By Karl Hele
TORONTO – Can and should Aboriginal academics be activists within academia and Indigenous communities?
The answer is yes, judging from feedback from participants at a three-day gathering of Aboriginal academics staged in early November by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT).
A series of workshops sought to investigate components of succeeding as an academic, such as working with internal and external allies, educating colleagues and administrators, and encouraging cultural revitalization. It was noted that allies can often be worst enemies, especially those who self-identity as allies and then try to lead everyone forward in paternalistic and colonial ways that are evidently self-serving.
Participants remarked that allies are not always friends; when their power or access to funds is threatened by Aboriginal success many will become opponents. Others mentioned the challenge of “educating” not just students, but colleagues and administrators about Aboriginal peoples and issues. For instance, colleagues and administrators do not understand why Aboriginal students travel home when there is a death in their community; they fail to grasp that close relationships extend beyond immediate family members. It was felt that learning institutions do not seem to understand the impact of systemic discrimination on members of their Aboriginal communities, neither are they effective at attracting and retaining both Aboriginal students and faculty.
While the overall tone of the gathering was upbeat, there were many tense and sad moments. Individual Aboriginal academics from across Canada related stories of experiences with discrimination, prejudice, and outright racism. Support and suggestions were offered. In the end everyone left with the knowledge that universities have come a long way since the first Aboriginal people were hired as academics, yet these institutions still have a long way to go. A concern left unaddressed was raised by untenured faculty who felt and are vulnerable to the whims of administrators and colleagues when acting as activists and being engaged in the community. Many faculty members said they were overwhelmed by the numerous demands they face and felt that their faculty unions and CAUT were not doing enough.
A presentation by Adam Frogley, Taungerong/Woi-Wurrung of the Koori (Kulin) Nation and the National Indigenous Coordinator for the National Tertiary Education Union in Australia presented the gathering with some interesting ideas and possibilities. The most important of these were how the Australian universities and colleges are required through union contracts to hirer fixed numbers of Aboriginal people instead of percentages, how Aboriginal faculty and staff have the contracted right for cultural and spiritual leave, how language speakers and those learning their national languages receive extra pay or annual bonus, and how important it is for faculty and staff unions as well as universities to have Indigenous strategic plans. Canadian efforts by comparison seemed weak and limited.
Speakers and participants were reminded that Aboriginal issues in Canadian universities are about more than equity. There are Constitutional and treaty rights that institutions of higher education must take into account. For some, this meant that Aboriginal issues in universities and colleges are about the equity of rights, not simply the equity of people.
Karl Hele, Garden River First Nation, is Director of First Peoples Studies at Concordia University.