Improving cultural sensitivity or imposing further tension and misunderstanding?

Mandatory Indigenous knowledge courses for undergraduates

By Leah Ching

CBC recently announced that starting in 2016, every undergraduate student at Lakehead would have to graduate with one half credit in Indigenous education. Yolanda Wanakamik in the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives reported that “teaching would be tailored to each student,” reflecting their area of study. The aims of the mandatory initiative are to understand Indigenous people and create dialogue regarding issues of racism.

Responses to this initiative were incredibly varied and represented underlying racial tension within the university and larger community. The Argus met with Dr. Dennis McPherson, head of the Indigenous Learning department to discuss his opinions.

Dr. McPherson was an outspoken critic, saying that the announcement was both “patronizing and insulting.” He explained that the goals of Indigenous learning were built around creating community identity and implementing community based learning.

Dr. McPherson described the initiative as an idea with no substance to back it up. He also posed the question – “How much learning can a student get done in an 18 hour half credit course?”

To many, the student-tailored-approach sounded like a good way for students to “pad their resumes” showing that they were “exposed to Indigenous culture in northern communities.” In fact, this initiative doesn’t yet show much intention to confront issues of white privilege and settler colonialism.

Damien Lee, a PhD student in Native Studies gained some notoriety in 2014 for his open letter to city council candidate Tamara Johnson regarding her allegedly racist politics. His recent post “Indian in a Jar?” raised questions about the dangers inherent in this initiative.

Lee challenges the consideration of whose comfort is being considered: “This approach is safe for settlers. It allows settler undergraduate students to chose aspects of Indigenous peoples, issues, cultures, etc., that do not challenge their comfort zones.”

He goes on to say, “Tailoring Indigenous issues rather than turning the lens towards one’s complicity with settler colonialism presents a fractured picture.” His post resonated with many in exposing the potential for the initiative to encourage “cannibal culture” and an ongoing process of “othering.”

“Indian in a Jar?” can be read in full at

One anonymous male Aboriginal student majoring in Indigenous Learning says, “I’m not looking forward to white students who don’t want to learn about Aboriginal culture coming into classes because they’re forced to be there. I don’t want the department to be forced to change because teaching needs to be tailored to the needs of the colonizer to help them get a job in Northern communities.”

Another anonymous male engineering student said, “As an engineering student with so much on my plate, I don’t see why I should to be forced into learning about residential schools and smallpox blankets. Students that pay for their education are being forced to cram more classes in that don’t even relate to their field of study.”

Tessa DeBruyne, Social Work and Indigenous Learning student said, “My issue is having people who are forced to take the class ruin it for people who truly want to be there. I think it could destroy the intimate experience of our department.”

Opinions were not all negative, with Nursing student Michelle Morrisseau said the idea could open up a great way for Southern Ontario students to be exposed to the Indigenous culture present in the north.

Interestingly enough, portions of Critical Race Theory suggest that whites and non-whites sharing an environment to confront racism jointly is not conducive to positive development, with the situation likely to be controlled by whites, with whites resisting the ‘racist’ label.

As the situation develops, students can expect many conflicting opinions to persist, and can hopefully look forward more information being divulged form the university about how the plan will be developed and implemented.

Editor’s note: This article was published on March 4, 2015. Due to an administrative oversight it wasn’t uploaded online. We apologize for any inconvenience.

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