‘The Gold Rush’: Canadian universities’ rush to hire Indigenous faculty is taking an aggressive turn

Canadian universities are rushing to recruit Indigenous scholars in an effort to support reconciliation. But as institutions try to recruit younger and younger scholars, faculty worry this could harm the already-tenuous position of Indigenous professors in academia.

“What we’re seeing now is a gold rush,” said Dr. Sheryl Lightfoot, an associate professor of political science and First Nations and Indigenous Studies from the Lake Superior Ojibwe Band. She was also recently appointed as UBC’s senior advisor to the president on Aboriginal affairs.

“There aren’t enough bodies to fill the demand.”

For over a century, Indigenous peoples were largely barred from recognition in Canadian universities. A 1880 amendment to the Indian Act forced the automatic enfranchisement — and loss of Indian status — for any Indigenous person at a post-secondary education. That amendment remained in place until 1985.

A study by the Academic Women’s Association at the University of Alberta found that fewer than 1.5 per cent of professors across Canada are Indigenous, compared to roughly 5 per cent of the Canadian population.

But since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) 2015 report, interest in Indigenous scholarship has never been more active.

While the TRC only makes a make direct recommendations to post-secondary institutions, most of them have interpreted some of its other calls to action — particularly one close to the “educational and employment gaps between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians” — as applying to them.

One of the most effective — and easiest — ways to address them is to increase Indigenous representation in university faculties.

“There is a huge amount of interest in Indigenous scholars,” said Professor Daniel Heath Justice, a Cherokee scholar currently working as the acting director of UBC’s Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies. “Partially out of really good intention because of a lot of attention on reconciliation … but the reality is that we’re still under-represented.”

The result is a human economy of high demand and extremely small supply.

“If we put out an application for an Indigenous area, we’re going to get very few applications and even fewer who are Indigenous themselves,” said Dr. Linc Kesler, who is an Oglala-Lakota scholar and was UBC’s first senior advisor to the president on Aboriginal affairs.

“So the competition [between universities] is very fierce.”

The “Gold Rush”

But professors aren’t made overnight.

Like any gold rush, this one has brought speculation — in this case, speculative hiring. As universities push to recruit Indigenous scholars, they’ve started to offer jobs to graduate students years well before they’ve defended their thesis.

“It’s very common now for an Indigenous grad student to have a job offer when they’re maybe even two years out from completing a thesis,” said Kesler. “There are so many things wrong with that.”

Kesler noted that students typically aren’t hired until they’ve successfully defended their thesis, and that hiring students so early throws them into the academy before they’ve had adequate time to work on their research and personal development. This, in turn, creates a negative impression of Indigenous scholars in the university.

“You’re putting people at a terrible disadvantage,” said Kesler. “You’re grabbing people, in a sense, to meet a racial target as opposed to building the faculty and the capacity that you have to address a subject and provide instruction to the next generation of scholars.

“It’s a somewhat cynical hiring practice.”

UBC, which employed 35 Indigenous faculty members in the 2017/18 academic year, has avoided this practice. Director of Equity and Inclusion Dr. Sara-Jane Finlay noted that the university made early steps to increase Indigenous representation well before the TRC even existed.

“The Indigenous strategic plan and even the university’s strategic plan really make a commitment to recruiting and retaining diverse faculty and in particular Indigenous faculty,” said Finlay.

“There’s a growing recognition that the only way to achieve academic excellence is through having a diverse range of opinions and approaches and styles and ways of thinking and categories of knowledge,” she added. “Bringing Indigenous faculty in is a part of that.”

Kesler also stressed that UBC has built a team of Indigenous scholars based on “excellent scholarship” rather than “an abstract target.”

But other Canadian institutions that lack UBC’s headway have rushed to hire graduate students well before they’ve defended their thesis.

“That’s a real disservice to what can happen to those students,” said Kesler. “When people can see that happening, they presume that all Indigenous faculty are here in that way and that they’re not serious scholars.”

“If there’s a perception at all that they’re placed without proper credentials, the product could be that they don’t have the same output after ten years that their peer would have,” explained Lightfoot.

“It becomes a self-fulfilling stereotype.”

Lightfoot and Justice also acknowledge there are strong incentives for Indigenous students to accept an early job offer.

“A lot of people invest a huge amount of their lives and a lot of their and their family’s resources in their education, and a lot of them still can’t get jobs,” Justice said. “So when a job is available and an institution is really excited about you, there’s quite a pressure to jump on a job well before you’re ready.”

“What are we modelling?”

After being hired, Indigenous professors are expected to act as mentors for fellow students and faculty, both to support Indigenous students and help institutions meet the TRC’s recommendations.

The rush to reconciliation has created a new swath of university committees, advisory groups and research projects that require Indigenous input. But the shortage of scholars means new faculty can quickly be slammed with a host of obligations that compound their already-substantial workloads.

“Indigenous faculty, even with the best of intentions, tend to do double or even triple the service load throughout their careers,” said Lightfoot.

“For someone who is still trying to build a dissertation and an early research agenda, that’s a lot to ask.”

Dr. Angela Mashford-Pringle is an assistant professor of Aboriginal public health from the Timiskaming First Nation and the associate director for the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health at the University of Toronto. She said she’s frequently sought to sit on research projects and committees to demonstrate commitment to Indigenous representation.

“If I was on every committee and research projects people wanted me on, I wouldn’t have time to sleep,” said Mashford-Pringle.

Beyond committees, scholars noted the emotional labour of supporting Indigenous students, fellow faculty and their own communities — all while dealing with the historic barriers for minority faculty in academic institutions.

Justice warned that these extra tasks, coupled with an ongoing dissertation, can exhaust any faculty member — particularly new ones.

“It’s almost designed to burn [out] really astonishing faculty,” said Justice. “... we have these brilliant, talented, really committed Indigenous scholars doing amazing work and the expectations on them are so high.”

The long-term consequence for this, said Justice, is that rising Indigenous faculty could suffer from systematic burn-out, which would further discourage students from pursuing careers in academia.

“Our undergrads, when they’re thinking of going to graduate school, if they see their faculty just drowning under the myriad of expectations that’s not really a good advertisement for graduate education,” said Justice.

“... what are we modelling? Are we modelling work and exhaustion? Or are we modelling transformative education?

“Deep commitment”

As universities begin to recognize the practice of recruiting Indigenous graduate students, Indigenous scholars are proposing a mix of two solutions: increasing supply and curbing speculation.

While focus on Indigenous graduate students is at a high, Justice noted that earlier support for Indigenous students is comparatively low — and that addressing it could constructively improve their representation.

“If you want sustainable presence from Indigenous scholars in institutions, you have to start well before university — but you really have to invest in undergraduate education,” said Justice. “A lot of institutions are still not interested in doing that.”

Finlay added that building a “critical mass” of Indigenous students and scholars can create a more welcoming environment, demonstrating that Indigenous professors are not “token hires.”

Additionally, Lightfoot said that she and fellow Indigenous professors have discussed the potential of limiting premature hiring via agreements between universities or special joint programs.

“We need to have some kind of agreement about a floor that we won’t go below,” said Lightfoot. “Is it a year out from thesis? Is it six months out from thesis? How do we manage the gold rush?”

Lightfoot also mentioned that post-doctoral agreements could allow institutions to partner to support — and share — Indigenous scholarship.

The scholars interviewed for this article all stressed that despite challenges, the push to diversify academia is a positive one.

“We are thrilled to be here,” said Justice. “We’re here because we’re committed to the transformative role that education can provide and the important contributions that academia can make to our communities — and the contributions that our community can make to academia.

Our graduate students should have a little bit more time to come into their own, and have a little bit more sense as scholars of our academic community ... before [being] brought into this.”

— With PAIR enrolment data visualization from Alex Nguyen