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Indigenous Studies as a Mandatory Course in Universities

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Indigenous Studies as a Mandatory Course in Universities

When most people think of the necessary classes they will take in university they think of classes specific to their major and therefore, their interests. While few people have a specific interest in indigenous studies, the idea of a mandatory class for all has been brought up many times in the past and in his “Why Indigenous Studies Shouldn’t be Mandatory” article, Josh Dehaas makes impassioned arguments against it. He begins first by introducing both sides of the issue. Julianne Beaudin-Herney is a student attending First Nations University who began a petition to introduce mandatory indigenous studies classes at the University of Regina where she witnessed the blatant stereotyping of her people as “Indian princesses” at a school party (Dehaas par. 19).

Dehaas finds Beaudin-Herney’s opponents in engineering students from the University of Regina. It is the belief of many non-indigenous students that the topic is already thoroughly covered in each grade before graduating high school (Dehaas par. 13). By focusing solely on the engineering students and giving little voice to Beaudin-Herney, Dehaas ignores or trivializes why these classes are integral to building bridges between the different cultures in Canada. Dehaas focuses much of the first half of his essay on the struggle an additional mandatory class would bring to engineering students. To get a degree in engineering the students first have to complete 45 classes and are often so overwhelmed less than 64% meet the requirements to graduate within 6 years (Dehaas par. 4); even less finish in the standard 4 to 5.

Out of those 45 classes they only get to select one elective in the humanities, many have an objection to that single course becoming an obligation to indigenous studies. It is important to note that indigenous studies is not currently on the list of available humanities electives. Dehaas provides a list of what they are allowed to choose from: Women’s Studies, English, Philosophy, or Religion (par. 5). The single student mentioned by name, Kyle Smyth, openly states he is not willing to give up his already chosen English elective and is unwilling to add to his course load which would bring his total required classes to 46. Another argument Smyth makes against simply adding the class is that he and his classmates are not willing to spend $650 and “countless” hours on a class they didn’t ask for (Dehaas par. 6).

At this point it should be mentioned that assuming the University of Regina has a standard 3 hours of instruction per week for a single semester class, Smyth and his friends would only be spending 36 hours at the maximum on indigenous studies material. The second half of the essay is a string of statements explaining his already deep understanding of indigenous issues, and claims that in kindergarten through graduate school general Canadian history was pushed aside to accommodate indigenous and non-indigenous relations.

By his own admission In grade four [he] filled in maps detailing the different aboriginal linguistic groups, in grade five [he] made bannock with Algonquin grandmothers, and in grade six [he] listened carefully to a Cree woman [talk] about how she was flown from Hudson Bay each fall to residential schools in Timmins (Dehaas par. 14) and while these do offer an important understanding of those indigenous to non-indigenous relations, teachers can only expect a sixth grader to understand so much. Grade school lessons offer an excellent base for what can be more thoroughly discussed at a higher level. There are hundreds of different indigenous groups across Canada, and university professors can objectively teach not just their histories, but their current position within Canada in a space that offers everyone the ability to contribute to the conversation. Students who think they already know enough may have that idea challenged, hopefully to their benefit.

Beaudin-Herney titled her petition “Student Initiative to Change On-Campus Systemic Racism” and identifies witnessing a group of non-indigenous students dressed as “Indian Princesses” at a school party as the incident that encouraged her statements (Dehaas par. 19). Any indigenous student in school across Canada can inform him of a similar experience, however not all of those students are as fortunate as Beaudin-Herney to have the platform to protest it. If Dehaas has as great an understanding of the modern issues indigenous people face day to day as he would like to think, he would better understand that Beaudin-Herney’s experience at that party was not at all individual.

Immediately after speaking of Beaudin-Herney’s party experience, Dehaas does not fail to mention he is gay, and has also been the subject of painful comments. He states, “it doesn’t happen often, but it happens. And there are many gays and lesbians who feel more impacted by stereotypes than I do” (Dehaas par. 20) and while that is a regretful statement, it is important to remember that different forms of oppression and discrimination are not linear and therefore, not interchangeable (Nagy). If he has had experience with discrimination as a gay man, he can understand why indigenous people are fighting for the right to be heard fairly when presented with the smallest opportunity.

Another point he is quick to make is that any other marginalized group will surely demand their time on the list of required courses. LBGT students will require a course, and so will Asian-Canadians, Muslim-Canadians, and Women’s Studies (Dehaas pars. 21-23). Each of these groups has their own history within Canada and has a right to offered classes, but indigenous people have a very specific and difficult history with this country that no other group has; in fact, Dehaas freely uses the word indigenous, which itself is defined as “being used by the originating people to reclaim their history and their roots” (Bedard). It isn’t far-fetched to believe other minorities will understand this simple fact. Considering that history as the original peoples in Canada and North America, and the centuries of pain caused to an entire nation, it is not unreasonable to ask for 36 hours of a student’s time.

Indigenous studies classes are becoming more common and more course topics are being offered in almost all universities each year and that is a strong and positive improvement to be proud of. Beaudin-Herney can be proud of the fact that her petition has brought national attention to this. Dehaas likely played devil’s advocate in stating his believe indigenous studies should not be made mandatory, and offered a voice to students who also opposed the decision with valid reasons, however he did not present his arguments completely without bias. When discussing an issue so close to many Canadians such as this, it is necessary to remain completely impartial and fair to everyone involved.

Works Cited:

1. Bedard, Renee. Indigenous Terminology. NATI1005. Nipissing University. 17 September 2018. In Class Lecture.

2. Dehaas, Josh. “Why Indigenous Studies Shouldn’t be Mandatory”. Maclean’s. Published 23 February 2012. www.macleans.ca/education.uniandcollege/why-indigenous-studies-shouldnt-be-mandatory/. Accessed 14 September 2018.

3. Nagy, Rosemary. Definitions and Perspectives. GEND 1006. Nipissing University. 11 September 2018.

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