The History and Role of the Aboriginal Education Committee

written and submitted by Judith Lapadat

In September 2011, President Mike Mahon tasked Leroy Little Bear, Roy Weasel Fat and Jane O’Dea with leading a consultation process and developing an overarching strategy to support First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) students, faculty, staff and community members at the University of Lethbridge. They also were asked to explore the establishment of an FNMI Gathering Place on campus. Their report to the President in May 2012 made seven recommendations, one of which was to create an institutional Aboriginal Education Committee.

The Aboriginal Education Committee was approved as a General Faculties Council (GFC) standing committee on December 10, 2012. Its membership is representative of the University community and includes Elder, FNMI alumni, and community representatives. GFC approved the inaugural University of Lethbridge Aboriginal Education Policy at the same meeting. The committee is responsible for managing and furthering the aims of the policy.

Over the two years it has been in existence, the Aboriginal Education Committee has reflected on its mission, developed terms of reference, and created a website. The committee promotes and supports the following aims at the University:

  • Equitable access and participation of FNMI people;
  • The development and teaching of both Blackfoot language and cultural content and other First Nations, Métis and Inuit content;
  • Increased awareness and sensitivity to the diversity of FNMI cultures;
  • Increased recruitment, retention and completion of FNMI students;
  • Establishment of an FNMI Gathering Place;
  • Development and expansion of an Elders’ program;
  • Expansion of FNMI student support services;
  • Appropriate research and creative activities related to and with FNMI peoples; and
  • Personal, social, intellectual cultural interaction between Blackfoot and other FNMI peoples, the University, City of Lethbridge, and surrounding communities.

There have been a number of notable FNMI milestones under the leadership of President Mahon in addition to the creation of the Aboriginal Education Committee and Policy. In June 2013, the University of Lethbridge hosted the Canada-Mexico Round Table on Aboriginal/Indigenous Higher Education as a presidential initiative. The University continues to expand collaborative opportunities with partner institutions in Mexico in a variety of ways such as through student and faculty exchanges.

In October 2013, the University launched the Blackfoot, First Nations Métis Inuit Protocol Handbook. It is a groundbreaking document that provides guidelines for convocation and ceremonial events as well as for working with Elders, such as when when faculty invite Elders to their classrooms. The Handbook is available on the website of the Office of the President.

The Governors of the University of Lethbridge and the Board of Governors of Red Crow Community College recently signed the first official Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the two institutions. The event was held June 2014 at Red Crow Community College on the Blood Reserve. The MOU has paved the way for mutual discussions about curriculum development and the creation of new program pathways for Red Crow Community College students planning to transition to the University.

Another highlight occurred in December 2014 with the formal opening of the interim First Nations, Métis and Inuit Gathering Place in the Paterson Centre. Elder Wilton Goodstriker along with Dale Low Horn gifted the Gathering Place with the Blackfoot name Iikaisskini (Low Horn). The name represents the stance of a charging buffalo, its head down and horns low to the ground. Elders Andy Blackwater and Bruce Wolf Child have explained its relationship to the Blackfoot teaching that education is the new buffalo, deeply valued and the way to the future. As well as supporting the success of students, Iikaisskini provides a location that draws Elders and faculty together and a space to host workshops, Talking Circles, and speaker series.

Throughout 2014/15, the University has used a generous gift from a donor to expand the Aboriginal Student Orientation Program. The year has seen additional September orientation activities for FNMI students, increased involvement of Elders during Native Awareness Week, and plans for a Convocation celebration and Round Dance that includes the broader University community celebrating with graduating FNMI students and their families. The Round Dance also will mark the 40th anniversary of the Native American Student Association.

In May 2015, the University welcomes Dr. Martha Many Grey Horses to the inaugural role of Director, First Nations, Métis and Inuit Centre. Our new Director will provide leadership to the FNMI Centre and coordinate FNMI initiatives across the University, as well as with Blackfoot and other FNMI communities and institutional partners. One of her objectives will be to expand the Elders program, which includes working with faculty members to engage Elders in curriculum planning and to coordinate visits of Elders to classrooms.

The Aboriginal Education Committee provides a structure to engage faculty and other members of the University community and support these and other initiatives. One of the ways in which the committee is working towards the aims identified in the Aboriginal Education Policy is through working groups. The committee has established five working groups:

  • Gathering Place Working Group
  • FNMI Research Issues Working Group
  • FNMI Enrolment and Student Success Working Group
  • Cultural Awareness Working Group
  • Indigenization of Curriculum Working Group

As an example of the work that is underway, the Indigenization of Curriculum Working Group will be bringing faculty together to talk about what indigenization of curriculum means to them, concerns and issues, and how to share best practices for indigenizing curriculum at all levels. Discussions that have taken place to date have yielded the insight that this is a large project as curriculum is more than just the content; it encompasses and is represented throughout the university via content, place, methodology, and epistemology. The working group hopes to initiate a faculty focus group in May and will continue with themed focus groups throughout the 2015/16 academic year. Academic staff who would like more information should contact Michelle Hogue, Coordinator First Nations’ Transition Program, Teaching Fellow, and chair of the Indigenization of Curriculum Working Group at michelle.hogue@uleth.ca

Faculty members are actively engaged in setting the directions of all of the working groups. If you are interested in becoming involved in a working group or would like more information, please contact Cynthia Chabot in the Office of the Associate Vice-President (Students): carbca@uleth.ca.

The Aboriginal Education Committee and working groups provide a collaborative framework to support the University’s aims in furthering FNMI initiatives. The development of Iikaisskini has provided a home away from home for students, and a place for community to gather. The actions of the University provide a visible demonstration of the value that the University of Lethbridge places on its relationship with Blackfoot and other First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.