Commentary  McGill should create an aboriginal studies program

The Editorial Board on the state of aboriginal studies at McGill

Correction appended September 16, 2011

This week saw McGill’s first annual Aboriginal Awareness Week, a joint effort between McGill’s First Peoples’ House and the Aboriginal Sustainability Project to bridge our university’s aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities. The larger aim of promoting such awareness is, of course, an ongoing effort, which includes this week’s festivities and tomorrow’s lower campus pow-wow.

Futhermore, initiatives to showcase the work of this community and address its issues operate throughout the academic year. In addition to the aforementioned groups, Kanata (a student association and journal), the Social Equity and Diversity Education Office, the Indigenous Student Network, and the McGill Aboriginal Law Association all actively pursue these aims.

Given this degree of activity, one might assume that McGill boasts a substantial aboriginal population. Yet this is not the case. In fact, according to the McGill First Peoples’ House, only roughly 150 students enrolled in undergraduate studies at McGill self-identify as aboriginal, which is less than 1 percent of the student population (whilst aboriginals make up roughly 4 per cent of the Canadian population at large, with 10 per cent of this population residing in Quebec).

These conditions have been in large part caused by our country’s history of institutional racism, an example of this being the residential schools that were only recently closed in 1996. This record has led to social systems which are in a poor state in our nation’s aboriginal communities. These groups suffer high rates of poverty, and addiction, not to mention inadequate housing, drinking water and social services. The quality of life among sectors of this population is similar to the developing world, according to a 2010 press release by the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network.

Given the complex roots of low enrollment rates, and the fact that McGill is home to many initiatives that work tirelessly to provide outreach and support, how else can the McGill community attempt to move forward? Various aboriginal groups have advocated for a Native Studies minor over the past four years. The administration has had the opportunity to act and has not yet done so.

At present, there are small Native Studies courses within the faculties of Law, Education, Nutrition and the Environment, and spread across the Arts course listings, but no major or minor program in any degree. This separates McGill from many other Canadian universities which have successfully implemented such programs, including the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser, McMaster, University of Victoria, and our neighbor Concordia. In recent years, with the implementation of the program at Concordia alongside existing support services, enrollment of first nations students has increased.

The creation of a minor has been in the works for almost five years, and yet the administration has been dragging its heels and the project has failed to get off of the ground. This is despite the fact that problems have been identified: last February, the administration released a report titled Principal’s Task Force on Diversity, Excellence and Community Engagement which  stated: “McGill needs to recognize the negative cumulative effects of a lack of congruence between words, policy and action – specifically in the realm of diversity.” Furthermore, first nations students are among groups of students that were identified as being underrepresented.

The proposed minor would be relatively easy to implement for a number of reasons. For one, it would be interdisciplinary in nature and thereby draw on pre-existing courses and resources. Another testament to its feasibility is that it doesn’t need provincial approval given that it isn’t a major. Moreover, the aboriginal studies courses that already exist at McGill boast very healthy attendance rates.

McGill needs to introduce an indigenous studies program – it is needed both to aid the cause of increasing aboriginal enrollment at McGill and to create a space for analysis of the very oppression that prevents many aboriginal individuals from accessing post-secondary education.

A previous version of this editorial stated that 10 per cent of the Quebec population is Aboriginal; this is incorrect, rather, 10 per cent of the aboriginal population of Canada resides in Quebec. The article has been edited to reflect this change.