It's time for Canadian-wide Indigenous Course Requirements

"Much of the current state of troubled relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians is attributable to educational institutions and what they have taught, or failed to teach, over many generations. Despite that history, or, perhaps more correctly, because of its potential, the Commission believes that education is also the key to reconciliation. Educating Canadians for reconciliation involves not only schools and post-secondary institutions, but also dialogue forums and public history institutions such as museums and archives. Education must remedy the gaps in historical knowledge that perpetuate ignorance and racism."

- Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

As a student leader, when discussing Indigenous student issues I often find the conversation steering towards access: the Post-Secondary Student Support Program, the Aboriginal Bursary program, the Ontario Distance Grant. All of these are initiatives that aim to increase participation rates for indigenous students across the province. These conversations are incredibly important, and there are so many recommendations worth implementing to improve all three programs mentioned above (and more) that would increase access for these students. However, access is only half of the conversation - the other issue that we must bring to the forefront of these discussions is reconciliation.

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada included ninety-four calls to action, many of which highlight the ways that post-secondary institutions across the country can and should participate in reconciliation. Many of these are higher education-specific and are found littered throughout the report in various sections - health, justice, media - as the commission fundamentally recognizes that education is the key to reconciliation. Some post-secondary institutions have taken this to heart and implemented it into their schools in the form of an Indigenous Course Requirement (ICR).

In November of 2015, Lakehead University (Ontario) and the University of Winnipeg (Manitoba) both announced the introduction of a mandatory three-credit course in indigenous history or culture in order to successfully graduate. Later, in May 2016, Laurentian University (Ontario) announced a six-credit course requirement for students obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree. All three of these initiatives will officially be in place for incoming students this fall.

At all institutions that have adopted an ICR, this change does not mean that all first-years will be subjected to "Indigenous Studies 101" - rather, like any other breadth requirement, students chose from a list of courses to fill the requirement. For instance, at the University of Winnipeg, an anthropology student may opt to take "Enthography of Native Peoples of North America", whereas a theatre student might fulfil the ICR by enrolling in "Aboriginal Identities in Theatre & Film". In order to make the list, the course must fulfil the main criterion of including local Indigenous context and must also include at least one sub-criterion (Indigenous History, Indigenous Culture, Indigenous Ways of Knowing, Contemporary Indigenous Issues, or Indigenous Languages). Similar systems are in place at Lakehead University as well as Laurentian University. In this way, students are able to integrate the ICR into their degrees, and ensure that they are applicable to their area of study and future work.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada asks in seven separate calls to action for education to be provided to medical students, nursing students, law students, journalism students, management and staff in Canada's businesses, public servants, teachers, and social workers. It is clear that the next generation of leaders and professionals needs to be competent and aware of the history and culture of Indigenous peoples in our country. As a student leader, I commend Lakehead University, Laurentian University, and the University of Winnipeg for their forward thinking and direction in this endeavour, and I ask other schools across the country: follow suit. Shape our future doctors, nurses, journalists, social workers, and teachers; but don't stop there. Educate our future engineers, politicians, pilots, accountants, professors, pharmacists, bankers, entrepreneurs - teach all graduates that in order to contribute positively to our country's future, we must first understand its past. Like the commission says: education must remedy the gaps in historical knowledge that perpetuate ignorance and racism.

This conversation would not be complete without considering the ultimate purpose of obtaining a degree. Are we here to better our employment prospects? To become experts in a singular field? To answer this question, I'll draw upon my friend's convocation at my home institution, McMaster University. Patrick Deane, McMaster's President, gave the closing address. He said:

"So graduates, for all we had to say about your individual dreams and aspirations, the point of celebrating your success... is to underline the extent to which your individual achievements are also social achievements. This is a communal event because the meaning, the quality, and the richness of our lives together on this planet is ultimately the point of education."

This notion - that higher education on principle should be shaping individuals to become greater contributors to society - is something that I agree with wholeheartedly and underlines the point I hope to make in this piece. At the end of my degree, I am not a lone entity comprised of knowledge. I am a collection of principles, lessons, and morals learned throughout my journey here; I am highly interactive, collaborative, and social. I am a participant in humanity. The story told to me here will directly impact what I offer to the world as I navigate through it post-graduation. So to universities, as a student myself, I sincerely hope that you take advantage of this opportunity and access to young undergraduates and necessitate that we fill the gaps in our knowledge. Mandate an indigenous course requirement. We will emerge a more empathetic and understanding generation for your commitment to reconciliation.

Blake Oliver
OUSA Steering Committee Member
VP (Education), McMaster Students Union