Should indigenous courses be mandatory in university?

As the new Liberal government has declared their support for the recommendations put forth by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, universities and other post-secondary institutions are discussing one potential direct change: mandatory indigenous studies courses.

As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommends that the government increase funding for “post-secondary institutions to educate teachers on how to integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms,” members of post-secondary institutions across the country have been calling for mandatory indigenous studies courses for students.

The student union at the University of Winnipeg had been asking their school to take up this practice for several months. The student union was unavailable for comment at this time, but they were ultimately successful in their endeavour, according to The Globe and Mail.

At UBC however, reviews are mixed regarding such mandatory courses. Linc Kesler, director of UBC’s First Nations House of Learning, liked the idea of the courses, but was unsure of whether they would be ideal for UBC.

“The idea of wanting to provide information and better ways of thinking about things to as many students as possible — of course I support that,” said Kesler. “I think it’s very useful to have the pressure towards requirements. It’s very difficult to envision, however, a single course that would perform that function well at a university as big and diverse as UBC.”

Kesler instead proposed that individual faculties and departments across UBC find a way to incorporate indigenous studies into their curriculum, citing the covering of Aboriginal Rights and Treaties in a foundation-level law school course as an example.

Daniel Justice, chair of the First Nations Indigenous Studies program at UBC and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, has worked in indigenous studies departments at many universities. He argued that while more students taking indigenous studies courses can be beneficial, mandatory courses generally cause more harm than good.

“Requirements don’t always work out the way people expect them to. Oftentimes people end up doing harm to the very people that they intend to help,” Justice said in an interview with The Ubyssey. “If there isn’t communication about why this is important, you are going to have a lot of really resentful and reactionary students in there.”

According to Justice, he and others experienced such a situation at other institutions in which there were courses that students of colour didn't want to participate in.

Instead of making indigenous studies courses a requirement, Justice argues that other faculties could instead help raise awareness of indigenous issues by integrating First Nations studies into their courses.

“What we would want to see is a much more robust understanding of how indigenous content can be incorporated throughout the curriculum … not just in a few courses that get downloaded to particular units or where departments and other academic units are given a free pass to not incorporate it elsewhere in the curriculum,” said Justice.