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The Globe and Mail

Why Canada’s universities should mandate indigenous courses

Annette Trimbee is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Winnipeg. Wab Kinew is the university's associate vice-president of indigenous affairs.

Every university in Canada should mandate indigenous content. Why? To borrow a phrase from our Prime Minister, "Because it's 2015."

We are proud at the University of Winnipeg to be launching an indigenous course requirement next fall, at the same time as our colleagues at Lakehead University. Starting in 2016, every undergraduate at our institutions will learn about First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.

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For too long, Canadians have had a blind spot regarding indigenous peoples. Statements such as "I'm not Dene, why should I have to learn that?" embody this type of thinking. Yet consider the fact that our country has an indigenous name: Kanata. How can we truly understand what it means to be Canadian if we don't know what "Kanata" means or know much about the peoples whose languages gifted us this name?

All of this to arrive at a simple truth: Whether or not you have indigenous blood, if you live in this country, at least a part of your identity is indigenous. It is time that every Canadian recognizes that – first, because it is the truth; and second, because denying Canada's indigenous character is partly responsible for the continued inequities faced by First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.

This is also about undoing one of the most harmful legacies of this country's past: the residential-school era. Parts of academia were implicated in that tragedy, both in providing some of the supposed rationale for that system, but also in educating some of those who ran those institutions. Now that our country has begun to embrace the truth of that era and move toward reconciliation, we believe the academy should play a role in ameliorating things.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action recommend that lawyers, doctors, teachers, and public- and private-sector employees learn about indigenous peoples. In short, everyone heading into this country's work force should have a baseline of knowledge about First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.

This new requirement will not upend the academy. It began with a proposal from students and was rigorously vetted by the UWinnipeg senate. This is just one half-course, or 1/40th of a four-year degree. Students will choose from a list of approved courses across many departments and faculties. They can select one which aligns with their degree program or one that piques their intellectual curiosity.

We want all of our students to find a good job and a meaningful career after graduation. We think indigenous learning will give them a competitive advantage. Business students will learn how to engage with indigenous communities, science students will learn about research ethics grounded in examples from their own backyard and, importantly, indigenous students will be more likely to succeed in an environment in which they see themselves better reflected.

We also want our students to be more than just employable; we want them to be active citizens. Democratic engagement in this part of the world in 2015 and beyond means being able to carry on an informed conversation about indigenous issues. This requirement will prepare students for that reality.

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For these reasons, we believe mandated learning about indigenous peoples is a positive contribution to our university environment. We encourage all universities to move in the same direction.

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