Manitoba

University of Winnipeg makes Indigenous studies mandatory

University of Winnipeg students are now required to take at least one Indigenous studies course.

Students can choose from 19 courses in all disciplines

First-year University of Winnipeg students are now required to take a course in Indigenous studies. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

It's just the second week of school, and some students, still looking a little stunned to be back, file into a small lecture theatre.

At first glance, this could be any general arts course at the University of Winnipeg.

Then the lecture begins.

"What does it mean to be Indigenous?" asks associate professor Jacqueline Romanow.
U of W associate professor Jacqueline Romanow says the new course requirement is about broadening perspectives, not cultural guilt. (Gary Solilak/CBC News)

It's a question that has vexed Canada for centuries.

Today, it's being put to about three dozen students, most of them first-year and Caucasian.

No hands go up.

"What this course involves is really taking a sort of fresh look at Indigenous culture and history, starting right back at the beginning," explains Romanow.

The course is Introduction to Indigenous Studies: Arts, Culture and History.

It's a half-year course, one of 19 students must choose from to fulfil the university's new Indigenous course requirement, mandatory for all first-year students and those who haven't declared a major.

A requirement designed to counter prevailing prejudices and stereotypes that in some cases have stood for centuries.

"A lot of history they have already learned comes from a Western viewpoint," says Romanow, who is Métis. "Because of this, we have a lot of racism that exists even today." 

A step toward reconciliation 

This year the U of W and Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., became the first Canadian universities to make at least one Indigenous course required learning. 

It comes after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission last year called on all educational systems for a greater emphasis on teaching Indigenous history and perspectives.  

In Winnipeg, the requirement was in the works long before — first suggested by a group of Indigenous students, later taken forward by the U of W's Students' Association, which felt that a greater understanding of Indigenous perspectives would help counter racism on campus.

"We have all been affected by the broken relationship between Indigenous people and the rest of Canada," said Kevin Lamoureux, vice-president of Indigenous affairs at the university.   

"Now we get to be part of changing that narrative." 

At the U of W, the courses span all subject areas in all majors.   

For example, a physics class may focus on the concept that all things — earth, water, trees and people — are made of the same matter, yet from an Indigenous perspective one is not necessarily more important than the other.

Meanwhile, a history class may explore Indigenous innovation prior to European contact.

Other schools have considered adding mandatory Indigenous studies courses.

The University of Regina floated the idea a decade ago. And the Native Students' Association at the University of Toronto has posted an online petition to get a requirement established at that school, so far unsuccessfully.

Not about guilt 

Back in her class, Romanow continues her lecture, speaking about Indigenous concepts of citizenship and ownership.

In a back-and-forth exchange, students ask questions as Romanow explains the view that some Indigenous nations see themselves as separate from the Canadian state.

As the class wraps up, students Joshua Kjarsgaard and Ashley Hall are among the last to leave.
U of W students Ashley Hall and Joshua Kjarsgaard both say they see merit in the new Indigenous course requirement. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Just three classes in, Kjarsgaard admits it's challenging his notions. 

"To hear someone say they didn't identify as Canadian, it punched a few buttons in my head."  

Hall agrees the perspectives are valuable. 

"I think learning your identity is important," she said. "I think that Indigenous culture and history is rooted in what it means to be Canadian." 

Yet she does question whether the course should be mandatory, or if it might be better to leave it open to those with a genuine interest.

"I think it loses some of the sincerity when it has to be taken," she said.

The university agrees that some students will go into the course simply looking to check off a required credit. 

As the lecture theatre clears out, Romanow says that's exactly why the course is needed.

She says she's trying to address those attitudes by not making this about cultural shaming or guilt.   

"It's to see the value in Indigenous culture," she said.   

"It doesn't take away from anyone else's culture."  

About the Author

Cameron MacIntosh

Senior reporter

Cameron MacIntosh is a senior reporter with CBC National News based in Winnipeg.