A Framework for Furthering Indigenous Initiatives at the University

A motivating question for the What I Learned in Class Today: Educational Experiences and Institutional Responses (WILICT) project is the extent to which university-wide and national policies of Indigenous engagement, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action and the UBC Indigenous Strategic Plans (ISP), have prompted tangible, positive change in the experiences of Indigenous people on campus. As Dr. Coll Thrush summarizes, the project asks, “to what extent are those things [changes] symbolic? Or do they actually lead to concrete manifestations of change in peoples’ everyday lives?” It is critical that all those in roles that influence the university climate—from instructors curating syllabi with Indigenous content to administrative staff creating policies of hiring or tenure—reflect upon this distinction between symbolic versus meaningful change.

Considering on the Ground Experiences

Insomuch as WILICT faculty participants emphasize the responsibility everyone at the university has to Indigenous initiatives, they also caution against change without consultation or co-creation. Dr. Aftab Erfan says, change “has to be an ongoing kind of thing to ensure that there isn’t just a rush to kind of check off the list, or a rush to put a strategy in place, or to get funding.” Foregrounding the experiential side of change is a principle evident in the 2020 Indigenous Strategic Plan which acknowledges the daily reality of colonialism for Indigenous students, faculty, and staff at UBC (9). The Indigenous Strategic Plan’s first call to action to further Indigenous peoples’ human rights and respect on campus is to “develop Indigenous-focused committees, advisories and leadership roles across the University” (26). In other words, to weave Indigenous voices and lived experiences into the heart of leadership positions across the “University’s academic and operational functions” (26).

Financial Security for Sustainable Change

Part of answering this call means securing financial stability for Indigenous-led movements, particularly those that are student run. Having access to funding beyond the reach of bureaucratic change, that is “not dictated by the institution or by non-Indigenous people” (Dr. Sarah Hunt), not only creates an environment in which Indigenous students can voice their needs and build community but one where change can be economically sustainable and long-term. Dr. Linc Kesler, a leading figure in UBC’s Indigenous initiatives and key creator of the (then) First Nations Studies Program, explains in his interview: “it’s really hard to get things going and keep them going because even if the money is forthcoming from the institution, that’s by no means a given.”

Welcoming Difficult Conversations When Advocating for Change

Settler scholars and tenured UBC professors, Dr. Mark Turin and Dr. Coll Thrush, both articulated the importance of mobilizing from within your given role at the University to support institutional change like securing financial stability for Indigenous initiatives. Turin explains, “as faculty members, you know, tenured faculty members, we have enormous privilege, we have secure jobs and we have a responsibility to use that power and that privilege to ensure that less secure people, precarious positions, whether it be adjunct positions or staff positions are getting the strength and support that they need.” Tenured faculty along with “our university structures, library systems … administrators and leadership” all have a role to play in bringing forth change.

Change is neither linear nor void of roadblocks because, as Turin cautions, “if we’re not being challenged, we’re not working hard enough.” Dr. Aftab Erfan shared one such example in which an instructor introduced to his class a report he found on a First Nations’ website without realizing that this Nation was already in partnership with the University. The instructor was likely incorporating this report from a place of good intention yet by overlooking this relationship and neglecting to seek permission from the Nation, his actions were perceived as extractive. Dr. Aftab Erfan suggests that to prevent such painful misunderstandings, we must re-evaluate our frameworks of engagement. She says: “I think some of the slowness that we are experiencing is also that of some of the experiments are not landing well and it’s because we are not thinking in relational ways.”

One means of reconciling tense and potentially painful moments where intention fails to align with reception, is to invite conversation. Learning to actively listen to and discuss instances where efforts of Indigenous engagement go awry without tapping on the shoulders of Indigenous faculty, students, and staff is a necessary element of working towards change. In the words of Dr. Patricia Barkaskas, if the University came together “as a community and said, ‘we need to do something about this. The way we responded to this as a community wasn’t good, let’s talk about it.’ I think that would have been really helpful because [for Indigenous peoples] to have to take on the burden all the time of raising these issues continually … it’s just a burden that’s exhausting.”

Unequal Distribution of Labour

Seeing ourselves within a web of relationships allows us to honour and uphold our responsibilities to the UBC community. Funding does not ensure the success of a given initiative because, in its current state, Indigenous faculty, students, and staff are most often doing the work. Dr. Sarah Hunt reminds us of the importance of thinking about the infrastructure that supports Indigenous initiatives and the need for more individuals to share the weight of change.

Relational Engagement: Rethinking the Framework

Whether we walk onto this campus as one of almost 56,000 students or 16,447 faculty and staff, we are automatically placed in relationship with each other, with the university machinery, and with the unceded xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) lands upon which UBC-Vancouver resides. Despite this relationality, the university experience can often be anonymizing and isolating. Advocating for and implementing Indigenous initiatives, then, requires a framework of engagement that upholds these connections. Dr. Sarah Hunt describes the “care work” that her colleagues, and Indigenous women especially, put into their teaching and engagement with students. This “relational approach” requires “time and energy in a different way that is not ticking off a box.”

She continues, “I think it would just be really great to think about community building before policy or to think about, you know, relationship building before whatever the next box is that we’re checking off. So, I think, because that’s just, that has to be long-term and if we think about the university as a community … that kind of approach is different than thinking about it as an institution or business or whatever. But also thinking about it as a community first means that we prioritize spaces to get together, to get to know each other, to check in with each other, to have the ability to have real conversations not just in formal ways.”

We must all ask ourselves if we are acting in relational ways, if we are holding up our responsibilities to the land and to one another. Furthering Indigenous initiatives at UBC means recognizing ourselves within a web of connectivity and finding opportunities within our given roles to enact meaningful and tangible change.

Resources for Further Learning

  • Check out Ashley Courchene’s article, “A Move Towards Conciliation in Academia,” to engage with the critical conversation about decolonizing educational environments.
  • Read this short piece in the Vancouver Sun or listen to the Blue & Gold podcast by Sheryl Lightfoot, Santa Ono, and Margaret Moss for an overview of UBC’s 2020 Indigenous Strategic Plan.
  • Becca Shortt and Alicia Hibbert’s important piece on “Why the Word “Indigenizing” Makes Us Uncomfortable” is a must-read for anyone working towards decolonization or reconciliation within academic institutions and beyond.
  • A central part of adopting a relational framework means recognizing that our actions will not always align with our intentions, that we will make mistakes, and that it is our responsibility to make amends and seek to repair our relationships. Reflect upon this two-part series on “The Four Parts of Accountability: How to Give a Genuine Apology” by Mia Mingus, a transformative justice educator and queer, physically disabled, Korean, transracial and transnational adoptee raised in the Caribbean.

Discussion Questions

To conclude the 6-part series for the WILICT Faculty Perspectives film, I leave us with questions that encourage every member of the UBC community to recognize the potential of our words and actions to advance Indigenous initiatives across the University. I can think of no better way of doing so than by turning to the 2020 Indigenous Strategic Plan.

  • Read through the 2020 Indigenous Strategic Plan and locate yourself within the calls to action. Within your role(s) at UBC, how might you assist in bringing this vision into reality? What is this document asking of you?
  • Envision a university environment that upholds Indigenous knowledges, languages, and peoples. What does this look like at an administrative level? In the classroom? On campus?


By Keirra Webb