Opinion Social Policy

Unsafe space: The danger of mandatory Indigenous Studies courses

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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