Universities interested in addressing the barriers and inequities Indigenous people face in accessing Canada’s post-secondary education system need to do more than Indigenize the academy, according to a Métis anthropologist at Carleton University.
Zoe Todd, an assistant professor in Carleton’s department of sociology and anthropology, says it’s important that universities “talk about the difference between Indigenizing the academy…and the broader question of decolonizing, which is about addressing the underlying structures of the university that have historically and contemporarily excluded Indigenous people.”
Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax recently came under fire when it was learned a non-Indigenous professor is slated to teach a history course on residential schools.
Critics say Indigenous professors should teach Indigenous history, and that schools must do more to ensure Indigenous faculty is in place.
Others, including at least one Mi’kmaw scholar, have defended Dr. Martha Walls, who has a background in First Nations history and developed the course herself.
Walls declined an interview request for this story, but earlier this month Mount St. Vincent issued a statement saying “Indigenous faculty and staff at the Mount believe that true allies committed to honest reconciliation – like Dr. Walls — must be engaged in sharing knowledge of First Nations/Canadian history in order to reach all those in education who should be reached with this important information.”
Mark Mercer, a philosophy professor at St. Mary’s University and president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, has publicly objected to Mount St. Vincent’s decision to hold a meeting to discuss the objections to Dr. Walls’ role in teaching the course.
“Expertise in the topic and the perspectives that need to be there are matters for the Department of History to consider and to decide,” he wrote in a May 14 letter on behalf of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship.
“As well, since both expertise and perspectives are academic matters, they should be decided by academic units on academic grounds alone. The race or ethnicity of the professor is not an academic ground and, thus, should not be a consideration.”
Todd disagrees and says not only should universities make efforts to have Indigenous people teach Indigenous history — they should also do more to ensure Indigenous faculty and staff are in administrative and other decision-making roles within the academy.
She says there are “gaps in how far… Indigenization can go when the university continues to operate within the paradigms that they’ve been built.
“Historically Indigenous people have not had a lot of say in what kind of research was done on our communities, what was done with our material culture, what was done even with our blood and our physical bodies,” explains Todd, who was hired by Carleton’s anthropology department in 2015 in order to add an Indigenous teacher to the faculty.
“So we see this kind of continued control of Indigenous narratives by people who have become experts on us but are not necessarily part of our communities.”
Mercer says he’s not familiar with the distinctions between Indigenization and decolonization, but says regardless, university departments themselves should have sole discretion over their curricula, and over who should teach their courses and who shouldn’t.
“Academic decisions should be made on academic grounds alone, and… things like race and gender, ethnicity, are not academic grounds,” he says.
Todd says those who’ve traditionally held power and decision-making authority in Canadian universities — white settlers, mostly men — have done little to respond to Indigenous faculty and communities’ efforts to Indigenize the academy in recent decades, and that the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report’s calls to action have finally prompted some progress.
She commends universities that have hired Indigenous faculty and staff, or introduced new Indigenous courses and content, and says that there are basic questions that can be asked when assessing the impact Indigenization efforts are having on local Indigenous communities.
“Are universities and the people within them who are working on Indigenous issues — are they doing it in a way that is reciprocal, and relational, and accountable, and working towards dismantling these historic structures and systems of oppression? Or are they doing it in a way that continues to treat Indigenous people as subjects?”
To decolonize Canadian universities, she says, the structures of power within the academy must change and answers to more fundamental questions around colonization should be collectively pursued.
“What does it mean for universities to be situated on Indigenous lands and unceded territories? And what would it look like if they were governed by Indigenous laws as well as sort of Canadian laws that are built on civil and common law?”
A spokesperson for Mount St. Vincent University said no one was available to speak with APTN for this story.