The “I” in Relation–Everyone Has a Role to Play

When our faculty participants were asked whose responsibility it is to take on or address questions of Indigenous engagement and curriculum, most responded with the emphatic declaration that it is “everybody’s responsibility.” The University of British Columbia holds a critical position in the national and global gaze as postsecondary institutions are seeking solutions to address the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. Call 62. ii mandates institutions to provide the necessary funding to educate instructors on the respectful integration of Indigenous knowledges and teaching methods into their classrooms. Yet as instructors begin their journey of self-education, they are often at a loss of where to begin and turn to the departments and individuals who started this work long before the TRC came to be. Dr. Sarah Hunt/Tłaliłila’ogwa (Kwagu’ł of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation) outlines the common questions she receives as an Indigenous faculty member in CIS:

“I want to know more about Indigenous issues, what do I do? Or, I want to incorporate this into my classroom … where do I start?

Hunt responds with a counter question intended to incite self-reflection on one’s positionality and relationship to place: she asks, “where are you?” By compelling us to “start local,” Hunt is modelling the responsibility that all guests hold to the traditional and ancestral owners of the unceded lands upon which UBC-Vancouver resides. Hunt recommends that instructors familiarize themselves with the Memorandum of Affiliation between UBC and the Musqueam First Nation in order to consider how this document of relationality impacts their engagement on campus.

Dr. Dory Nason, an Anishinaabe professor, makes the important observation that this emotionally and mentally taxing labour too often falls on the shoulders of Indigenous faculty and staff. It is past time for people not centrally in the field to step up and teach these topics in responsible ways while still maintaining financial stability and support for the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies. In addition to hiring Indigenous faculty and staff across disciplines, one of the main recommendations from the interviewees was for all members of the UBC community to consider their social position.

Positioning Yourself in the Classroom

Articulating your positionality means locating yourself in your familial history, discerning where your knowledge comes from, and addressing the lived experiences that guide your perspective in your life, research, and teaching roles. We all inhabit intersectional identity groups that connote varying levels of power and privilege such as race, socioeconomic class, ability, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. This critical ‘autobiography’ has become a common practice in the field of Indigenous Studies, especially as a means of self-location on the first day of classes. In fact, Social Position was one of four key discussion topics from the original What I Learned in Class Today: Aboriginal Issues in the Classroom project that outlined the necessity for facilitators/professors to “understand who you are and what your social location is, and how your social location is perceived by others.” Understanding our identities exposes the lens through which we view the world. As Cree Dr. Jeffrey Paul Ansloos writes in ““To Speak in Our Own Ways About the World, Without Shame”: Reflections on Indigenous Resurgence in Anti-Oppressive Research,” “how we understand who we are often shapes how we are in our research” and by extension, in our classrooms (7).

Dr. Coll Thrush and Dr. David Gaertner describe how addressing their positionality as settler-scholars helps to decentralize the authority in the classroom. This pedagogical practice creates space for students to share their knowledge without the expectation for Indigenous students to be the experts or educate their peers. By coupling this with a rhetoric of vulnerability—an acknowledgement of the challenges instructors face in the classroom—faculty can work towards creating classroom environments predicated on principles of honesty, relationship-building, and mutual support.

This process of self-education, unlearning colonial defaults, and integrating Indigenous histories, knowledges, and perspectives into classrooms at UBC does not happen in a silo. It is by thinking in relational ways and considering how your classroom content will affect your students, colleagues, and community members that we can begin to create a more positive campus environment. In other words, we must consider the “I” in relation.

Resources for Further Learning

  • For more information on the history of positionality statements, read “The History is Personal—Redux: Positionality” by Dr. Andrea Eidinger.
  • Turn to Dr. Daniel Heath Justice’s Teaching Philosophy Statement to see a UBC professor’s pedagogical approach to positioning himself in the classroom.
  • Acknowledging your positionality means recognizing your relationship to place. The Indigenous-led resource, Native Land, offers an ever-expanding account of the Indigenous lands upon which we live and work. Type in your coordinates to see whose territory you are on and check out the Teacher’s Guide for tips and responsibilities when utilizing the map.
  • Further your understanding of positionality and place by enrolling in the 60-minute Canvas course created by CTLT Indigenous Initiatives and HR Workplace Learning & Engagement: Respect, Sincerity & Repsonsibility: Land Acknowledgement @ UBC. Currently available to UBC community members with a CWL or those with a Canvas account.
  • Use the Privilege Walk resource adapted by the IN/Relation team but developed by The Time and Place at UBC project to facilitate department conversations around positionality work; as a welcome activity for the first day of classes; or to encourage any other groups, clubs, or organizations on and off campus to reflect on their relationship to place. It is highly recommended that all participants complete the Social Identity Worksheet before beginning the activity.

Refining Your Practice

The following prompts are inspired by my own engagement with positionality over the course of my undergraduate degree during which I minored in First Nations and Indigenous Studies. Through experiences both inside and outside of the classroom I have learned the importance of acknowledging the ways in which our intersectional identities shape our perspectives, inform our understanding of the world, and influence our interactions on and off campus. The questions are furthered informed by resources that the What I Learned in Class Today project lead, Amy Perreault, has developed for her courses within the First Nations Curriculum Concentration at the UBC iSchool.

  • Set aside 15-30 minutes to reflect on these writing prompts developed by the Indigenous Initiatives Team:
    • Introduce yourself and where you grew up. What Indigenous territory did you grow up on? When and from whom did you learn about your relationship to this place?
    • If you were in a classroom discussing Indigenous histories, knowledges, and perspectives, how might your positionality inform your relationship and responsibilities to these topics and to others in the room? What are some of the internal pressures or emotions that may arise? How does your social position grant or limit your access to certain forms of information?


By Keirra Webb