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Reconciliation and Mandatory Indigenous Content Courses: What are the University’s Responsibilities?

March 17, 2016

by Rauna Kuokkanen

I fully agree with everyone who argues that Canadian university students do not know enough about Indigenous peoples and their societies, histories, political orders and worldviews or systems of knowledge. Yet, I’m wary of the growing chorus of calls for mandatory courses on Indigenous issues in Canadian universities. I fear we as Indigenous scholars and educators are selling ourselves short. Especially for universities that have not shown serious and long-standing commitment to Indigenous studies and scholarship, mandatory courses are an easy way out.

A lot has been written on both the pros and cons of mandatory courses on Indigenous peoples and the logistics of designing, implementing and teaching such courses: who is going to teach the courses, under which unit with what kind of financial and human resources available (see, GaudryJustice; and McDonald). I share these and other concerns about how to ensure the courses will meet the intended objectives instead of end up being counterproductive and backfiring, especially on Indigenous students and faculty.

My fundamental unease, however, has to do with the obstinate refusal of the academy to go beyond relatively shallow changes in the curriculum and to address its academic practices and discourses that enable the continued exclusion of other than dominant Western epistemic and intellectual traditions. Reconciliation becomes a quick-fix solution or an item on a list, which once checked, needs no further consideration or attention.

The university remains a contested site where not only knowledge but also middle-class, Eurocentric, patriarchal and (neo)colonial values are produced and reproduced. As Althusser and others have exposed, the academy is one of the main sites of reproduction of hegemony. In my previous work, I have argued that the university as an institution is generally an inhospitable place not only for Indigenous students or faculty but also to Indigenous worldviews and philosophies. By and large, it remains a hostile host that shows a weak commitment to Indigenous people on a number of levels. Most universities located on Indigenous peoples’ lands practice willful amnesia in order to ignore the presence of the original hosts. The institutional denial to come to grips with the history of its colonial relations poses a serious obstacle to establishing contemporary relations of reconciliation.

The university claims to profess knowledge yet its epistemological foundations remain narrow, exclusionary and Eurocentric. As a hegemonic institution of knowledge production, the university is not only ignorant but deeply dismissive of Indigenous philosophies and worldviews that do not conform to the dominant western thought and its intellectual practices. Instead of viewing Indigenous epistemic and intellectual traditions as archaic, pre-modern objects of study (or mere add-ons that can be included and removed as one pleases), reconciliation in the university necessitates considering them indispensable elements in the process of pursuing knowledge, as imperatives for the university in professing its very profession.

The mere inclusion of Indigenous issues in curriculum is problematic if the frameworks of interpretation and analysis remain unchanged. Viewing Indigenous peoples’ philosophies and systems of knowledge through the lens of modern, Enlightenment assumptions yields only epistemic violence and biased, stereotypical (mis)interpretations. Will mandatory courses teach Indigenous issues through Western epistemic conventions or through Indigenous intellectual traditions and systems of knowing? In short, it is the old question of whether we are teaching Indigenous content in an otherwise hegemonic institution where business goes on as usual, or whether universities are ready to engage more profoundly with Indigenous concepts of the world, the human being, and the relationship between the two. Can that be accomplished in a single mandatory survey course?

As an elite institution of privilege producing and reproducing knowledge, the university has a considerable responsibility in embarking on the road to reconciliation. The first question the university should be ready and willing to examine is its ultimate objective and motive with mandatory courses and other acts of reconciliation. Will mandatory courses be an end to themselves? Is their objective to merely ensure a disengaged multicultural appreciation of “the other” and colonial containment—whether arrogant or benevolent—that simply replicates superficial and stereotypical cultural representations and constructions of Indigenous peoples? Or will complex and demanding issues such as settler colonialism, land rights, dispossession, state violence, heteropatriarchy, racism and sexism form the core of the curriculum? Will mandatory courses be an opening of the door for the university to do its homework and to examine its own colonial assumptions, practices and complicity? All of these questions stand in the way of true reconciliation.

The university’s role in reconciliation should not be limited to only an internal scrutiny of its own hegemonic practices of knowledge production but would need to extend to a commitment to dismantle oppressive, violent structures in society so that Indigenous women and girls no longer go missing or murdered, Indigenous people will no longer be incarcerated in disproportionate numbers, and Indigenous children will be able to grow up safe at home.

There already are promising and inspiring initiatives at some universities which seek to address some of the systemic issues in the university and beyond. Some universities are more committed and take their responsibility more seriously than others. The University of Toronto, as the largest university in the country, has quite a long way to go. There are faculties such as OISE and Medicine that have instituted exciting approaches and measures but a lot needs to be done in other faculties, including hiring and retention of Indigenous faculty and strengthening the Aboriginal Studies Program and its role in bringing in the transformative interventions needed within the institution.

Reconciliation necessitates an ongoing commitment to long-term visions and objectives, the hard work of building respectful relationships and, in the university, taking seriously the foundational significance and potential of Indigenous intellectual conventions.

Rauna Kuokkanen is Sámi from Ohcejohka (Utsjoki), Northern Finland.  She is Associate Professor of Political Science and Aboriginal Studies at the University of Toronto where she teaches Indigenous politics, rights and global Indigenous movements. She is currently completing a book tentatively titled “Restructuring Relations: Indigenous Self-Determination and Governance in Canada, Greenland and Scandinavia,” an Indigenous feminist examination of Indigenous politics based on the research she has conducted in the three regions.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 18, 2016 10:32 am

    I think updating the history curriculum and text books starting in elementary school and all the way up, would be the first step to acknowledging First Nations Peoples. Also, making sure these text books and curriculum are written by First Nations Peoples. Learning the truth in school at an early age is much more effective, so the racist biases of society/families/media are not the base of their knowledge. In any country that has been colonized, there should be mandatory First Nation’s courses offered at universities, and again, with books written by First Nation’s people and with First Nation’s professors teaching them.


  1. Reconciliation and Mandatory Indigenous Content Courses: What are the University’s Responsibilities?

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