U of W course requirement changing student attitudes

·6 min read

The University of Winnipeg’s Indigenous course requirement is deepening student awareness about ongoing injustices tied to settler colonialism, research shows — but the authors of a new report warn not all graduates are grasping decolonization as unending work.

Since the fall of 2016, incoming undergraduate learners at the U of W have had to take at least one class on Indigenous histories, cultures or matters in order to graduate.

The policy, among the first of its kind in the country, was introduced after students pitched it to combat anti-Indigenous racism on campus.

There are approximately 90 classes that have been vetted to ensure: content is primarily Indigenous and based in North America, if not Canada; the syllabus incorporates First Nations, Métis and Inuit resources; and an instructor is prepared to offer high-quality education.

A new article published in the Canadian Journal of Education summer 2022 edition examines how the conscious-raising courses that examine systemic discrimination affect non-Indigenous participants’ learning.

“People grew in their understanding of ongoing injustice. They recognized that Indigenous people in Canada today face discrimination in various parts of society in ways that they hadn’t (before completing the ICR),” said Jeremy Siemens, who co-authored the piece with Katelin Neufeld.

Siemens, a high school teacher, said he was curious about the shift he was witnessing in Grade 9 social studies after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its calls to action in 2015. Students began entering his classroom with greater knowledge about residential schools, identifying settler-colonial biases, and vocalizing support for reconciliation, he said.

Education is widely acknowledged as a key tool to establish a mutually beneficial relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, but Siemens noted there was a massive gap in literature on it when he became a graduate student.

The research project built upon his master’s thesis at the University of Manitoba. He tapped his wife, a postdoctoral fellow at U of M working on the Canadian Reconciliation Barometer at the time, to collaborate.

Not long after U of W implemented the requirement, the duo began recruiting students to complete a survey about their awareness of contemporary anti-Indigenous discrimination, sense of benefit from unjust systems, feeling of responsibility in reconciliation, and support for systemic change.

The researchers surveyed 91 non-Indigenous students — the group’s mean age was 22, half of the respondents were born in Canada, the majority of them were women and nearly three-quarters of participants were white — both at the start and end of a course offered between 2017 and 2019. They did follow-up interviews with eight participants.

Students, who had relatively supportive views initially, had a stronger agreement that non-Indigenous people benefit from systems where anti-Indigenous discrimination is deeply embedded, an increased belief there is a personal responsibility to address injustice, and further backed government initiatives to bridge gaps after completing a course.

Some pupils who were interviewed said they came to see immense value in the requirement, despite originally feeling it was a waste of time. Others disclosed newfound knowledge had prompted them to take steps to address ignorance and stereotypes in their social circles.

After finishing the ICR, nearly all respondents were strongly in support of increasing government funding to ensure adequate water and housing on reserves. Notably, students were more likely to support the above, as well as increased funding for mandating curriculum on Indigenous history and protecting traditional languages than earmarking taxpayer dollars to address land-related action items.

The attitudinal and behavioural changes represent “a very significant shift” in the field of social psychology, said Neufeld, who has been researching solidarity-building over the last decade.

Neufeld, however, indicated students more strongly suggested reconciliation is a collective responsibility than a personal one, and indicated non-Indigenous society at-large benefits from unjust systems more than they do on an individual level.

“There is this trend, within non-Indigenous folks in settler-colonial settings to see themselves as innocent or as benevolent and to do whatever mental gymnastics are necessary to arrive at that place,” Siemens said, noting lessons about Canada’s history can elicit an emotional response and make learners feel like they have redeemed themselves.

“If students simply see this as a sign of transformation and progress and stop there, that can be dangerous.”

Neufeld echoed those comments and encouraged instructors to be frank with students about the ICR completion being a first step and the importance of ongoing reflection. She also acknowledged the limitations of their research, given they are both non-Indigenous academics and used colonial, western methods.

More than five years after the requirement initially rolled out, a U of W academic who studies the Indigenization of education said there are far fewer students who are entering her classes and expressing frustration about the policy.

Julie Pelletier, an associate professor of anthropology, said there were initial concerns about the change costing students money or extending studies, while some faculty members were upfront about racist beliefs — including one professor’s claim “Indigenous knowledge is just superstition and beliefs” so the ICR would “dumb-down the academy.”

Pelletier said it has become an accepted expectation, with many Winnipeg-born learners entering classes with a basic understanding about Indigenous history in Canada — although there is still shock among international students.

“I’ve had international students weeping in my classroom, at what they’ve learned and equating it, a lot of times, to experiences of colonization in their own countries,” she said.

“Do I want students to cry in my class? No, no, I don’t — but if they don’t feel something, then I don’t think they’re actually paying attention to the material.”

While the Indigenous studies and history department offer numerous course options, there are credits available in subjects ranging from economics to theatre.

The requirement comes with a heavy professional burden on all instructors, but it is especially tiring for Indigenous instructors who share their traumatic lived experiences repeatedly, said Karen Froman, an assistant professor of history, who almost exclusively teaches ICR courses.

“It’s hard work, but it’s important work,” said Froman, who deems the project a success and recommends other post-secondary institutes follow suit.

“It’s not about blame, it’s not about making people feel guilty or bad about themselves, it’s not about bashing white folks — it’s about truth-telling. It’s an uncomfortable truth and it’s a hard truth, but it’s a truth we need to talk about.”

An internal paper on the ICR experience at U of W, which was published in 2018 in the International Journal for Talent Development and Creativity, contains similar findings to the latest report.

Winnipeg-based researcher Helen Lepp Friesen concluded most students expanded their learning and understanding of Indigenous issues in a neutral, good or empathetic way through a mandatory course in winter 2017.

The initial paper also states learners appreciated both open conversations and the acquisition of new vocabulary to participate in dialogue in a respectful way.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press

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