Nova Scotia

Teaching in Mi'kmaw? Cape Breton University hopes to indigenize education

If indigenization is a fancy word for making institutions more welcoming to Canada's first inhabitants, then Ovide Mercredi is all in favour.

Former AFN Chief Ovide Mercredi says post-secondary institutions need to be more welcoming

Ovide Mercredi, a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, gave the keynote address at Cape Breton University's Indigenizing Education forum on Thursday. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Cape Breton University is joining many other schools across Canada trying to do a better job of making post-secondary institutions welcoming for Indigenous people.

As part of its reconciliation efforts, CBU held an open forum Thursday to start a dialogue on how to integrate indigenization into its strategic plan.

But even Indigenous peoples say the meaning of "indigenization" is not always clear.

"In my time, we never used that language," Ovide Mercredi said. "We just used this idea that there has to be a reflection of our personality in the institution."

Mercredi, a lawyer, lecturer and artist fought for better access to the University of Manitoba for Indigenous people in the 1970s. The former chief of Misipawistik Cree Nation near Grand Rapids, Man., and former national chief with the Assembly of First Nations was the guest speaker at CBU's forum.

Reflection of Indigenous personality needed

"We have to see images within the university that give us a sense of belonging, and those images have to be reflected back to us in the curriculum and the administration," he said. "If that's what indigenization now means, then I support it. But we don't need a fancy word. We don't need a fancy term to do the right thing."

Mercredi told the audience of about 200 that the university should consider having a separate building for Indigenous students, but later told reporters indigenization is more than just facilities.

Ovide Mercredi says indigenization means changes are needed in university governance, faculty and curricula. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

He said that indigenization means transforming the university's governance, including the administration and choosing faculty.

"When it comes to courses like history, politics, it's about curriculum, ensuring that there's accommodations being made to have our story as part of the learning that students take."

Topics include indigenization and reconciliation

The session on indigenization was specifically aimed at helping draft the university's response to the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said Rod Nicholls, a faculty adviser for the university's strategic plan.

"It's a matter of drawing upon the wisdom of somebody like Chief Mercredi and in the talking circle … we'll get a wide range of people talking about their experiences, and there, obviously, will come up with all sorts of suggestions as to what CBU should do."

He said Cape Breton University has been including Indigenous culture and history in its facilities, courses and staffing for years.

"I think that we have done a relatively good job, but there's lots more to do," he said.

The university needs to provide better access to services, integrate Indigenous knowledge into courses and add staff and facilities, said Nicholls.

"It's a matter of, with Indigenous students as Chief Mercredi said, providing them with a sense of belonging and a recognition that their knowledge is knowledge the equal of and sometimes superior to western knowledge."

Indigenization, reconciliation impossible without language

During a talking circle that included Mi'kmaq elders, chiefs and current and former students at CBU, many said the university feels welcoming, but it could do more to accommodate Indigenous people.

Elder Albert Marshall made a strong case for teaching and encouraging use of the Mi'kmaw language.

Without that, reconciliation and indigenization are impossible, he said.

Phillip Prosper of We'koqma'q First Nation said he loves CBU.

He is finishing his second degree this fall and said all of the courses and practicum for his CBU bachelor of education were offered on reserve.

Stephen Augustine, associate vice-president of Cape Breton University, says CBU has had its ups and downs, but it's now on an upward trajectory. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Stephen Augustine, an associate vice-president of Cape Breton University who is responsible for Indigenous affairs and Unama'ki College, said the university is a welcoming place for Indigenous people.

Most Indigenous courses are offered off campus, with 180 students now registered in up to nine First Nation communities across Nova Scotia, Augustine said.

I was one of those that learned from my great-grandparents and my grandparents on the land and in the community.- Stephen Augustine, associate vice-president, Cape Breton University

"We can bring these elements together to enhance learning for First Nation students," Augustine said.

"As an example, I was one of those that learned from my great-grandparents and my grandparents on the land and in the community. I know my language, I know my traditional ceremonies, and those came down from my ancestors, and then I went through a mainstream system and learned the mainstream context of education."

Augustine said there is no date set when CBU will be indigenized.

"It's a continuous process," he said. "It's not something [where] there's a goal post you have to arrive at. It's something that's going to be ongoing and it's probably going to go for another couple of generations yet."


Tom Ayers


Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years. He has spent the last 17 years covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at