Arts

A portion of the library at the Indigenous Resource Centre. Photo: Ryan Pepper/The Fulcrum

Indigenous Affairs Office pushing to shift curricula, programs

It turns out that the task of Indigenizing the University of Ottawa largely falls onto four people.

“My not-funny joke is that there are about 40,000 people on campus, so we take 10,000 each,” said the university’s Director of Indigenous Affairs Tareyn Johnson.

Johnson is the head of the four-person Indigenous Affairs team, a relatively recent addition to the U of O administration that has been operating for just under three years now.

The team’s mandate is varied. Johnson is broadly in charge of “the creation and implementation of initiatives, programs and services for Indigenous students, faculty and staff” along with all financial and human resources associated with her office, according to her official bio. She was also the leading force behind a three-year Indigenous Action Plan, set to be released this March.

The other three team members also balance multiple duties. Victoria Marchand’s main job is the day-to-day operations of Mashkawazìwogamig Indigenous Resource Centre. Brenda Macdougall, the academic delegate on the team, is the director of the Institute of Indigenous Research and Studies, along with being a professor and researcher, and Darren Sutherland’s official job title is Indigenous community engagement officer.

“You’re getting pulled in a lot of different directions,” Marchand said.

But one thing the office often gets called in to help with is Indigenizing faculties’ curricula. Within the Indigenous Action Plan, one of the four “hoop-poles,” coming from wigwam construction, is program and curriculum enhancement.

But Indigenizing university curricula isn’t as easy as changing a few books in an English class, which is the direction the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and the Ottawa Catholic School Board are taking. They’re introducing mandatory Indigenous literature into Grade 11 English classes, which every student has to take.

But at university, there are no mandatory classes that every undergraduate student takes, and so Indigenization happens on a faculty-to-faculty — and often department-to-department — basis. That’s where Johnson and her team come in.

“We work with faculties to determine the best path for them to take,” said Johnson.

Despite support from all levels of administration, the process is still rather ad hoc. Most of the curriculum enhancement so far has been with faculties that had already started the process, and who reached out to the Indigenous Affairs Office once they were established. Still, it’s had a snowball effect, with an increasing number of faculties reaching out.

“For example, law, education and medicine were already working on different program changes, and since we’ve started doing this work, and people have started working with our team, we’ve started revamping the curriculum in a lot of different programs,” Johnson said. “We also have plans to hire an Indigenous curriculum specialist, and there are different faculties who are planning on creating smaller positions like that.”

And it’s not always just curriculum changes. Johnson gave the example of the Telfer School of Management hosting the International Leadership Association conference with the main theme being Indigenous leadership. Telfer worked with the Indigenous Affairs Office to secure First Nations Senator Murray Sinclair and former prime minister Paul Martin for an armchair conversation.

Additionally, the School of Nursing is looking to contract two Indigenous nurses who will review the existing curriculum with the Indigenous Affairs Office. The School of Social Work is undergoing a similar process.

Some faculties, like social science, are at the beginning of the process but are taking concrete steps forward.

“FSS is another one that wants to Indigenize their curriculum,” Johnson explained. “For them, they decided to hire a graduate student to do a needs assessment, so the graduate student is going to do interviews with all the self-ID students who volunteered to take part in the process to hear what’s going well, what’s needed in the faculty, and they’re going to do a whole research study for their faculty to determine how to go next.”

Despite progress in some faculties, not everyone is feeling it. Alexandra Whiteduck is a first-year Indigenous student in biology and English who feels that the curriculum isn’t inclusive in both her faculties.

“There’s definitely a lack in the faculty of science and the faculty of arts,” said Whiteduck. “I don’t know if it’s that students particularly concentrate on law, medicine, education, the bigger faculties after undergraduate studies, but there is a lack of Indigenous curriculum included in the science and arts faculties, and a lot of people just don’t know what’s happening.”

Johnson and Marchand both agreed that hiring more Indigenous faculty and staff members is what they’d like to see the most.

“I think more Indigenous faculty … makes the biggest difference in your content delivery,” said Marchand.

“If more faculties would hire staff as well, not just faculty members, to support the program, I’d say the end goal is to have Indigenous content normalized,” said Johnson. “Right now, everything’s very canonized, very European. It doesn’t really touch on a lot of Indigenous content. So just having that part of the story that hasn’t been told, but should have been, be part of the narrative.”

The Indigenous Affairs Office has been able to accomplish so much in the past few years because of their newly permanent position in the university. This is the first time that a team has existed dedicated to providing Indigenous programs and services.

“Before we were here, there was a manager of the (Indigenous) Resource Centre and there was a liaison officer and the provost delegate position did exist, but none of them were full-time positions,” Johnson said. “There was a lot of turnover. I felt like no one had the opportunity to get any projects off the ground. With these almost three solid years, we’ve been able to put a legitimate plan in process.” 

“We have upper administration being very supportive and helping us push things through … We’ve been able to work really well with everybody on campus and build a network on campus,” Johnson added. “I’m hoping that by facilitating that, faculties will be able to reach out to us and get the process started, but also become self-sufficient in the process, and build relationships that will last with strength in their own faculties.”