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Recommendations to Enhance the Educational Experience of Aboriginal Social Work Students


Artemis Fire, BSW, MSW




It is troubling that universities continue to have too few Aboriginal students, especially in social work, because of both the historical harm done through social work and the high percentage of Aboriginal clients in many areas of practice. This paper looks at ways post-secondary institutions can work towards reconciliation with First Nations communities. The inside-out model of self-reflective transformation of the institution is examined, focusing on: removing barriers to accessing post-secondary education, providing support, epistemology and curriculum, and indigenizing social work education. It concludes with a practical list of recommendations.

Recommendations to Enhance the Educational Experience
of Aboriginal Social Work Students

I hold a vision of a social work program that assumes a strong role of alliance in working with the diverse Aboriginal communities towards justice and transformation; an approach that acknowledges the historical role of social work in contributing to the societal inequities experienced by Aboriginal people; an approach that embodies a conscious act of reconciliation. I envision a flexible program that actively recruits and retains Aboriginal students, contributing to their success in a supportive manner; a program that reflects Indigenous peoples in its staff, and reflects Indigenous ideology in the core curriculum; a program that supports Aboriginal students, in culturally relevant ways, and partners with various Indigenous communities to provide enriching educational opportunities.

While some universities have taken steps towards enhancing their program to meet the needs of Aboriginal students and communities, much change is still needed. Western social work is based in a colonial system of values. The historical roots of social work in North America can be found in a “scientific treatment” approach with the goal of maintaining the status quo and of helping the individual to fit better into her/his environment (Huff, n.d.). Historically, social workers have been active and willing participants in the assimilation of Indigenous peoples in Canada through the residential school system and the “sixties scoop,” where many of the children “removed” from their families were involuntarily adopted out, and rarely seen again by either their families or their communities. Because of this, the profession has a collective responsibility for reconciliation.

I am dedicated to empowerment of, and justice for, the people, spiritually and politically, as well as professionally through the social work code of ethics (BCASW, n.d.). Education - learning the language of the dominant society - is one form of healing and empowerment. I am a Metis woman whose ancestors were both First Nations and Western European. This position between two worlds has left me wanting to help build a bridge between the Western academic structure and Indigenous communities.

Throughout this paper, references will be made to Aboriginal people, First Nations, Indigenous, Indian, Native, Native American, Native Indian, or simply “the people”; all of these references are to the same people: those who inhabited this land prior to the colonization and genocidal behaviour perpetrated by the Western European “discoverers” and “settlers,” and their descendants.

Taiaiake Alfred (2004), a Kanien’Kehaka academic, describes colonialism as “five hundred years of physical and psychological warfare” (p. 90). And, he says:
We have emerged out of a shameful past, a history of racial and religious hatreds, of extreme violence, and of profound injustice. It is impossible to even acknowledge it truthfully...more than the moneyed privilege of the new-comers, more than the chaotic disadvantage of the original peoples, this is what we have inherited from our shared past relationships founded on hatred and violence and a culture founded on lies to assuage the guilt or shame of it all. We are afraid of our memories, afraid of what we have become, afraid of each other, and afraid for the future. Fear is the foundation of the way we are in the world and the way we think …it has become normal. (p. 90)

Dr. Marie Battiste, a Mi'Kmaq educator and academic leader, talks about postcolonialism as an approach to transformation, and offers this definition:
“Postcolonial” is not a time after colonialism, but rather…it represents more an aspiration, a hope not yet achieved. It constructs a strategy…[it] is not only about the criticism and deconstruction of colonization and domination, but also about the reconstruction and transformation. (2004, p. 1).
Battiste (2002), in a critique of Canada's education system, says:
Every Aboriginal student has been contaminated by an educational system built on false colonial racist assumptions that target Aboriginal people as inferior…no system is perfect, yet few have a history as destructive to human potential as Canada’s with its obsession with assimilating Indians …the racism inherent in the system drains students of their capacity for achievement in all aspects of their lives. (pp. 27-28)

To this day, the historical damage of the residential school system, and the strength of that collective memory, creates a barrier for many Aboriginal people who seek out education. Battiste identifies many factors that contribute to the lack of fit between Aboriginal people and the institution of education. I found that most academics promote hiring Aboriginal teachers and adding supports for Aboriginal students, as a way to address the recruitment and retention issues (Battiste, 2002; Harris, 2005; Paterson & Hart-Wasekeesikaw, 1990; Wynia et al., 2003). Both the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the National Task Force on Recruitment and Retention Strategies recommended that Canadian universities create admission and retention target goals for Aboriginal students, often referred to as designated seats. Very few universities have implemented this recommendation. This is problematic because peer support has been shown to enhance success, and high attrition rates correspond to lack of affiliation. If Aboriginal students are to have success in post-secondary education, they require both adequate financial and academic support, along with personal and family support, as well as professional support from a core group of Aboriginal students (NAHO, n.d.).

The 2004 Fact Sheet on Aboriginal Post-Secondary education produced by the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), points out that the myth of full funding of education for Aboriginal students is crumbling as it becomes clear that the costs of education are increasing substantially and, simultaneously, the federal funding to the bands, for education, has been declining substantially (CFS, 2004). The money that is still available is getting more difficult to access as bands are forced to pick and choose who they give it to, how much they fund, and so on.

Additional support and designated seats are however, not enough. Kirkness, a Cree academic and educator, and Barnhardt (1991) found that in order for First Nations students to be “successful” at university, it has meant a necessary conflict between the competing cultural worldviews and values that they are pulled between: those of their own culture and those of the Western academic culture. They go on to say that typical solutions of making the target group fit into the institution with preparation programs, counseling, and so on, do not “appear to produce the desired results of full and equal participation of First Nations people in higher education…the overall ‘attrition’ and ‘retention’ rates…remain near the bottom of all…students” (p. 2). This brings us to an examination of the institution and what it offers.

Indigenous peoples are very diverse and it cannot be said that there are any universalities in the beliefs, the ways or the needs of such diverse peoples. As Maori academic Linda Smith points out,
Native communities are not homogenous, do not agree on the same issues and do not live in splendid isolation from the world. There are internal relations of power, as in any society, that exclude, marginalize and silence some while empowering others…there are however, still many native and indigenous families and communities who possess the ancient memories of another way of knowing that informs many of their contemporary practices…this alternative way of knowing…is still a way of knowing that provides access to a different epistemology, an alternative vision to society, an alternative ethics for human conduct…it has been the means through which people have made sense or their lives and circumstances, that has sustained their cultural practices over time. (2005, pp. 4 & 28)

Having acknowledged the diversity, I have explored the literature to find some similar and practical threads of beliefs, values and ways, which may never weave a singular blanket, but perhaps many blankets together.

Kirkness and Barnhardt (1991) discuss the role of traditional Aboriginal values in relation to the needed transformation of post-secondary education:
Native people have been historically underrepresented in the ranks of college and university graduates in Canada… From an institutional perspective, the problem has been typically defined in terms of low achievement, high attrition, poor retention, weak persistence, etc., thus placing the onus for adjustment on the student. From the perspective of the Indian student, however, the problem is often cast in more human terms, with an emphasis on the need for a higher educational system that respects them for who they are, that is relevant to their view of the world, that offers reciprocity in their relationships with others, and that helps them exercise responsibility over their own lives. (p. 1)
They add that the:
Most compelling problem that First Nations students face when they go to university is a lack of respect, not just as individuals, but more fundamentally as people. To them, the university represents an impersonal, intimidating and often hostile environment, in which little of what they bring in the way of cultural knowledge, traditions and core values is…respected. They are expected to leave their cultural predispositions…at the door and assume the trappings of a new form of reality…a literate world in which only decontextualized literate knowledge counts…the “Ivory Tower”. (p. 4)

It is not only what is being taught, but how it is being taught that must be examined. Battiste (2004) deconstructs the Western paradigm of education by drawing attention to the subtle ways it perpetuates itself: “the most important educational reform is to acknowledge that Canadian schools teach a silent curriculum of Eurocentric knowledge by the way teachers behave and the manner in which they transmit information” (p. 30). Willie Ermine (1995), Cree, agrees with this sentiment and further describes Aboriginal epistemology as being “grounded in the self, the spirit, the unknown…the Western education systems…promote the dogma of fragmentation and indeliby harm the capacity for holism” (p. 108). Cited in Harris (2005), Cajete describes how we “learn through our bodies and spirits as much as through our minds” (p. 9) and how a more holistic approach would serve more students.

“Indigenous knowledge has been understood as being in binary opposition to 'scientific, 'western', … or 'modern' knowledge” (Battiste, 2002, p. 5), and therefore dismissed. However, Indigenous knowledge is systemic and therefore does not preclude others' theories or knowledge. Competition is not necessary. Indeed, as Devon Mihesuah of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and Angela Wilson of the Dakota Nation (2004) see it, emancipatory education benefits those in power as well as those who are marginalized. And because Indigenous knowledge is systemic, it can only be fully learned and under-stood when learned in context, taught through Indigenous teaching methods, including sharing circles, experiential learning, meditation, prayer, ceremonies and story-telling (Battiste, 2002).

Epistemology comes from culturally-based philosophical answers to questions like: What is the nature of human beings? What is the nature of the natural world? How do we seek this knowledge? Ermine (1995) has done some excellent work describing how both the Aboriginal world and the Western world seek that knowledge in general; there are of course exceptions. Ermine says that, in the Aboriginal worldview, people traditionally seek knowledge of themselves and the rest of creation, which they know to be a spiritually connected whole, by going within themselves. Various spirit-based methods are used for this purpose and include: dreaming, visioning, prayer, dancing, language, chanting, and meditation. In the Cree language, “Mamatowisowin is the capacity to connect to the life force that makes anything and everything possible” (Ermine, 1995, p. 110). Ermine (1995) explains that this force is as a way to knowledge and that those in the Western worldview, in contrast, generally look outside of themselves for knowledge of self and the rest of creation, which they see mainly as compartmentalized into separate and spiritless pieces. He adds that they generally use what they consider to be secular and objective, scientific methods that include: examining, dissecting, separating, comparing, experimenting on and analyzing. Western thought has made itself both the legitimate knowledge, and at the same time, the judge of what is legitimate knowledge. Unfortunately, this self-declared superiority of ideology, of epistemology, and the fixation on power and control, has meant centuries of domination and oppression for Indigenous peoples and our knowledges (Smith, 1999).

The Medicine Wheel, used by many of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, teaches us that, as humans, we have four aspects to our nature: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual (Bopp, Bopp, Brown & Lane, 1985). “In First Nations cultures, from traditional to present times, health means balance and harmony within and among each of the four aspects of human nature…over focusing or under focusing on any one aspect upsets the balance of the four” (Harris, 2005, p. 13). From an Indigenous perspective, and Aboriginal theory, a healthy academic program would seek this balance holistically in its epistemology and its teachings, and encourage personal balance for faculty and students.

It seems that the most absent aspect of human nature in academia is the spiritual aspect. Spirituality is strongly valued in Indigenous worldviews (McKenzie & Morrissette, 2003). Social work, as a profession, has adopted a secular approach and distanced itself from its religious roots and therefore from spirituality (Peterson, n.d., Borden, 2002). An educational program that includes spiritual practice and acknowledges the legitimacy of these ways of knowing and learning creates a more relevant education for many Aboriginal peoples. Due to the diversity of practices amongst Nations the focus would need to be on exploring the traditional (and modern) ways of the students in the class, the teacher(s), as well as the guest speakers, for example local elders. As Battiste (2002) says, relevant and spiritual education brings balance to the educational system to make it a transforming and capacity-building place for First Nations students; capacity-building is valued in social work. Learning about Indigenous knowledge enables communities and students to feel authentic, connected, and prepared.

Paterson and Hart-Wasekeesikaw (Cree) (1990), in their critique of the current university system of educating, say that:
The traditional patriarchal system of mentoring has assumed that the faculty member is a banker, depositing knowledge in the passive brain of the student…In conventional higher education, the rational, objective, and unemotional are valued. The intuitive, subjective, and emotive aspects of learning are disregarded and depreciated. (p. 73)

A more traditional Indigenous approach would be a reciprocal educational system, where learning and teaching are a two-way process between faculty and students (Kirkness & Barnhardt, 1991). Mentoring, says Comanche Joshua Mihesuah (2004), is also a key component of a successful program.

A “two-worlds” approach to change includes collaboration and equal partnership in the evolution of policy and practice. This would include continuing efforts to be aware of the colonial aspects of a program and the acceptance of Aboriginal concepts and practices, as identified by the communities, as legitimate in the core teachings, not just in marginalized teachings. The diversity that exists in Aboriginal beliefs and ways is a significant challenge to building a bridge between the worlds. (McKenize & Morrisstte, 2003). I would add that the internalization of Western further increases the diversity.

Foucault’s infamous statement that “knowledge is power,” has different meanings depending on our definitions of knowledge and power, which are culturally subjective. Power, for example, can be defined as having influence over others, or as an inner strength, depending on your perspective. It can also be defined as “the inner recognition of oneness between the cosmos” and the self (Pauls, 1998, p. 161). Tierney, cited in Kirkness (Cree) and Barnhardt (1991), discusses power in the institution. He calls for a:
Shift away from what strategies those in power can develop to help those not in power, to analyzing how power exists in the organization…to developing strategies to transform those relations…as opposed to…a top-down managerial approach – the struggle is to develop strategies and policies that emerge from a vision of working with Native Americans toward a participatory goal of emancipation and empowerment. (p. 8)

Or, as Harris, a Dene educator, puts it, “Educators have a responsibility to work collaboratively with the community to ensure education is empowering for [First Nations] students…through the co-construction of knowledge in such areas {so that} student empowerment is enhanced” (p. 12). James suggests that, “If we can turn our theories and knowledge reflexively on ourselves and deepen them and improve the health and effectiveness of our institutions, by doing so, we can be more confident that they will be of genuine value elsewhere” (2004, p. 67). One of the challenges in collaboration is that:
when an individual’s worldview is consistent with the dominant paradigm, the possibility of grasping and understanding another worldview becomes more difficult. When those adopting a dominant perspective do not make a conscious effort to acknowledge another perspective, mutual exchange and understanding are impossible. (Morrissette, McKenzie & Morrissette, 1993, p. 92)

Having reviewed the nature of the colonial education system and its harmfulness to many Aboriginal people, the need to indigenize education and the nature of Indigenous education, it is time to look specifically at how to indigenize Social Work education.
I begin this exploration with a story that I wrote about social work:

Starling was out for a walk on the beach to stretch her legs and rest her wings after a long flight. She was counting the pebbles on the beach, giving her mind a rest. Suddenly, she heard a commotion. She looked and saw a strange-looking bird, just up ahead. She had never seen a bird that looked like that before. She kept walking and staring, and she noticed that the bird was walking kind of funny, and moving its wings awkwardly, and sometimes it fell right over. She wondered what was wrong with the bird. She looked around and didn’t see any other birds. It was alone, and it looked young.

Just then the wobbly bird said, “Hello,” - and then fell over.
“Oh my!” said Starling, she hated to see anyone in distress, “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine” snapped the bird, feeling embarrassed.
“Well,” said Starling, “I like to help other birds, and you look like you need some help.”
“What do you mean by that?!” asked the wobbly bird.
“Well,” she said, “first of all, you look kind of strange, I don’t know what kind of bird you are. Secondly, you walk funny and you fall over for no reason! And the way you move your wings -- I bet you can’t even fly.”
The wobbly bird sat down and started to cry. And cry, and cry, and cry. ‘It’s true’, he thought, ‘I keep falling down, I can’t seem to fly, I don’t know where my flock is…’ “I’m a duck” he managed to say quietly, “and I used to be able to fly. My mom taught me, and my auntie, but now they’ve gone away and left me here.” With that, he cried some more.
“There, there,” said Starling, “don’t cry. I am going to help you. Where and when did you last see your flock?”
“I’m not sure” said Duck, “it was a while ago.”
“Ok, well then, we need an action plan. I’ll take you home, and find someone who can teach you to walk properly, someone else to listen to your story, and someone who can examine your wings and tell us what is wrong with them. Do you think you might have brain damage? Never mind, we’ll just get everyone to check you out until we find out what is wrong with you.”
“OK” said Duck, thinking to himself, ‘maybe my flock left me because I have a sickness.’ He walked along, trying to remember the last time he saw his flock. They were floating out on the water, everyone said ‘good night’, and he fell asleep. The next thing he knew, he woke up to rain, wind, and big crashing waves. He remembered that he felt ‘funny’ when he woke up and the next thing he knew he was on the beach -- alone. ‘They all must have known there was something wrong with me’, he thought.

Just then Eagle flew overhead and saw the two of them and could see that Duck was struggling to walk. She flew down to get a closer look, hoping he was the one she was looking for…
“Duck,” said Eagle, “are you alright?”
“No,” he said, “I have a terrible sickness so my family left me. But this nice starling is going to help me find out what’s wrong with me and find a cure so I can get better.”
“What?!” said Eagle. “What are you talking about? You’re not sick. I just left your flock down the beach, they are looking everywhere for you. Well, as best as they can, in their condition.”
“They’re looking for ME?!” said Duck.
“Yes, of course.”
“What do you mean ‘in their condition’? Did I make them sick too?” The duck started to cry again, feeling terrible.
Starling was moving in and looking protective…
Eagle came closer and softly explained, “A few days ago, a big ship spilled oil all over the water. When it reached your flock you all got covered in it. It has seeped into your skin and your mouth, and it’s all over your food. You are definitely not well, but it’s not anything to do with you personally; every creature in the path of that oil is struggling to stay alive, or has already passed away. Your flock has lost about half of its members and the other half has been trying to find you. I’m going to go now and tell them you’re found, and then I’ll come right back.” Eagle flew away.

Duck felt a little confused, but hopeful, and most importantly, he felt Loved again. Eagle flew swiftly to deliver the good news. She wasn’t sure the young duck would make it, he was very affected, but she was determined to do what she could to reunite the flock. ‘The older ducks had been through a lot together’, she thought, ‘and they will know how to help the young one…’ (Fire, 2005, p. 1, 2).

I take a post-colonial stance to acknowledge the fact that colonialism is still a present and active reality, and because I wish to express, as much as I am able, a perspective, a vision, that originates outside of the colonial sphere. This perspective is illustrated in the Bird Story. It critiques traditional Western social work ideology and practice and presents an Indigenous perspective, with an archetypal description of the effects of colonization.

Universities, in general, have been slow to recognize and address the oppressive qualities of the educational institution, including the content of their programs, yet programs that foster strong self-esteem and empowerment amongst Native students are invaluable (Mihesuah, J., 2004). What would indigenized or de-colonized education look like? Barbara Harris (2005) speaks of the limitations of social work and social work education, based on its colonial roots:
It has long been recognized that current services do little to appease the challenges facing First Nations communities… the increased capacity to improve health, social, economic and political conditions for Aboriginal people will be fostered by supporting the attainment of an education which honours the traditional practices that enabled people to survive for thousands of years prior to contact. (p. 21)

Peter Cole (2004) offers us a glimpse of what Indigenous education in the University might look like, [original formatting used]:
universities you mean with presidents and registrars and chancellors and tuition fees[?]
no not so much that
as hereditary chiefs elders medicine people faithkeepers wisdomkeepers
potlatches giveaways witnessings ancestors powwows children community

like it was way back when we had education instead of schooling. (p.24)
Battiste (2002) also advocates the use of elders and knowledge keepers in the institutions, and refers to them as “national treasures” (p. 21).
Raven Sinclair (2004), a Cree and Assinniboine educator, sums up the limitations of mainstream social work education well:
The standard for social work education and practice is literature and education based on the worldview, lifeways, and reality of the dominant, predominantly white, and mainstream society…Aboriginal social work curriculum does not come from a textbook – it comes from the post-colonial frontlines where inter-generational trauma is the norm, and is manifested in lateral violence, substance abuse, sexual abuse, suicide, depression, and rampant ill-health. (pp. 53- 57)

As for the academic requirement of research, the terms “research” and “study” are considered offensive to many Indigenous communities. These terms are associated with cultural genocide, intellectual theft, and generalized information taken out of context, (Voss et al., 1999). Research “should be viewed as part of an action-oriented, problem-solving process” (Morrissette, McKenzie & Morrissette, 1993, p. 106) that understands “colonial history…and…has practical applications that empower and liberate the people” (Pelletier Sinclair, 2003, p. 129). Linda Smith (2005) adds that, “Indigenous research offers…a rich, deep and diverse resource of alternative ways of knowing and thinking about ethics, research relationships, personal conduct and researcher integrity” (p. 29).

Graduate research, however, born out of colonial thought, is an area to which universities need to apply a critical eye. More than the reflexivity of “locating one’s self in one’s work” one must locate and examine one’s motivation, one’s agenda, one’s worldview, and the larger social context, including the historical context, when working with Indigenous communities.

Battiste (2002), in her writings on educational reform, suggests that we ask ourselves some important questions:
(1) How do First Nations people transform educational institutions to allow the individuals within them to restore Indigenous knowledge[s] and their inner selves? (2) How do we create spaces in education for making meaning and achieving respect for Indigenous knowledge[s]? And (3) How do we bring a better balance in our lives? (p. 29)

Harris’ (2005) educational framework for transforming social work education provides a response to the questions put forward by Battiste. Her model is based on the medicine wheel. She participated in a process with members of the Squamish Nation to design a culturally relevant off-campus program for First Nations students. The components of Harris’ model include: empowerment through co-creation of the program and shared decision-making, a holistic approach that includes spirituality, inclusion of family and community, an anti-racist approach, a caring environment of cooperation, rather than competition, egalitarian relationships and mutual learning, respect through learning from elders, and finally, acknowledging the legitimacy of Indigenous ways and knowledges (Harris, 2005).

Advocating for institutional change, in the service of humanity, is also a responsibility of social workers according to our code of ethics (BCASW, n.d.). The code provides a clear mandate for the continued transformation of our educational system to one that pursues social justice, respects all people, and provides a relevant education to produce competent social workers that will work with others respectfully, towards social justice. And, as Harris (2005) puts it, “educators have a responsibility to work collaboratively with the community to ensure education is empowering for [First Nations] students…through the co-construction of knowledge …[so that] student empowerment is enhanced” (p. 12).

Empowering clients is valued in Aboriginal social work, but the concept of empowerment is dependent on one’s worldview. Activist Harold Cardinal talked about the “Buckskin Curtain” that exists in North America to keep Indians “in their place”: poor, uneducated, and powerless. He said that to be successful by the mainstream standard was to be a “good little brown white man” (1999, p.1). It is to give up one’s identity and assimilate, in exchange for a watered down version of success and acceptance, as defined by the white culture. Is this the kind of empowerment that we want for our clients? The University has a role and a responsibility here to educationally assist its students with conscientization, so that they can, in turn, genuinely assist their clients to be empowered and self-determined. We must transform out of the legacy of the past that bore our current educational system.

Graham Smith’s Kaupapa Maori theory, both relevant and practical, is based on the remarkable educational transformation and reclamation of the Maori education system, which began in the 1980s, in New Zealand. The Kaupapa Maori theory is “concerned with…structural change…attempts to take account of unequal ‘power relations’ and…is transformative in its aims” (Smith, 2003, p. 11). The principles of Kaupapa Maori theory are: self-determination, validating and legitimating cultural aspirations and identity, and a shared collective vision and philosophy. It has a strengths-based approach. Smith (2003), a Maori academic, demonstrates a proactive, rather than reactive, approach to writing for Indigenous peoples, rather than against an “oppressor”.

At the same time, he also refers to the need for “a confrontation with the colonizer and a confrontation with ‘ourselves’…the ‘inside–out’ model of transformation…the struggle for our minds – the freeing of the Indigenous mind from the grip of dominant hegemony … ‘conscientization’” (p. 3). Current social work practice is limited in focus and outcome, unless it addresses “the true internalization of oppression that lies beneath the skin of those who have endured racism and discrimination throughout the majority of their lives” (Harper, 2003, p. 106). Smith (2003) refers to the manifestation of this internalized oppression:
There are…various “distractions” (that must also be confronted) that are per-petrated by “Maori” against “ourselves”. This “self-abuse” is aptly described in what Antonio Gramsci (1971) labeled as “hegemony”. Hegemony is a way of thinking – it occurs when oppressed groups take on dominant group thinking and ideas uncritically and as “commonsense,” even though those ideas may in fact be contributing to forming their own oppression. It is the ultimate way to colonize a people; you have the colonized colonizing themselves! (pp. 2-3)

The inside-out model of transformation, a part of the Kaupapa Maori theory, fits with the complexity of the situation that needs to change, as well as the multiplicity of the approaches needed to create change. It is a theory that can be owned by Indigenous communities due to its Indigenous roots, and is maleable to meet the needs of diverse communities (Smith, 2003).

Finally, Smith (2003) offers some “critical sites of struggle” to assist Indigenous peoples to transform themselves. He says that there is “a need to understand and respond to the unhelpful divide between indigenous communities and the Academy… feelings of distrust…an undermining of the capacity to educate beyond the self-fulfilling cycle of educational under-achievement and socio-economic marginalization” (p. 4).

Conclusions and Recommendations

It is unclear to what extent university administrators are aware of the limitations of their curricula, or the need for changes to create an environment in which Aboriginal students could more easily succeed. This area of research would make an interesting follow-up study that may be of benefit to the communities in planning future strategies to encourage institutional change. Another area of potential research would be a study of current and past students and faculty to determine to what extent current practices are achieving the goals set out in the institutions’ vision and mission statements.

Social work, as a profession, values empowerment and, therefore, schools of social work have an opportunity to empower Aboriginal students through the transformation of the education they provide and the way they provide it; to accept their responsibility to learn what respect means to Aboriginal communities, enact that respect to repair and nurture relationships, rebuild trust, and work with the communities collaboratively, in an equal partnership, to the benefit of the communities, the universities, and future generations.

These recommendations are a summary of those gathered from the literature review, focus group work, the 2005 University of British Columbia graduate symposium, and my own experiences. These recommendations are directed to universities in general and also to schools of Social Work. I offer these recommendations as some next steps on the long road to transformation. In order to foster respect, responsibility, relationship, and relevance, with Indigenous peoples, post-secondary institutions have the opportunity to:

Apply the Inside-Out Model of Transformation
Use self-reflection, at the institutional level, to identify how “power” exists in the institution and develop strategies to transform relations with Aboriginal communities.
Choose to practice shared leadership with local communities; collaborate with Aboriginal communities to create a collective vision for the University and co-construct programs such as the BSW program with the Squamish nation.
Provide mandatory anti-discrimination training to all faculty in recognition of the racism which exists on campus.
Acknowledge the value and reality of self-determination in education.
Hire a First Nations advisor in each faculty.
Designate one seat on Student Council as an Indigenous seat.
Develop faculty “listening circles” for students’ frustrations to be heard.
Offer training to faculty on how the treaty process affects the University lands, asking: What responsibility do professors have in supporting the treaty process?
Strike a committee, or multiple committees, to explore implementation of recommendations for institutional change.

Remove Barriers and Provide Support
Develop a protocol agreement with the Musqueam nation, and other nations, regarding use of their resources, including knowledge. Reconnect curriculum and pedagogy to territory, to land, and validate the cultural knowledge that is linked to that territory.
Designate seats, approximately 12%, in all faculties, for Aboriginal students; focus on recruitment and also focus on retention.
Make policy changes regarding Prior Learning Assessments to make the requirements more relevant to Aboriginal peoples, as per community consultation.
Provide more affordable student housing for people coming in from communities outside the Lower Mainland and for people with children.
Create flexible access to graduate studies through increasing co-op programs that apply theory and work study opportunities to all, regardless of band funding.
Transform “International” student policy to remove the Indigenous peoples of North America from the definition of “international students,” in recognition of the borderless Nations of Indigenous peoples, and to reduce the financial barrier of “American” Indians studying in Canada.
Use interactive media education as a way to provide emotional and social support to bridge the social and cultural distance experienced by distance education students.
Enhance currently available student funding to adequate levels and develop funding for part-time students.
Provide adequate funding for the First Nations House of Learning to enable them to meet their goals of offering academic, emotional, physical, and spiritual supports to Indigenous students; emotional supports are also needed by students’ family members at times.
Develop formalized mentoring programs for Aboriginal graduate students.
Create positive, supportive spaces that visually reflect the diversity of the students through art, photographs, and décor, throughout the campus.

Transform Epistemology and Curriculum
Educate all students about the impact of colonization on the First Peoples and offer conscientization education to the Aboriginal students, including a healing component for the pain that often comes with that awareness.
Encourage faculty and students in the helping professions to develop a personal wellness plan, and provide resources for implementation, to promote the Aboriginal ethic of “walking the talk.”
Acknowledge the value of spirituality and ceremony, and make space within the programs for both.
Acknowledge the multiple forms of traditional knowledge, and the traditional ways of accessing knowledge, as legitimate.
Integrate Indigenous knowledges throughout courses, rather than offering it in decompartmentalized ways. For example, in the School of Social Work, integrate the knowledge into the core theory, practice, and research courses.
Ensure that courses in Indigenous knowledges are taught by Aboriginal peoples, and that the use of traditional Indigenous teaching methods is encouraged. (See Curriculum and Epistemology section, in the literature review, for more details.)
Create an application process for First Nations professors that is more likely to create a successful hiring process. Also utilize chiefs, elders, medicine people, and wisdomkeepers as educators and resource people and compensate them at appropriate levels.
Offer Aboriginal students the opportunity to take exams orally, when possible, to acknowledge tradition. And, in recognition of different worldviews, allow Aboriginal students to have a paper or exam re-marked by a First Nations faculty when there is a dispute about the grade; the second grade would remain even it is lower.
Foster an environment of support and cooperation amongst students, faculty and faculties, to encourage egalitarian relationships of mutual learning.

Enhance Research and Professional Development Opportunities
Create an Aboriginal research department that includes capacity development and partnerships at various levels. This would include establishing mentoring by elders, and research curriculum development as basic requirements within the funding and/or research formulas.
Host a province-wide professional development program to gather Aboriginal peoples and help build stronger networks and mentoring opportunities.


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