How Indigenous on-the-land education fits into and shapes a future polytechnical university being planned for Yellowknife is a critical discussion point for Northern post-secondary education planners.
Close to 30 people attended the first installment of the GNWT’s Speaker Series on Post-Secondary Education on March 8, which involved a panel of Roger Epp, director at University of Alberta North, Glen Coulthard, associate professor at the University of British Columbia and chair of the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning board of directors, Dechinta alumni Justina Black and Kyla Lesage and Kimberly Fairman, a public health masters student with the University of Alberta and executive director with the Institute of Circumpolar Health Research.
The GNWT Department of Education, Culture and Employment has set up a series of seven community talks over March involving groups or individuals already part of post-secondary education in the NWT. The goal is to develop discussion and ideas toward a new polytechnical university in Yellowknife. The talks complement a public survey that the department is trying to get out to NWT residents to hear what is important to them in planning for a new post-secondary institution.
The audience heard that bridging western-style universities which promote preparedness of graduates as free liberal thinkers and workers for the job market with institutions aiming to revitalize Indigenous identity, culture, language and on-the-land practices, should be a key consideration for planning a polytechnical university.
“Universities historically have been transmission belts from rural, Northern childhoods into urban professional careers,” said Epp, who emphasized that the unique local culture of the North ought to heavily influence what a future university looks like. “The transmission belt goes one way, but it doesn’t always come back the other way.
“Out of my experience has come a deepened conviction that a university needs to own its place and it needs to be at home in its place. In other words, it needs a different ethos.”
Epp stressed that, in part, this means a Northern university cannot simply emulate other institutions to merely be respected and should hire faculty who are strictly dedicated to working in and for the North.
“A polytechnic university in the NWT will betray every hope if it pretends it could be anywhere, just pumping out credential students for the job market,” he said.
Black and Lesage, two Indigenous women and Dechinta alumni on the panel, said from their experiences, southern universities in Canada have limitations when it comes to allowing Indigenous peoples to express their identities. They agree that the North needs to retain a system of education that speaks to the needs of Northerners and Indigenous people.
“In order to receive a university degree for Northern students, we are forced to make the decision to leave our community, our culture and our family,” said Lesage, who found attending the University of British Columbia for three years challenging.
“I found myself trapped and confined to a university-style lecture hall where I was unable to find my voice as an Indigenous person. This is when I decided to reach out and apply to the Dechinta program. ”
A post-secondary education should be more than an education, Lesage said, as on-the-land teaching eventually helped her with the process of “decolonizing her education.”
Dechinta, she said, serves as a “movement” as it promotes Indigenous resistance through traditional practices like fishing, hunting, harvesting, collecting and making medicine and being exposed to Indigenous scholarly writing.
“Only through land-based teaching will we find our way back to what was taken from us,” she said. “And allowing us to uphold our elders and our ancestors that got us to where we are today.”
Black, who also attended Dechinta after high school and before attending the University of Alberta Native Studies program, found moving south to be challenging because of the “western-European style education.”
“Having a land-based university would be ideal for myself and many other Indigenous and non-Indigenous students who would like to stay to further their education and who would not like to be exposed to the western-style education that is in the south,” she said. “The people of Denendeh should not have to feel pressured to move south to further their education. By allowing our people to be educated in our territory, it ensures they stay in our territory. It also continues the cycle of educating our people in the Dene way.”
Bringing the two systems together
Tom Weegar, associate deputy minister of post-secondary education renewal asked panelists about the challenges of “indigenizing” post-secondary education and if they thought there are “ways or models of how we bring the two together to benefit all students in the NWT.”
Coulthard said western-style systems of education and colonialism need to be disconnected in any future consideration of Northern post-secondary education and that the two systems of knowledge should co-exist, likely in a federated model.
“I actually don’t think of them as not in conversation together,” he said.
“They are necessarily in conversation together, but one has come to dominate how, from the outside, we impose these frameworks of understanding on local, land-based communities in ways that is continuing that colonial relationship and arrogance. So I actually think we very much are necessarily in relationship with each other. That is what we have been trying to impart on institutions in partnership with.”
Fairman agreed that working toward a federated model of the schools with the university has its benefits, but noted a future university should not focus exclusively on job creating and feeding industry.
“I think there is a lot of focus on catering to economic development or industry and that bothers me a lot,” she said. “I want my children to study in areas that they are interested in and where they feel they can make a real contribution. I don’t want them thinking ‘I need a job in order to participate meaningfully. And that in order to get that job, I need this education.’ It is so limiting.”