Indigenization of courses, research and service work to junior Indigenous faculty and staff. 

Many institutions appear to have limited or no expectations of non-Indigenous faculty to contribute to Indigenization work. Indigenous faculty comprise about 1.4% of all post-secondary educators in Canadian institutions, leaving 98.6% with discretion to Indigenize their work.

What can academic staff, no matter their discipline, do to help integrate Indigenous knowledge and perspectives into post-secondary institutions and structures?

This work begins with each discipline asking themselves: Who is missing from the decision-making table? Why are Indigenous peoples not here? What are the barriers to their participation? What actions can we take to address their absence? What have we tried to do, and what worked or did not? What is our relationship with the local Indigenous Peoples? Is there trust, respect and reciprocity in our relationships? What might be some costs associated with facilitating their involvement and respectfully asking for their guidance? If our institution has an Indigenous advisor to the president, and another for the provost, how will we support the appointment of an Indigenous advisor to the faculty union president?

Thompson Rivers University has taken recent steps to recruit and appoint an Indigenous advisor to the president of the faculty union. This may be the first of its kind in any Canadian academic staff association.

How important is language to integrating Indigenous knowledge and perspectives into higher education?

Indigenous languages of the local First Nations upon which universities and colleges are located is a key piece to indigenizing higher education. Many institutions offer some level of language instruction to faculty, staff and students. Language instruction is available in some institutions and is open to community members with a familial or community history of residential schools, child welfare and adoption.

Yet these courses are not free to Indigenous Peoples who have lost their original language through Canadian residential schools, child welfare and/ or adoption policies of assimilation — and should be. Offering Indigenous language courses without costs to Indigenous Peoples could be one way that institutions demonstrate a commitment to reconciliation.

Another is to set expectations that each student must complete an introductory Indigenous language class. It seems a key component in respectful reciprocity since all students must demonstrate a proficiency in English to receive their degree.

Indigenous Peoples in Canada still make up a disproportionately small number of students and academic staff at post-secondary institutions. How can post-secondary institutions strengthen Indigenous inclusion and participation in higher education?

While the educational attainment disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students is narrowing, it remains a significant division. At a federal policy level, Indigenous students growing up on reserve in Canada receive less financial support than students in urban areas.

News of thousands of potential gravesites at a growing number of former residential schools means that the legacy of fear and mistrust in Canadian educational institutions is a history and memory that continues to re-traumatize Indigenous students, families and communities. Post-secondary institutional leadership must commit to be present and accountable in community forums, to hear about community issues regarding the institution and the history that it represents. When Indigenous families and communities tell the institution what their experiences have been, the leadership must commit to address the issues and follow through.

Specifically, if there is no treaty on the lands upon which the institution is built, such as the majority of British Columbia, scholarships and bursaries must be provided to the students of the nation to attend the institution, with living and childcare supports as a key component. Academic mentors must be identified for each Indigenous student to support them throughout their first degree.

In collective agreements, unions and university management must facilitate staff directing their educational benefits (typically reserved for their own children) towards Indigenous students who meet entrance requirements.

What are some steps that academic staff and their associations can take to help create an environment where decolonization, Indigenization and reconciliation are considered vital to every aspect of a post-secondary institution?

One place to start is to understand that if institutions and unions are committed to better educational outcomes for Indigenous Peoples, and a stronger institution for all, it will require additional Indigenization funds built into budgets for the future. This is to create respectful curriculum and research in ways that make sense to Indigenous Peoples and is taught with Indigenous community knowledge and involvement as a meaningful base.

Collective agreements must make space for unions, university administration and Indigenous leadership to jointly determine Indigenous goals, objectives, actions and time frames to decolonization, Indigenization and reconciliation at the institution.

Indigenous expertise will cost money. It is no longer acceptable to put the entire responsibility for Indigenization efforts onto overloaded Indigenous junior faculty, with no additional funding or supports for change. If institutional structures and Indigenous communities have no appetite to commit to meaningful joint work, and institutions make no funding commitments, then they should admit that Indigenization rhetoric is the order of the day at their educational site. Change will require additional dollars to create Indigenous curriculum and research, and to grow each institution’s Indigenous faculty, staff and students.

This is not something that a union, an administrative leadership team, or one Indigenous community can do alone. It must be a joint commitment of all levels, and supported by the local, municipal, provincial and federal governments.


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