The University of Winnipeg now has mandatory courses on Indigenous history and culture. Photo: CC, Krazy Tea.
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New curriculum would expose students to new viewpoints, create vital dialogue

This year, two Canadian universities, Lakehead University and the University of Winnipeg, are introducing mandatory courses on Indigenous history, culture, and experience for all of their students—and the University of Ottawa should follow suit.

There are already signs around campus that the university wants to increase awareness and dialogue about Indigenous issues. For example, the Faculty of Law is hosting a number of events this year that highlight issues faced by Indigenous people in Canada. Sarah Morales, one of the organizers, said she hopes that making law students aware of these issues would have an impact on the way they practiced law in the future.

The Student Federation of the University of Ottawa is getting in on the action as well, they hosted a mini-powwow with Inuit and Métis cultural demonstrations during 101 Week.

Is this too much, especially when students aren’t currently forced to take general Canadian history courses? Well, the fact is that by the time Canadian students get to university, they have already taken Canadian history throughout high school—content which, at the secondary level, often places inconsistent emphasis on Aboriginal issues.

Besides, by fostering understanding and dialogue, Indigenous history classes have the capacity to provide an important social benefit.

Now, the initial conditions are different here than the other two universities. Ottawa does not have to contend with a colourful history of racism towards Indigenous people, unlike Winnipeg or Thunder Bay. However, racism isn’t contained to a few cities, and people come to the U of O from all over the country, so limiting the scope of the issue to Ottawa alone doesn’t paint the full picture.

Besides, the fact that the university is based in Ottawa creates a different kind of incentive. Ottawa is the capital of Canada, and many graduates will go on to have careers in politics and the public service. And we certainly want the future of our government to be conscientious of Indigenous issues, as it defines our nation’s character going forward. Not to mention the fact that the U of O is on unceded Aboriginal territory.

Members of some disciplines may not feel that this situation applies to them. What about sciences, engineering, or business, for example? Science and engineering are parts of the issue as well. Just look at the current debates between Indigenous communities and the government over pipelines.

Business students will be providing goods and services to, not to mention hiring, people all across the country. With more information they’re less likely to exercise discriminatory hiring practices, and more likely to develop an understanding of respectfully doing business with their homegrown cultural neighbours.

And no matter what major you take, chances are students will interact with people from Indigenous communities, and insight into their history can only make for better dialogue.

Besides, there doesn’t have to be a single one-size-fits-all model for these classes. There can be multiple options available for students. For example, at the University of Winnipeg students are offered a variety of around 100 different courses.

But why should this responsibility fall on universities at all? Well, university is the perfect time for students to learn new things and new perspectives, since post-secondary education caters to that developmental sweet spot where people are receptive to new ideas right before they go out to start their careers.

Instituting mandatory Indigenous history classes would help ensure students are prepared to make equitable decisions as they start the next chapter of their lives.