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‘There are so-called leaders out there today who could learn a lot from Nehiyawak teachings on humility,’ Tracy Bear, Nehiyaw iskwêw says.

Illustration by Chief Lady Bird

Tracy Bear, Nehiyaw iskwêw (Cree woman), director of the Indigenous Women and Youth Resilience Project and an assistant professor of native studies and women’s and gender studies, is the academic lead and professor of record for the University of Alberta’s massive open online course Indigenous Canada. Growing up in small mining towns across Canada, Prof. Bear did not always believe that schooling would be on her path. Today, she seeks to dispel the illusion that education happens only in the classroom and wants to debunk the myth that Indigenous peoples can’t succeed at it. As an academic, Prof. Bear sees value in all forms of teachings, whether they come from the land, from knowledge keepers or from the classroom.

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How did the Indigenous Canada course originate?

The University of Alberta provost’s office approached us in 2015, asking whether the faculty of native studies wanted to create a massive open online course that could serve as an introduction to the history of Indigenous people and Canada. At first, I wondered how we could possibly make a single course on the subject, when we have entire degrees in Indigenous studies. But I tend to jump headfirst into these sorts of projects, so I took on the task with incredible enthusiasm. From there, we began by consulting with our Indigenous communities – individuals, groups, organizations, staff, students and faculty for three years. It was really important to us that we be able to present the course through an Indigenous lens, encompassing the rich diversity of histories, traditions and experiences.

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How did the course grow to become the most popular in Canada?

In the first few months, we had 50,000 people enrolled. Last year, we were touted as the No. 1 online course. Then, [Alberta NDP Leader] Rachel Notley tweeted about us. We saw an uptick from normally 100 to 200 students a week to 500 students a week. And then, Dan Levy [the Emmy award-winning Canadian actor, writer, director and producer] e-mailed me and changed everything.

He deplored how little Indigenous history is taught in school and he said it was about time to learn. This is a commonly held opinion for a lot of Canadians. He suggested using his social media platform to enable others to experience and learn together. Every Sunday we have had a conversation about the last module and answer questions. Since the beginning of his involvement, we’ve seen our enrollment rate grow from 50,000 to 196,000 students and each week we grow by approximately 5,000 students.

What do you hope that people will take away from the Indigenous Canada course?

I’d really like people to come away with a greater understanding of the history of Indigenous peoples and Canada. Equipped with a more complete understanding of history, I wish for learners to recognize the incredible strength of our nations and resiliency of our peoples. Rather than focusing on feelings of shame and guilt as a settler or non-Indigenous person, I hope this course highlights the incredible richness of our culture and languages, political and governance structures, and the histories that influence our contemporary realities. Indigenous Canada offers us an opportunity to connect with one another, inviting Canadians to experience another story about Canada, and to celebrate a new and shared future together.

What role does education play in your work as a leader?

Teachers and adults around me led me to believe that I wasn’t smart enough because of my brown skin, my dark eyes and my braids. From the beginning, teachers didn’t hold out a lot of hope for me. After struggling in her class, my Grade 11 algebra teacher said, “It’s a good thing you’re pretty, Tracy, because you’ll marry well.” Those kinds of opinions wear on a person.

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I think back at that young Tracy who didn’t feel like she belonged in a postsecondary environment, and I think of all those young Indigenous students who may be having the same experience. In my privileged space in academia, it’s my responsibility to make room for other Indigenous women and girls. Whether I’m teaching in a university classroom or in a federal prison, my Indigenous sisters and brothers need to know that we are making space for them. If a postsecondary education is what they want, we will be there to make sure they get that chance.

What differentiates Indigenous and non-Indigenous leadership?

The leaders that I look up to practise serving as much as leading more than anything. They have an accountability that tethers their soul and their work to humanity and this Earth. I find that people who seek leadership positions for the accolades, high income or power see leadership as hierarchical and are likely in the field for the wrong reasons. In my opinion, true leaders understand that leadership is about reciprocity, accountability and giving back to the communities you serve. It is understanding the time when you must stand up, and times when you are needed to help others stand. Our leaders should be as comfortable standing at a podium as they are cutting wet firewood at dawn’s first light or delivering supplies to elders in our communities. There are so-called leaders out there today who could learn a lot from Nehiyawak teachings on humility.

How can Canada improve its relationship with its Indigenous peoples?

It’s simple: land back. Our epistemologies, our way of life, our social, political and cultural structures are all embedded within the land. Our dispossession of land has led to serious ramifications in the dispossession of our physical bodies. Without our land, without our sovereignty, we cannot be fully cured of this sickness called colonization. I encourage all people to look into the “Land Back” movement and learn more about what it means and why it’s so critical to Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty.

How can non-Indigenous people in Canada be advocates for Indigenous peoples and issues?

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Get yourself some knowledge, educate yourself. Ignorance is bliss? For whom? Not for Indigenous peoples. Do your reading and do your work. Be vigilant about what you’re reading. Don’t just pick up anything about Indigenous peoples from the library or online and think that it’s legitimate. Seek out Indigenous authors, bloggers, filmmakers, artists and activists. Ask yourself where the knowledge is coming from, who is sharing it, and why it’s relevant.

To take a step further, get involved. Go to cultural events. Step outside of your comfort zone. It can be uncomfortable to step into another culture and another language, but I would challenge those who want to be allies to do exactly that. Keep in mind that along this journey, it’s important to know when allies need to step up and when they need to take a back seat. When there are knowledge keepers in the room, if they want to speak, let them have that space. If there are racist comments flying around the room, and you’re the only ally there, you have a responsibility to say something. Either way, get prepared to be uncomfortable. That’s where the best learning comes from, right?

What is your advice to Indigenous youth?

Never give up on seeking knowledge. You’ll find what you’re looking for. Come with humility and respect, and just keep searching. It’s not up to anyone else to make your life beautiful or magical. No, that is up to you. The Creator and your ancestors are there beside you. Whenever I have to do something difficult, I visualize 10,000 grandmothers standing behind me. That kind of vision can give you strength. Walk as though your ancestors are watching, walk through your days with clear eyes and a generous heart.

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