Setting a new context for indigenous
research and education
by Martha Crago
has been almost 20 years since I did
research in the homes and schools of
indigenous people of Quebec. I obtained
ethical approval for that work at my
university. This consisted of me showing my grant proposal to a colleague down the
hall who had no experience with indigenous
people and asking her to sign off on it. In my
work with Inuit communities in Nunavik, Inuit
conducted the interviews, transcribed the vid-eotapes and advised me on my findings. Two
Inuit colleagues published articles with me. In
the end, only I obtained a PhD out of that work.
Our findings were communicated in workshops for Inuit and non-Inuit teachers, and integrated into courses that were taught in Inuktitut
in Northern communities as a part of a remarkable teacher education program offered by
McGill University. Some of the students in these
courses had never had formal schooling. Others
had been sent to a residential school or to the
south to live with families and attend school
there. The younger people had attended high
school in their home communities.
It was a point in time in Nunavik when peo-
ple still spoke their language fluently and when
Inuktitut was taught full-time from kindergarten
to Grade 2. The courses enriched the language
environment of the teachers enrolled in them.
The classroom was filled with Inuktitut – orally,
in readings and on blackboards. The courses led
to certificates, diplomas and bachelor’s degrees
and, in a few cases, to master’s degrees. When
I look back, I wonder why university degrees
taught in this way happened so sporadically and
took such a long time to come about. Overall, as
a country, we have missed many crucial years of
indigenous language fluency both in university
education and in public school classrooms.
Clearly, we have also missed many possible and
exciting ways that postsecondary education
could be delivered.
This past year, the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action have
brought us back on track. In the area of research,
it was preceded in 2014 by the Tri-Council Policy
Statement on Research Involving the First
Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples of Canada. That
statement lays out how an ethics framework in
indigenous contexts should work – fortunately,
one can no longer run down the hall for a rapid
ethics sign-off as I once did. The core principles
of respect for indigenous governing authorities
and structures, the recognition of diverse interests in a community, and respect for community
customs and codes of practice are all clearly
spelled out. Again, it is spellbinding and frankly
shameful to think that it took so many years for
this basic framework to have been put in place.
The TRC Calls to Action concerning education are numerous and specify among them the
importance of adequate funding for postsecondary education, the enactment of an Aboriginal
languages act and the nature of professional
postsecondary education. For instance, teacher
education must provide education on indigenous
knowledge and indigenous teaching methods.
Social work education must provide education
and training about the history and impacts of
residential schools. Research funding and pro-
grams for advancing the understanding of rec-
onciliation are also called for.
Finally, although this is not specified per se,
indigenous research will increasingly be conducted by indigenous researchers using indigenous ways of knowing. This will mean new
theses, tenure and promotion, and grant review
processes and programs. Less than one percent
of today’s PhD holders in Canada are indigenous
people. Recently, one of them spoke to the advisory panel reviewing federal support of fundamental research (of which I am a member) about
how she and others are called upon to do many
things in their communities. Research may not
be the first order of priority, and this means that
indigenous people with doctoral degrees have a
heavy load of demands on them.
Some years ago, I discovered that indigenous
Alaskans at the University of Alaska were explicitly taught different genres of writing: how to
write on a subject in an academic manner, how
to write on the same subject to inform their home
community and, finally, how to present the same
information at a negotiating table. Indigenous
Canadian scholars will also have to meet community needs while fulfilling tenure requirements. Their education, employment and research
will need to be shaped by and responsive to those
varying demands. In so doing, they will change
our educational and research institutions in new
and unforeseen ways. We are back on track but
we still have a long way to go.
Martha Crago is vice-president,
research, at Dalhousie University.
Her column appears in every
second issue of University Affairs.
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