Effects of Knowledge Gaps

Indigenous Tokenization and Expectations of Expertise

The movement to ‘bridge the knowledge gap’ around Indigenous topics in postsecondary classrooms is not new; in fact, the original What I Learned in Class Today: Aboriginal Issues in the Classroom project (2007) was created to shine light upon and find tools to address problematic comments from students and instructors who do not have a foundational knowledge of Indigenous histories and realities. Mainstream consciousness about the pitfalls in Canada’s pre- and post-secondary education systems is increasing due to initiatives like the TRC Calls to Action and provincial funding for K-12 Indigenous-related curricula.

Indigenous students continue to relate to the traumatic classroom experiences outlined in the original project (Dory Nason) and non-Indigenous undergraduates report that they feel unprepared to engage in discussions about colonialism and Indigeneity (Paige Raibmon). Addressing this divide will not only raise the level of classroom conversations but ensure that the emotional and intellectual responsibility of educating their peers does not fall to the Indigenous students in the room.

Awareness May Be Shifting, But There is More Work to Do

When faculty interviewees were asked if they perceived the classroom climate around Indigenous topics to be improving, most were hesitant to respond with a clear “yes.” Dr. Paige Raibmon observes that while non-Indigenous students still carry the same stereotypes and misconceptions about Indigeneity, they are aware that these topics are important, “that they have a gap somehow in the way they’ve been educated in the public high school system.” Disciplines across UBC have an opportunity to fill these educational oversights by calling students into conversation and raising the bar of student understanding about the history of Indigenous-settler relations across North America.

However, because introductory Indigenous-related curricula is often isolated to specific courses, namely those within the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies, when non-Indigenous students do engage with these topics, it can sometimes occur at the expense of Indigenous student learning. Dr. Sarah Hunt/Tłaliłila’ogwa (Kwagu’l of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation) notes that non-Indigenous students who lack a base knowledge of the history of colonialism can enter class discussions without “doing the work beforehand to think about what might be challenging for them and how they might have to be uncomfortable or to be quiet” [4:28-6:26]. It is from this position of unknowing that ignorant and potentially problematic questions or comments can arise; and while these students encounter the affective side of learning about Indigenous topics, they can co-opt precious class time and detract from the educational objectives of other students in the room, namely FNIS majors and minors.

‘Indigenous Student as Expert’ and Tokenization in Classroom Discussions

Regardless of the course in which these conversations take place, it is the instructor’s responsibility to navigate the variances in student knowledge levels without leaning on Indigenous students in the room. In addition to equipping themselves with strategies to de-escalate heightened classroom situations, instructors must sufficiently educate themselves on their proposed topic so that Indigenous students in the room are not pressured, whether implicitly or explicitly, to adopt the role of educator or share their lived experiences.

The original What I Learned in Class Today: Aboriginal Issues in the Classroom project deemed this problematic tendency the “Aboriginal as expert” concept. When Indigenous students are singled out during discussions, consistently looked to for reassurance, or called on to ‘speak for’ Indigenous peoples, instructors assume that “any Aboriginal person has knowledge of, and is willing to speak to, issues and information regarding Aboriginal peoples and history.”

Thoughtful Teaching Practices: Indigenous Voices in the Classroom

Dr. Coll Thrush addresses this demand for Indigenous students’ emotional and intellectual labour by declaring at the beginning of each course:

“If you’re an Indigenous student, you don’t have to teach. You’re here to learn. If you want to share things from your experience, from your community, from other courses that you’ve taken, great, brilliant, that’s a gift to us. But you’re under no obligation to do that … You’re under no obligation to do anything other than the work of the class.”

Disrupting the tokenization of Indigenous students in educational institutions begins by acknowledging this reality and understanding, as Raibmon suggests, that “no matter how much the instructor cares about not putting that Indigenous student in a difficult position, they’re in a difficult position if they’re the only one.” It takes time and conscious effort on the instructor’s behalf to gain the trust of their students in order to create an environment conducive to critical, rigorous, and mindful discourse. Facilitating meaningful classroom conversations around Indigenous histories and realities means recognizing and addressing these gaps in student awareness; integrating Indigenous teachings across UBC disciplines; and most importantly, refusing to put Indigenous students in the uncomfortable position of addressing problematic comments or educating their peers.

Resources for Further Learning

  • Indigenous Foundations is an educational guide created by the FNIS department summarizing key Indigenous histories, politics, and realities in Canada. This resource is a critical tool in unlearning colonial defaults and can be mentioned after land acknowledgements to guide listeners into further learning or to prepare individuals before facilitating a workshop or conversation about Indigenous-settler relations.
  • Read and respond to the WILICT case study that illustrates tokenization and ‘Indigenous student as expert’ in a problematic classroom encounter. This analysis in UBC’s Open Case Studies project emphasizes the ultimate responsibility of the instructor to facilitate conversations that do not demand the labour of Indigenous students in the room.
  • Check out “An Introduction to Settler Colonialism at UBC: Part Two,” co-created by Justin Wiebe and K. Ho for The Talon, for a breakdown of Indigenous student tokenization on campus.

Refining Your Practice

We are all entering the conversation around Indigenous topics with varying knowledge levels, some hold insight garnered from lived experiences while others may be joining for the first time. The following questions are intended to inspire us all to consider where we fall within a scale of understanding about Indigenous histories, knowledges, and realities. As a stepping stone, it may be helpful to first answer the ‘Refining Your Practice’ prompts from the positionality article.

  • Try to envision the first learning opportunity about Indigenous topics that you encountered within the University—what pathways to further learning have you utilized both within and beyond the University since then? Create a list of resources, individuals, and teaching moments that have increased your own knowledge levels.
  • If you are an instructor, how might these resources that have assisted your own journey be used to decrease the knowledge gaps in your classroom?


By Keirra Webb