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Plans for North American Indigenous Studies move forward

Foundational course and minor program in the works for next year

Plans for a North American Indigenous Studies program at McGill are moving forward, and those involved hope to have a foundational course – and potentially a minor – in place for next year.

Last Friday, William Straw, the director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC) along with Aboriginal Sustainability Project (ASP) Coordinator Allan Vicaire and Interim Dean of Students Linda Starkey, met to discuss the work done thus far, including preliminary research compiled by SSMU-hired researcher and Education student Brett Lamoureux.

Straw also confirmed his commitment to the North American Indigenous Studies program, which will be tentatively overseen by MISC.

A forum is currently planned for November 15 to get community input on the program. Vicaire will meet with student leaders next week to solidify the forum’s details.

According to Straw, student interest for the program has been “enormous.”

“When I do advising in Canadian Studies and ask students what sorts of courses they want more of, Indigenous/Aboriginal studies is by far the area most often mentioned,” he wrote in an email to The Daily.

Lamoureux, who has been conducting preliminary research for the program since July, will continue researching until December, a date Vicaire cited as the deadline for his part of the preparations.

The Process

Once Vicaire and Lamoureux have compiled data from preliminary research and from the forum on November 15, they will write a report and pass it on to Straw, who will write the actual proposal for the program.

According to Dean of Arts Christopher Manfredi, a concrete proposal is the first step in the process of creating a new program at McGill.

In the proposal, applicants must “identify the purposes of the program, [adhere to] certain rules about how many credits are part of the minor program, demonstrate [they have] done appropriate consultations with the units that would be affected, identify the unit that’s going to be responsible for it…[and] provide a list of courses that are going to be part of the program,” Manfredi told  The Daily.

From there, the proposal is reviewed by the curriculum committee and circulated among departments to make sure the program doesn’t overlap with existing programs. Once approved by the curriculum committee, it goes to the appropriate faculty council, then to the Academic Policy Committee, and then to Senate for final approval.

Manfredi pointed out that “at every stage of the process, there is student involvement in the body that has to make the decision.”

He also recalled that an Indigenous Studies program had been in the works for many years, but with little progress until now.

“This has been a long-standing thing, I think someone’s been talking to me about an [Indigenous Studies program] since I became Dean six years ago,” said Manfredi. “Every time someone came to me and said, ‘we’d like to put together a program,’ I said ‘great, go ahead, do it. Put the proposal together and bring it to the appropriate bodies,’ but for some reason it just never happened.”

According to Lamoureux’s preliminary report, the idea of an Indigenous Studies program was first initiated by former First Peoples’ House coordinator Ellen Gabriel in the early 2000s, eventually leading to discussions between the MISC and ASP in 2009.

More recently, members of Kanata and McGill faculty went on to form a subcommittee within the Social Equity and Diversity Education Office, which in 2010 submitted a proposal to the Principal’s Task Force on Diversity, Excellence and Community Engagement that resulted in the creation of a multidisciplinary Aboriginal Field Studies course.

Moving Forward

Straw said that he plans to have a proposal prepared for next year.

“On assuming the Directorship of [MISC] in June 2011, I made working on [an Indigenous Studies program] a top priority. I was aware that others have done a lot of work on this, but aware as well that one of the problems has been finding an academic unit to administer the program and usher through the proposal. I have consulted with those with a stake in such a program and have their agreement to go ahead with a proposal from the Institute,” Straw wrote in an email to The Daily.

“We have most of what is needed to support a proposal,” he added. “We will prepare the full proposal over the remainder of this term and submit it to the appropriate Faculty of Arts committee soon after. At the same time, we are developing a foundational course proposal for submission…so that, even if the program itself is delayed, the course may be in place.”

Straw said that he aims to submit the proposal for the first meeting of the Faculty of Arts curriculum committee in January.

“All these things take steps, they take time, and an actual major program might not happen for another five or six years,” Vicaire added.  “But we could have a minor…people entering first year at McGill may in a few years be able to do a minor in Indigenous Studies.”

The Program

As it is currently envisioned, the program will cover Indigenous Studies within the North American context.

“One could well imagine a program dealing with indigeneity that covered a wide range of indigenous peoples from virtually all continents of the globe,” wrote Straw. “The shared (or majority) feeling about McGill’s program is that the distinctiveness and shared experiences of North America’s indigenous peoples are clearly enough to warrant a program focused on them alone.”

Vicaire added that this did not preclude the inclusion of comparative studies with indigenous groups such as those in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, who have had similar experiences with British colonization.

Given that the current proposal will be for a minor program of study, it will likely require grouping together existing courses and putting a structure around them rather than creating new courses, according to Manfredi.

Lamoureux’s report cites a number of existing courses that could be cross-listed for a North American Indigenous Studies minor, including courses from Anthropology, Biology, Canadian Studies, English, Environmental Science, History, Geography, Law, Politics, Social Work, Sociology, and Education courses in languages such as Algonquin, Cree, Inuktitut, Mi’kmaq, Mohawk, and Naskapi.

Straw also cited a new MISC course on Aboriginal art and culture as a potential core course for the North American Indigenous Studies program.

“I think it’s a perfect fit, personally for me,” said Vicaire. “An anthropology or history lens can be so limited…sometimes for indigenous people, we feel uncomfortable with that…like we’re underneath a microscope…. Something broader like [Indigenous Studies] helps to broaden that scope.”