[Editor's note: Young aboriginals in Canada, a fast-growing group, have their gaze set on taking expanding roles in realms such as politics and the economy. But most of those roles require a post-secondary education. With mainstream university settings clearly falling short, this series by Tyee Solutions Society reporter Katie Hyslop looks at some unconventional institutions or programs which have set out to deliver post-secondary-level instruction, with a clearly indigenous voice. Find the series so far here.]
When Lisa Monchalin was hired by Kwantlen Polytechnic University to leave Ontario and come to its Surrey campus to teach a course about aboriginal injustices in 2011, she made clear to administrators that her ambitions for the school didn't stop there.
"I remember being at my interview and saying, 'Okay, if I come out here, I'm getting [aboriginal programming] going,' " said Monchalin, who is of Algonquin, Métis, and Huron descent.
Her previous teaching experience at the University of Ottawa—where she also became the first aboriginal woman in Canada to earn a criminology PhD—and at Algonquin College had shown her the academic, social, and cultural benefits that a vibrant aboriginal presence on campus provides.
But it was a different story when she arrived at Kwantlen two years ago.
Despite its location in Metro Vancouver, home to the third-largest urban aboriginal population in Canada, and sharing its name with a local First Nation (kwantlen means "tireless runner"), the Surrey campus offered little visible recognition of aboriginal culture and histories. Its Aboriginal Gathering Place was barely used, Monchalin found.
Based on her previous experience, she believed the best way to support aboriginal students at her new university was through the school's recognition and celebration of indigenous cultures and histories.
Monchalin's drive to improve the aboriginal experience at Kwantlen landed her the position of the university's indigenous studies program developer. In addition to teaching two Aboriginal Injustice classes, she now spends what spare time she has meeting with university administration, indigenous studies faculty at other schools, aboriginal organizations, students and community members to design the university's first indigenous studies program.
Pleasing them all is going to be difficult, maybe even impossible. Kwantlen has four Lower Mainland campuses that sit on the territory of five different First Nations bands.
But it's a problem Monchalin's willing to tackle head-on. As she sees it, it also offers an historic opportunity to heal rifts between academic and indigenous communities.
"We need to have a program that legitimizes that we should be here, that we are welcome here, and this is aboriginal, unceded Coast Salish territory," she says.
Indigenous Community Justice
A full program would cap Monchalin's efforts since she arrived in 2011 to inject more indigenous content into Kwantlen's academic life.
Along with Melinda Bige, president of the AbOriginal Resurgence students' group, Monchalin has organized aboriginal singers, drummers and dancers for the school's annual Salmon BBQ; held drumming circles and drum making workshops with students; and created the school's annual Aboriginal Day.
But indigenous students who took her Aboriginal Injustice course were still telling her the same thing, she said: "'I don't know much about my culture, I would like to know more. It's one of the reasons I'm taking your class.' There was this desire for students to know more, and to learn and be involved and engaged."
When Kwantlen administration approached Monchalin earlier this year to talk about developing aboriginal programming, she asked them for either a major or minor program in indigenous studies.
She imagines founding the program on subjects she knows well: law and community. She envisions a bachelor of arts major in Indigenous Community Justice, with separate streams for justice and community.
The community stream would serve students seeking to work with indigenous people, either through aboriginal organizations, the government, or organizations with aboriginal clientele.
The justice stream would be for students interested in social change, working in the treaty and civil justice field, or using the course as a stepping-stone to a masters degree in a similar area.
But before it accepts its first students, Kwantlen's program must pass a test of its own. The provincial Ministry of Advanced Education must approve the program according to two strict requirements: it needs to be unique and innovative, and it has to lead to future employment.
Monchalin shares those goals. But government isn't the only group she needs to please.
"I want to make sure I develop a program which the (aboriginal) community wants, is going to be helpful, and will reach those goals of being innovative and providing students with jobs," she said.
If the community doesn't like the justice idea, she says, she's happy to start from scratch to create a program more relevant to its needs.
Narrowing the Focus
The 20 people who met around an oval boardroom table at the Surrey campus on July 11 had come to help Monchalin achieve those goals.
Participants in the first Indigenous Studies Aboriginal Community Consultation meeting represented a wide variety of stakeholders in the anticipated program.
Kwantlen students, faculty and staff attended, along with the Surrey RCMP's First Nations Policing Unit; representatives from Douglas College's and Simon Fraser University's indigenous programs; Vancouver Native Housing; the Kwantlen First Nation; and the Native Courtworkers and Counsellors Association, to name only some.
Monchalin opened the meeting with a PowerPoint presentation outlining her ideas about Indigenous Community Justice.
She proposed a four-year, Bachelor of Arts program incorporating courses like anthropology, history and criminology that already exist at Kwantlen, with yet-to-be-approved indigenous culture-oriented courses like Introduction to Oral Knowledge, Canada's Indigenous Languages, and Indigenous Women: Struggle, Sexualization and Subjugation.
Then the floor was opened to questions. Although many people supported Monchalin's ideas, they also suggested that the need for aboriginal academics might be too broad to cover with just one program.
Some people took issue with making courses in indigenous languages, music and drumming mandatory; they argued that could undermine the authority of First Nations, Inuit and Métis elders—the traditional conduits for that knowledge.
Before post-secondary institutions began offering courses in indigenous studies, elders were the sole source of cultural knowledge in aboriginal communities. Today some members of those communities, both elders and the younger generations, believe teachings like drumming and dancing should remain their prerogative.
Others felt indigenous literature should be mandatory, along with such learning-competency courses as essay writing and note-taking.
Still others asserted that while the program needs to respect the fact that the school is on Kwantlen territory, it should reflect the needs of other local First Nations that house Kwantlen campuses as well.
The program should reach out to indigenous men, who pursue post-secondary education at much lower rates than their female peers. It should be inclusive of Métis, Inuit and non-status people of aboriginal origin, and emphasize the urban context many live in. It should work to de-colonize and heal students, but also to prepare them for the workforce.
Growing Nations Needs Education
The Kwantlen First Nation's education coordinator, Cheryl Gabriel, represented her band at the July 11 meeting. In 1981, her father, former Chief Joe Gabriel, gave permission for then-Kwantlen College to use their nation's name.
Gabriel sits on KPU's Vice President Academic's Standing Committee on Aboriginal Education, which also includes members of the Semiahmoo, Tsawwassen, Musqueam and Katzie bands. But the advisory board hasn't met in almost a year and Gabriel was the only band representative at Monchalin's meeting.
She acknowledges the wide array of needs being projected onto KPU's proposed indigenous programming. Gabriel has a few desires for the program herself, including weaving aboriginal content into disciplines beyond what Kwantlen already weaves into anthropology, sociology and nursing, which threads an experiential learning aspect—students learning about aboriginal culture from direct interactions with aboriginal traditions—with Gabriel's husband as resident elder.
She'd also like to see more language education, specifically for the two Halkomelem dialects spoken on Kwantlen territory, Halq'eméylem and h?n?q??min'?m; more of the history of the Kwantlen and other surrounding nations; and research that could directly benefit the community, whether that had to do with land claims, other legal issues, or maintaining their culture.
Gabriel says KPU is late to the table. She was involved with the same process at University of the Fraser Valley at least three years ago. Still she's happy to see it happening at all.
She approves of KPU's "treading very lightly, and listening first," instead of rushing into a program of their own design that may not attract Kwantlen students to the university that bears their nation's name. "I just hope it doesn't stop," she adds. "It's got to be more than one meeting. I hope it continues."
And Gabriel thinks Kwantlen First Nation students will come. Once a nation of 10,000 people, by the 1960s there were only 92 individuals left of the Kwantlen First Nation. But it's slowly rebuilding: the population is 260 today, expected soon to exceed 300, now that the federal Gender Equity in Indian Registration law has restored status to people whose grandmothers married non-indigenous men.
More people means more infrastructure in the community, like cultural centres and expanded administration offices. More infrastructure means a more educated population will be required so they can hire people from within the community to work there.
"Longhouses are being built again. And everything is starting to come back with freedom and with pride. That's been a long time coming for our people," she said.
'It's Time We Were Educated': Bige
Melinda Bige, the sociology and anthropology student who's been helping Monchalin increase the aboriginal presence on campus, says helping to create an indigenous program has been one of her goals for Kwantlen since her education started four years ago.
Bige had a difficult time in school. Although she knew her mother was First Nations—her maternal grandparents are Cree and Lutsel-K'e Dene—and her family lived in native housing in Surrey, she didn't feel "native."
"It didn't really occur to me except when (First Nations events) were going on and I was like, 'Oh yeah, I'm native!'," she said. But she would only watch these events, never participate.
Despite her disconnection from her roots, her peers recognized her as different and she felt punished for it. Sometimes it was intentional.
"The kids in the neighbourhood would come to the native complex and hang outside and try to beat the crap out of us. So my brother would fight them, and we'd run to school," she recalled.
Other times discrimination felt more pervasive, as though her peers didn't even realize their actions were racist.
"It's not that people intentionally or maliciously try to hurt you, it's just you're kind of excluded and you don't really know why," she said, looking back on her high school years in particular.
"And then people make small cracks—it's not aggressively racist—about 'Oh, you're in the native complex' and comments about alcohol and addictions or how it's 'ghetto'."
It took until her second year of university to get in touch with her heritage and put a name to the issues from her past: colonialism.
"I'd like to help facilitate that knowledge for indigenous students and aboriginal students, because there's a lot of shame and a lot of mixed emotions, even for people who don't identify (as indigenous)," she said.
Bige wants the program to assist in the process of cultural decolonization. For her, that means deconstructing everything she has been taught is 'normal' about Canadian society—and supposedly abnormal about indigenous societies—and deciding for herself what she wants to believe.
In a western society where people are expected to be on time, all the time, she observes, "One of the stereotypes that people have [is], 'native people are always late because they're irresponsible'."
But First Nations often prioritize understanding instead of time, she points out. To decolonize the idea that punctuality or speed are more important than understanding, Bige says "(Instead of saying) 'I have to do this reading for class, and I'm going to give myself three hours to do it', you work on it slowly until you understand it. It's not based around time, it's based around understanding instead."
She likens her definition of decolonization to the critical thinking every university student applies to the information they were fed in grade school. Instead of just believing the stories you were told, for instance about the history of colonization in Canada, Bige says, you dissect the nationalist point of view, read opposing views and decide what you believe.
She hopes that by unpacking colonization, and decolonizing students' thinking, the indigenous studies program can help heal history's negative effects and create a more positive future for coming generations.
Still, she recognizes that's not a program that everyone in the indigenous community entirely agrees with.
"There (are) a lot of elders that feel that we shouldn't have this program, because it undermines the authority of aboriginal community," she says. "But I think that it's time we were educated."
Gabriel, KPU's aboriginal coordinator, agrees that some elders fear losing their roles as cultural teachers. "And I totally understand where that comes from," she adds. But that too, she says, is another symptom of colonialism.
"(There are) some very prideful nations that want to keep (their culture) close and not let it go out. And then there's someone like me who's just learning about their culture and we don't understand why they feel that," she said.
Gabriel says Canada's history of attempting to eradicate First Nations culture has made elders wary. They want to protect their culture and prevent it from being misinterpreted by non-indigenous educators and institutions.
"And I don't think that they're wrong," the Kwantlen member added. "I think that they're absolutely right."
She knows that just because she likes the idea of the program, it doesn't give her license to sign off on the idea for the rest of her nation.
"That's what a lot of our people carry with themselves: we can't just speak for 'me', we can't speak just for our children. We speak for more than us," she said.
What Aboriginal Justice Really Means
Ultimately it doesn't matter much to Monchalin what the program focuses on, so long as it is indigenously centred, led and approved.
As a criminology professor, she's interested in justice for aboriginal people in the typical law-and-order sense: treaties, land claims, the overrepresentation of aboriginal people in Canada's prison system. But her brand of justice encompasses much more: nothing less than ending racism and colonialism.
As a start, she said: "We are on unceded Coast Salish territory. So this should be a place where people can have access to learning traditional languages of the land [on] which we reside." She's talking with a professor in linguistics about creating language classes.
"That's what I mean by 'justice'," Monchalin says. "And having what I would call 'real' history classes, [that cover] what is the history of the treaties? What are they about? What do they mean? Where are we today?"
There is no tight timeline for the program's unveiling, but Monchalin hopes to enroll the first students next September.
In the meantime, aboriginal recognition and reconciliation efforts will continue at Kwantlen. Like many other post-secondary institutions in the Lower Mainland, Kwantlen held events during Truth and Reconciliation Week when the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission came to Vancouver last month.
KPU didn't cancel classes as some other schools did. Instead, Monchalin, who is also on the school's Truth and Reconciliation Committee, says professors were informed months in advance about the Commission and what it meant for aboriginal people.
Instead of holding regular classes during its B.C. presence, the university asked its faculty to direct their students to cultural events happening on campus, like button-blanket sewing, talks with elders, and a powwow.
"These are [opportunities] to teach and educate people—community, university students, faculty, staff—about residential schools and about this piece of our history," said Monchalin.
But she hopes that soon students won't need to skip classes, or wait until an historic ceremonial moment occurs, to learn about the realities facing indigenous people in the Lower Mainland. Instead, they'll be immersed in those realities as their major study.
Katie Hyslop writes about education and youth well-being for Tyee Solutions Society. This article was produced by Tyee Solutions Society in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives (TCI), with funding from the Vancouver Foundation. TCI and the Vancouver Foundation neither influence nor endorse the particular content of TSS' reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this story or other Tyee Solutions Society-produced articles, please see the Tyee Solutions Society website for contacts and information.