Students' Union wants mandatory indigenous content at University of Saskatchewan

The University of Saskatchewan Students' Union is asking that indigenous content be taught in every degree program.

University administration says the idea is a positive one

A dancer at the University of Saskatchewan's Graduation Powwow. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

The University of Saskatchewan Students' Union is asking that indigenous content be taught in every degree program.

The students' council is asking the university to strike a committee made up of students, faculty and indigenous leaders to look at implementing the idea.

"If you're a graduate of university in Saskatchewan, you really do need to understand the ramifications of past cultural aspects that have faced indigenous people, including residential schools," said Gabe Senecal, the  Vice-President of Academic Affairs at the Students' Union.

The idea has precedent. The University of Winnipeg's senate recently voted to make it mandatory for students to take at least one indigenous studies course to graduate. The change starts next year.

"It's very much at the forefront of the concerns of many universities across Canada, especially on the prairies," said Senecal. "The U of S itself has led the nation in committing to the indigenization of the academy."

Earlier this month, the University of Saskatchewan, along with every other post-secondary institution in the province, announced they would be working together to close the aboriginal education gap.

Senecal believes the idea will have wide support from students.

"Well, we passed it unanimously in council," he said. "So, I think we have a lot of support from students."

Senecal said the content could either be in special classes tailored for different faculties, or individual classes that all students would take.

U of S administration open to the idea

Patti McDougall, vice-provost of teaching and learning at the U of S, said she first heard about the USSU proposal earlier this week.

"I felt very positive and very pleased to see them taking this up and engaging in the way that they are in such a constructive way," McDougall said. "So the intention of the students aligns really quite well with goals that the University of Saskatchewan has to indigenize."

McDougall said with so many colleges and schools at the university, the administration would not succeed if they attempted a "one-size-fits-all model".

But the university can set broad learning goals. McDougall said they could, for example, require that every grad "understand indigenous knowledges or understands and is aware of the social, cultural circumstances of the aboriginal peoples of Canada." Each of the colleges would then work on that goal in a way that respects their academic knowledge, and is also meaningful for students. 

McDougall said the proposal would support several goals of the university. One, is to follow the calls to action outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Another, would be to better prepare students as citizens. The other goal is to create more opportunities for aboriginal students.

The vice-provost said that understanding indigenous knowledge is more than just what is learned in the classroom, and pointed to the new Gordon Oakes-Red Bear Student Centre as a way to have an impact on students. 

The students' union is asking that a committee be struck by May 2016. McDougall said the next step is to bring the idea forward at the university council.