Opinion Social Policy

Unsafe space: The danger of mandatory Indigenous Studies courses

Empty lecture theater

In the last year, some Canadian universities have begun to make Indigenous Studies (IS) courses mandatory in order for their students to graduate. At first thought, this seems like a fantastic idea. It would be great if every Canadian with an undergraduate degree knew the history of colonization in Canada, including how colonial Canadian policies (the Indian Act, residential schools, the ’60s Scoop, the violent dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their lands via murder and starvation, etc.) impact First Nations communities, and how settler Canadians benefit from colonization. These are some of the topics that undergraduate students would analyze in a typical IS course. However, the policy to mandate these courses raises new concerns that should be addressed by any institution considering adopting a similar approach.

For the universities who are leading the way with mandatory IS classes, I assume that they already have well-qualified and experienced instructors teaching their IS courses, and that the instructors were consulted and supportive of the decision to make those courses mandatory. I assume this, because mandatory IS courses don’t just imply that privileged students with no background knowledge of Indigenous peoples and issues will become better informed. Mandating IS courses also means that Indigenous instructors and students now have to share the class space with students who probably wouldn’t choose to be there of their own volition. There arises a concern that has to do with the safety of the Indigenous instructors and students who are now mandated to engage with unsettling material in a potentially hostile and unsafe space with people who either don’t want to be there, or aren’t ready to acknowledge their own privilege or self location. In a worst case scenario, students who don’t want to be there or aren’t ready to learn the material may openly challenge the instructor and the experiences of other students in the class. To force Indigenous instructors and students into these spaces doesn’t seem entirely ethical.

If Indigenous Studies courses are mandatory, it’s important that instructors are prepared to recognize and appropriately address racism in the classroom.

Typically, Indigenous content is, or should be whenever possible, taught by Indigenous instructors. These are people who also experience racism and discrimination from its most outright to most nuanced forms. These are the people who will notice the subtly racist remarks or side comments in a classroom, and who know the potentially devastating consequences of leaving such instances unaddressed. Note that Indigenous instructors, no matter how professional, will also have emotional reactions to racism in the classroom, and there should be support mechanisms in place for instructors as well as students. If IS courses are mandatory, it’s important that instructors are prepared to recognize and appropriately address racism in the classroom, which is sure to occur since most Canadians are taught racism from an early age. In order to become less racist, people need to actively unlearn racism, which is a process that takes time, education, open-mindedness, and self-reflection.  

As a Maskîkow undergraduate student just learning about colonization for the first time (years ago), I felt vulnerable, betrayed, and angry by the course content, but I also felt like the class was a safe space to discuss those feelings and work through the material because I knew that everyone wanted to be there, and the students who came to class were open to the content we were learning. As a facilitator and educator, I know it doesn’t take much to create feelings of uneasiness or doubt in a learning space. Just one inappropriate or malicious comment from one student is enough to shut down a robust group conversation. Is it fair to force students who don’t want to be there into a space where open-mindedness and open-heartedness are critical to the learning experiences of the rest of the class?

Is it fair to force students who don’t want to be there into a space where open-mindedness and open-heartedness are critical to the learning experiences of the rest of the class?

In any course that centralizes Indigenous content, there are several facts that many Canadians have trouble coming to terms with, but that should go unchallenged in order for the class to move forward with deeper and more meaningful analyses of the subjects at hand, whether they be environmental issues, economic issues, social issues, literature, or art. The fact is that colonization is unjust and ongoing; it is the root cause of the oppression and social suffering of Indigenous peoples, including gender-based violence; it dehumanizes both Indigenous and settler peoples; and settlers benefit from it. To teach an IS course properly, instructors need to be able to speak to these facts and illuminate them when they are questioned; to have the experience and tools to recognize and address racism in the classroom; and to be supported by their institution when engaging with difficult students becomes detrimental to their safety and that of the class.◉


Photo credit: istockphoto/XiXinXing

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  • Aged_English_Teacher

    Mandee McDonald’s concerns are not just hypothetical. While Indigenous studies courses are only now becoming mandatory across whole institutions, they have been required or nearly so in degree-level professional programs at Aurora College for many years. The College was fortunate for a long time in having two dedicated and well-qualified northern Indigenous instructors for these courses. Both ran into the problem of resistant non-Indigenous students – more so in Yellowknife, where the majority of students are non-Indigenous. In Yellowknife, the problem was extreme enough that the instructor was concerned for the well-being and voice of the Indigenous students in the program.

    Part of the solution was to make Indigenous studies cross-curricular. That is, the students did not just take one or two Indigenous studies courses; all the courses in the program were threaded with Indigenous content, methods, on the land experiences and speakers. This is actually easier to do in a small institution such as Aurora College, and in professional programs aimed at preparing students to work with our largely Indigenous population. As well, programs such as the Bachelor of Education had advisory committees composed of Indigenous educators, and efforts were made to ensure all instructors took part in professional development on decolonization.

    Unfortunately, these two outstanding northern Indigenous instructors are no longer with the College, and the Indigenous studies courses are taught by non-Indigenous instructors. While the current instructors are specialists with graduate degrees in Indigenous studies, they would be the first to agree that the situation is not ideal. Qualified northern Indigenous college teachers are still relative rare, with the sole exception of the field of adult education, and in high demand. All institutions need to mentor and train more Indigenous instructors and senior administrators in all disciplines, treasure and retain those we have, and fully support them in their mission, which must be the highest priority for the institution.

  • fern perkins

    This article is accurate. As a twice retired Métis Indigenous Education instructor from the University of Victoria, I have returned to teach because it is hard to find Indigenous instructors to teach the mandatory Indigenous Education course for BC teachers. In my 45 years of teaching, last year I had my first hostile student evaluation. It was disturbing and made me consider my safety. My colleagues have had similar experiences. Thankfully these hostile students are in the minority. Most of my students are non-Indigenous pre-service teachers. Most of them are people with good hearts and good minds who are courageously confronting the truth. It only takes one however. As I approach the 70 side of 65 I am hanging on for the young ones, and hoping for truth and reconciliation to become reality.

  • Fancy’s_Pants

    I understand the concern, it’s a very serious one, but where is a solution? Because we’re crossing over from the theoretical into the practical now, and that means evaluators need to be preparing feedback on how to address the concern.

    For better or for worse, these courses are being implemented in post-sec for a reason, and that reason is playing catch-up. Primary and secondary education are critical for building the foundation on which people will know and understand our cultures and histories, but right now, I’d say that need is not being met.

    Think back, adults: when’s the first class you would have likely all been required to take that comes the closest the teaching IS in northern schools? My guess? Northern Studies 10. Too late. Because by then, any outside influences such as the family home or friends would have already set up patterns that could see the development of racism in a student.

    Building the foundation starts much younger, in my opinion. It starts when they are pre-k or kindergarten (that’s why Sesame Street makes it part of its education), when the kids are cognitively aware and growing.

    As for the post-sec courses, they currently have to bear the load of managing the gaps created by not addressing this sooner. We know in doing this, as well as implementing other TRC recommendations, we are faced with a generation lost. But starting now at all levels paves the way for the next generation to succeed.

    For now, the courses should go ahead, with carefully implemented safe-guards, such as dual teachers, to share the teaching and have supports for emotional and psychological well-being,

  • Chris Alcantara

    This is a great piece. It raise a number of issues that I hadn’t thought about when the announcements started to roll out that universities would start adopting mandatory IS classes.

    I did have some questions and thoughts about some of the issues raised above. My comments relate to what universities are for and why we need to welcome all students and all perspectives into university classrooms, including and especially into courses dealing IS content. I hope readers will accept and consider my comments here in the spirit of dialogue and discussion.

    Midway through the essay, Ms. McDonald writes: “Mandating IS courses also means that Indigenous instructors and students now have to share the class space with students who probably wouldn’t choose to be there of their own volition. There arises a concern that has to do with the safety of the Indigenous instructors and students who are now mandated to engage with unsettling material in a potentially hostile and unsafe space with people who either don’t want to be there, or aren’t ready to acknowledge their own privilege or self location.”

    To some extent, this is exactly why we need mandated IS courses. One of the purposes of requiring all students to take at least one IS course is to force students to understand what it means to be “privileged” and “self-located”, especially as it relates to Indigenous communities in Canada. If students are not forced to take an IS course that requires them to consider these issues, then there is the possibility they never will during the course of their studies. And in fact, it is these students, the ones who are unaware of their privilege and self-location, who are the ones we need to reach. Although there is value to teaching and talking to only like-minded individuals, that only gets you so far. Transformative, societal change means reaching out to others who are not like minded and engaging in a dialogue with them to generate the possibility for change.

    In the next sentence, the author writes: “In a worst case scenario, students who don’t want to be there or aren’t ready to learn the material may openly challenge the instructor and the experiences of other students in the class. To force Indigenous instructors and students into these spaces doesn’t seem entirely ethical.”

    Again, I think at least, that this is exactly what university is for, is it not? It’s not supposed to be a place for dogma, but rather is supposed to be a place for debate, discussion, dialogue, and changing one’s mind. Universities shouldn’t be places driven by single ideologies, by instead should be places that facilitate intellectual exchange and clashes. It is supposed to be somewhat uncomfortable! Certainty is the enemy.

    That being said, as the author rightly points out, the instructor of these courses is key. Instructors need to be prepared to be facilitators of discussion, gently prodding students to question their beliefs and to hold them up against the beliefs of others to be tested. This is no easy task but it’s one that is perfectly suited for university professors.

    Again, I agree with Mc. McDonald when she writes: “Just one inappropriate or malicious comment from one student is enough to shut down a robust group conversation. Is it fair to force students who don’t want to be there into a space where open-mindedness and open-heartedness are critical to the learning experiences of the rest of the class?”

    Where I disagree is that inappropriate and malicious comments are not always bad, but are powerful and potential “teaching moments” that can sometimes spark real change in how people view the world. As well, I don’t think it’s fair or even ideal to only have “open-minded and open-hearted” people into university classes. Open-mindnedess and open-heartedness are skills and values that need to be learned and taught. And what better place to do that then at university?