McGill University launches its Indigenous Studies program

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McGill University is known globally as a top-tier research university, attracting elite students from Canada and beyond. But some say its commitment to First Nations studies and students lags behind other Canadian post-secondary institutions.

This December McGill embarked on a path to challenge that sentiment, unveiling an Indigenous Studies minor option for its undergraduate students. The program will allow students to focus on themes like Aboriginal art and culture and the legacy of Indigenous resistance to the Canadian state.

Establishing a First Nations Studies program has been a hot topic on campus since the early 2000s, when the head of a McGill community and resource centre for Indigenous students began calling on the university to set one up.

Students wanted a program, too. Their desire was reflected in a 2011 editorial in the McGill Daily, the student newspaper. It lamented the low number of Aboriginal students at McGill, and the institution’s failure to establish the program. According to the Daily, only around 150 McGill students are identified as Aboriginal – less than 1% of its student body.

“McGill needs to introduce an Indigenous Studies program – it is needed both to aid the cause of increasing Aboriginal enrolment at McGill and to create a space for analysis of the very oppression that prevents many Aboriginal individuals from accessing post-secondary education,” stated the editorial.

As Vice President (University Affairs) of the Students’ Society of McGill University, Claire Stewart-Kanigan helped push for the program on the administrative front.

Stewart-Kanigan says that the key was to get faculty to “buy in.” Initially, the Department of Anthropology was going to administer the program. When that fell through, the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC) stepped in and now fills that role.

Stewart-Kanigan says the program was the result of grass-roots demand, organization and agitation.

“I feel the university is hesitant to take on extra costs and duties until they are forced to. It got to the point where it was so far behind, and demand from students was so long and outstanding, that the pressure was too much to overlook.”

Stewart-Kanigan says she hopes the program will help foster a larger Indigenous student body at McGill. She reckons that the number of Indigenous students has not increased since 2011, and it is still around 150.

Stewart-Kanigan feels that the minor is a step in the right direction, but says that McGill is behind other western Canadian universities in attracting and accommodating First Nations students.

Professor Ned Blackhawk completed his BA History at McGill in 1992 and went on to complete his PhD in History at the University of Washington. He now teaches Native American history and Native American law at Yale University. Last semester he helped develop the curriculum for McGill’s Indigenous Studies minor along with Allan Downey, a non-tenured McGill professor who will oversee the program. 

He says that he sees the program’s creation as an auspicious moment for McGill and the province at large.

“It’s important intellectually and ethically to develop a more diverse scholarly community around issues of difference around Canada’s future,” says Blackhawk. 

“Canada should make an increasing commitment in advancing scholarly inquiry into Native study to prepare itself for what could be a very contentious struggle going forward, especially when politicians maintain the status quo.”

Blackhawk says Montreal is extraordinarily well placed to establish a strong Indigenous Studies program.

“Montreal is probably one of the most influential urban spaces in the history of North America. It was founded in the early 1500s by French settlers and missionaries. It had a fur economy rooted for over 150 years around Indigenous labour. It was an epicentre of exchange.”

With that said, Blackhawk says the pressure is now on McGill to chart a positive future. And to so it must include Indigenous faculty.

The minor is currently being overseen by Downey, a member of the Nak’azdi First Nation in British Columbia. As a non-tenured professor, he is on a short-term contract, and McGill has not hired any other Indigenous faculty for the program. “The critical variable is the absence of Native faculty,” says Blackhawk.

This is at odds with other post-secondary Canadian universities. The University of British Columbia and University of Victoria, for example, both have long-standing First Nations Studies programs taught largely by Indigenous professors.

Concordia University offers a major as well as a minor in First Peoples Studies. It currently employs two professors in First Peoples Studies – Dr. Louellyn White (Mohawk, Akwesasne) and Dr. Karl Hele (Anishinaabe, Garden River) – and four other Indigenous professors in other faculties and several Indigenous part-time instructors.

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