One of the recurring memes that crop up in many discussions of ‘what is to be done’ with Canadian First Nations is the idea that multiculturalism in its current state is unsustainable, and assimilation is the only answer. My response to that is inevitably “you might be right. When do you plan to start assimilating?” You see, the argument is never that non-Aboriginal Canadians should begin to adopt the cultural, religious, and social traditions of Canada’s original people. The argument is always that those who have been colonized should, for their own good, simply acquiesce to the destruction of their way of life because, y’know… we’re bigger than them?
Of course I find this position both absurd and offensive. The problems we see endemic in many First Nations communities – lack of opportunity, abject poverty, substance abuse, take your pick – are not the result of a failed policy of multiculturalism. Nor is it the fault of those people who fail to adopt a “Western”* way of thinking and living. No, the reason we see these problems is because those people with power have failed, time after frustratingly-frequent time, to uphold their end of the bargain when it comes to providing adequate resources and support to these communities. When First Nations Canadians are perpetually considered the ‘other’, ignoring them and their needs become a matter of course.
Which is why I am particularly intrigued by this story:
In a forum that pulls together topics ranging from mandatory courses to traditional longhouses, Canadian educators and administrators are meeting this week to look at ways to better integrate First Nations values and culture into post-secondary institutions.
The first of its kind, the gathering Monday and Tuesday at the University of Fraser Valley is hosting over 250 guests. In workshops and meetings, participants are discussing what can be done to incorporate more First Nations perspectives in the curriculum, not just for indigenous students but for everyone.
“Indigenizing the academy is for everyone who comes into post-secondary education,” said Shirley Swelchalot Shxwha:yathel Hardman, UFV’s senior adviser on indigenous affairs. “Part of that is acknowledging the traditional territory where we live and work and go to school,” Hardman said. “It’s more than just the curriculum. Students flourish when they see themselves reflected and included in the everyday life of the institution.”
I remember being a student at Queen’s University in Ontario. Queen’s has a long history as one of Canada’s oldest universities, and I remember how out-of-place I felt during orientation week when I was exhorted to sing the “Oil Thigh” and cleave myself to the university’s Gaelic history and thematic elements. It’s not that they were bad, it’s that they bore pretty much zero relationship to my values and my life. I remember subsequently being approached by several groups and photographers on campus, asking if they could use my image for promotional purposes. While this was something I was used to, it was the first time I said “hell no” and explained exactly why – Queen’s is a majorly-predominantly white school and I am not going to tokenize myself in order to lend the illusion of diversity.
I can only imagine how much worse that experience would be for a student coming from a First Nation, being surrounded by people celebrating their cultural hegemony and the creation of a system that has been steadily eroding your right to exist for generations. Why on Earth would I want to be a part of that orgy of colonial self-congratulation? Especially when the university, built on land stolen from my ancestors (in many but not all cases), shows no interest in making me a part of their traditions, ignoring me unless I can be used as a prop for them to pretend they are something other than what they are?
It is encouraging, therefore, to see this trend reversing. Depending on how it is handled, it may have the effect of making schools more welcoming to students coming from Aboriginal communities:
UBC Law had 54 aboriginal students enrolled last year. “We’ve been working on that for the last three or four years,” [UBC Professor Gordon] Christie said. “We see ourselves as leaders in this area.”
The incoming class for the general law program is 180 students. “We like to have a certain number of aboriginal students if we can, because that creates a sense of community.” The university also has programs in place to help aboriginal students through tutoring and financing. “There’s a perception in Canadian society that aboriginal students go to university for free, but that’s far from being the case.”
But above and beyond that, the shift is likely to benefit the education of non-Aboriginal students as well:
This year, University of B.C. Law will for the first time make aboriginal rights and treaties in Canada a mandatory course for first-year students. UBC has a plan in place to increase aboriginal content across the campus, said Prof. Gordon Christie, the director of First Nations Legal Studies at UBC.
This brings me back to my recurring thesis on diversity: it benefits everyone. Policies designed at actively increasing the number of perspectives present in an organization, whether that be a school or a business or a political movement, are going to make that organization better grounded in reality and less prone to make decisions that are rooted in a particular selective viewpoint. The benefits are going to be shared disproportionately by those who are on the lower part of the power divide, to be sure, but the simple truth is that everyone’s world gets better.
Of course, there are several arguments for why increasing the number of educated, involved, and empowered First Nations Canadians is the right thing to do – politically, historically, ethically, economically, medically, once again take your pick – but to me the ‘argument from mutual assimilation’ is a strong one, and (in my opinion) a big step in the direction of recognizing that First Nations traditions are an integral part of Canadian identity that have been too long neglected.
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*A phrase I hate – the world cannot be evenly divided into ‘East’ and ‘West’, and there are quite a few cultural traditions from the western hemisphere (including North American Aboriginal traditions) that are purposefully excluded from the term ‘West’.