ANSUT Conference: Indigenizing the Academy
May 3rd & 4th, Membertou Trade and Convention Centre
Linda Mann and I attended the ANSUT Conference: Indigenizing the Academy as Faculty Association delegates. The conference was held at Membertou First Nation, Cape Breton on May third and fourth. Eight guest speakers were featured including Albert Marshall, a Mi’kmak elder, John Syliboy, an Indigenization consultant, and six academics drawn from law, science, the humanities, business, education, and Indigenous studies. Between them they addressed the roles of Indigenous history, epistemology, and spirituality in the move to Indigenization.
ANSUT succeeded admirably in organizing an excellent – and given the topic, timely – conference on Indigenizing the academy, which Scott Stewart, ANSUT’s president and conference organizer, defines as “decolonizing” the academy. Sakej Henderson, a law professor, was more expansive: if “European knowledge is a story of liberation,” he says, it is time now to “liberate Indigenous knowledge” so that our country can achieve “cognitive reconciliation.” That project has gained momentum since the publication of the Truth and Reconciliation Report in 2015.
All of the speakers stressed the word “action”: the Truth and Reconciliation Report is not calling for mere talk. Marie Battiste, for example, decries “culturalism” whereby institutions invite Indigenous elders to say prayers at events, but fail to change anything. Change, said the speakers, requires systemic effort.
The Truth and Reconciliation Report includes ninety-four calls to action, the tenth of which urges educational institutions to develop “culturally appropriate curriculum.” There are many other recommendations pertinent to individual disciplines – for instance, twenty-three of them could have a bearing on the role of Elders in universities.
As far as individual programs are concerned, the nature of any revisions to curricula must of course be discipline specific. According to one speaker, there can be a fear of compromise, but intellectual and academic integrity need not be compromised.
The speakers “perceive faculty associations as allies” in the work of Indigenization. Changes to collective agreements may be necessary – if traditional Indigenous scholars were to play a role in some programs, as an example. Workload might be another example – burnout is a problem for Indigenous professors.
It occurred to me during the course of this conference that there’s a precedent for the work associated with integrating Indigenous knowledges: incorporating feminist studies and women’s studies into university curricula was a sometimes misunderstood and feared endeavor. Research was regarded warily. Feminist faculty were in some cases overburdened with administrative work. Collective agreements needed to be adjusted to ensure that academic freedom in teaching and research were fairly considered. There’s more to be done, but there’s been substantial change in the last decades. It’s now difficult for any program not to consider gender in some capacity. And now it’s time to transform universities in another way.