University of Victoria's Indigenous governance program resumes with new faculty

Indigenous women are teaching a restructured Indigenous governance program at the University of Victoria, three years after it suspended enrolment when a third party review found "dysfunctional classroom dynamics."

Program suspended enrolment in 2018 after 3rd party review

Gina Starblanket is one of four Indigenous women who were hired in July to teach and help restructure the Indigenous Governance program at the University of Victoria. (Conor McNally)

Indigenous women are teaching a restructured Indigenous governance program at the University of Victoria, three years after it suspended enrolment when a third party review found "dysfunctional classroom dynamics."

"The time has come for women to take their place in leadership roles … and in the study and practice of Indigenous political life," said Gina Starblanket, who is Cree and Saulteaux from Starblanket Cree Nation in Saskatchewan.

In July, Starblanket and three other Indigenous women were hired to teach and help restructure the program, which resumed in September. 

"It feels really empowering to have the opportunity to step into these roles with a number of Indigenous women who I admire and respect and to be able to take this opportunity to build on the program's existing foundation," said Starblanket.

Starblanket said the graduate program is unique because it focuses on Indigenous governance, resurgence and activism, and has produced many community leaders since its inception in 1999.

The program underwent a third party review in 2018 under the university's discrimination and harassment policy. The review said the program suffered from "discrimination" and "hyper-masculinity" that provided little classroom space for diverse points of view.

Current program director Devi Mucina said he stepped into the role temporarily in 2019 to "hold space" and ensure the university hired the right people to move the program forward.

"We were responding to the fact that there have been signals to the program and I think to the communities around, that folks felt that this had become a toxic sort of space for folks, for women, queer folks," said Mucina.

He said his role as program director will end by June 2024 at the latest, and that succession planning is underway with a good chance that someone else will take over the program before then.

Restructuring efforts so far have included consultations with alumni over the direction of the program, efforts to establish stronger relationships with local communities, and re-imagining of the content that is being taught to students.

Heidi Stark, who is Ojibwe from Turtle Mountain in North Dakota, is one of the newly-hired faculty.

She said this year's master's degree cohort, which consists of six students, have diverse backgrounds and there are new mechanisms in place to ensure the classroom space is safe for students, faculty and staff.

"Our hope is for IGov to be positioned again as a leader in the training and intellectual development of Indigenous governance both across Canada and globally," said Stark. 

Alumni pleased

Two former students of the program are excited to hear the program is making changes.

Carol Bilson, who is Mapuche from Wallmapu in South America, attended the program from 2009-2011 and said the ideas and scholarship of the program were transformational but the program had issues of "covert misogyny" and disrespect towards women.

"Women have to take the lead and so I think it's an absolute natural progression of this program. It was totally what was needed," said Bilson.

Eva Jewell, who is Anishinaabekwe from Chippewas of the Thames First Nation in Ontario, is an associate professor at Ryerson University and research director at Yellowhead Institute and also was in the IGov program from 2009-2011.

Former student Eva Jewell says the Indigenous governance program at the University of Victoria is important for Indigenous students and that she is excited to see what the new leadership can accomplish. (Ryerson University)

She said there was important decolonial literature that was being taught at the time but the program often lacked a gender/intersectional lens, and "people were still suspiciously looking at feminisms."

"I think there's been so much movement in Indigenous studies and governance in general, that I think it's really going to be an awesome program that reflects all the progress and the deepening of the thought we have had over the last few decades," she said.


Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He was an associate producer with CBC Indigenous.