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Ryerson University professor Hayden King: ‘There are all kinds of structural barriers.’

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Over the course of his time in academia Hayden King has seen more Indigenous faculty hired, more Indigenous artwork around campus and more Indigenous content added to course curriculums at universities across Canada. It is part of a push for Indigenization – incorporating Indigenous worldviews, knowledge and perspectives into the education system.

Indeed, Dr. King, who is the director of the Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University in Toronto, says that universities more than any other institutions are responding to the specific calls to action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada to close the education gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, and to bring dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures.

But Dr. King says something is missing.

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While there has been progress, such as Universities Canada adopting 13 principles of Indigenous education, universities are still trying to fit Indigenous people and knowledge into their system of education.

Some critics of Indigenization efforts say that until universities support the creation of Indigenous intellectual communities that are built, staffed, taught and supported by Indigenous people, then true reconciliation can't happen.

"There seems to be an unwillingness right now to allow Indigenous academics to grow Indigenous intellectual communities and academic spaces," Dr. King says, "Maybe that's not even possible, but there are all kinds of structural barriers that need to be addressed that universities don't seem to be addressing."

Structural barriers, like the fact that most tenure-track professors need to have PhDs to teach, are particularly challenging for Indigenous students. According to Statistics Canada, in 2011 more than 48 per cent of Indigenous people ages 25-64 were qualified to enter postsecondary institutions. Of them, 9.8 per cent completed a university degree.

For non-Indigenous students the number is much higher: 26.5 per cent got a degree.

According to Dr. King, Indigenous students often come from imperfect education systems that make having a B-plus and higher average required for university admission a challenge. But there is knowledge universities can't account for. "We have these disciplinary boundaries, which don't accommodate Indigenous knowledge," Dr. King says. "But they might be qualified in other ways, so the university needs to work to recognize those alternative qualifications."

As we ll, few university administration positions, such as department chairs, faculty deans, provosts and board of governors, are held by Indigenous people. While they are consulted about issues that impact them, they subsequently don't have ultimate decision-making authority.

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"We need universities to commit to hiring Indigenous faculty and to recruiting Indigenous students, otherwise any attempt to build these positive spaces is going to fail if it's led by nonnative people," Dr. King says.

Indigenous faculty also face the barrier of advancement in the system. A lot of the work they do, for instance, is community based, which doesn't get counted toward tenure.

"The people with some of the knowledge that universities can use and Indigenous students should have access to – like language, Indigenous knowledge of the land, and of land-based practices – that knowledge is held by people who don't have PhD's," Dr. King says.

For him, universities need to think even deeper about themselves, and their origins as colonial institutions. "There has to be work to critically assess Canada itself, its institutions, its knowledge production systems, and sometimes I think that's lost in conversations about Indigenization."

Nicole Cardinal recalls the First Nations orientation tour she went on as part of her first day in 2014 at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. As she walked through the longhouse-style structure that housed her program, a sense of hominess came over the member of the Dakelh First Nation. Ms. Cardinal saw herself reflected in her peers, staff and instructors, but that connection disappeared as she crossed campus to attend her other classes and left behind the longhouse's warm cocoon.

Ms. Cardinal, who graduated in May with a bachelor's degree in First Nations and Indigenous Studies, notes that a reconciliation pole has since been raised outside the forestry building, but without it First Nations are out-of-sight, out-of-mind. "I don't see myself elsewhere at UBC. I don't feel like we're reflected throughout the campus," she says. "You can easily disappear and become part of the non-Indigenous students."

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So what can be done? "The bigger changes Indigenous people want to see at UBC are going to take time. But little things can start making a difference," Ms. Cardinal says. For instance, not all UBC faculties and deans practice First Nations unceded land acknowledgments, she adds.

Making this practice consistent would be a good start, and could pave the way for substantive changes later.

Indigenization has come a long way since University of Victoria Indigenous education professor Onowa McIvor was an undergraduate student in 1995. Back then, Dr. McIvor says, there was little at universities that indicated any form of Indigenization.

Times are changing, however, the Norway House First Nation member says.

According to her, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada calls to action in 2015 accelerated Indigeneity at universities. Indeed, at UVic, more than eight new Indigenous faculty members have been hired since 2015. "That was a watershed moment. Something about that moment in time definitely shifted things," she says.

Dr. McIvor agrees with Dr. King that new programs grounded in Indigenous worldviews should be developed rather than sprinkling Indigenous material into existing courses. While this can serve as a start, she says the effort shouldn't always be rebuked. "It shouldn't be either-or; I always say I'm for always-and-both," Ms. McIvor says. "It's not that we don't want English professors to include Indigenous authors in their existing courses. Of course we do – this is a good thing."

And many students seem to welcome these efforts. UVIc has Indigenous courses, which include a mandatory course for faculty of education students, that are often filled with waiting lists.

Indigenous people want universities to change, and universities know that they have to and are in the process of doing so now. "There are a lot of things that universities hold sacred like policy and their ceremonies," such as convocation, with strict rules, Ms. McIvor said, adding that even those are going to have to adapt to the growing Indigenous reality. "They are going to have to be open to genuine change – even painful change."

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