Starting university can be an experience fraught with excitement and anxiety. But for many potential students in Indigenous communities, this educational journey can take on other more troubling dimensions: the overwhelming difficulty of relocation to a new, distant city, and the threat of cultural erasure.
Now the Faculty of Education at McGill has teamed up with the Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nations community in northeastern Quebec to alleviate these fears by offering a Bachelor of Education degree program taught exclusively in Listuguj, by Listuguj scholars and educators.
The program, which kicked off in 2016, is as a collaborative effort between the Faculty of Education and the Listuguj Department of Education, Council of Mi’gmaq Educators, Indigenous scholars and elders to develop a full B.Ed. degree in Listuguj. Giving to the Faculty through the McGill Fund is allowing the development of this kind of innovative programming that can better address the needs of Indigenous communities.
“We were invited by the Listuguj community to create a certification program for teachers,” says Jim Howden, Director of the Office of First Nations and Inuit Education (OFNIE) at McGill, which facilitated the creation of the program in Listuguj. “Instead, they wanted all of their teachers to have a full B.Ed. degree. They were enthusiastic to have it through McGill, and the common vision was not to send students to Montreal.”
Karen Martin, a second-year student in the program, had not considered going to university before learning about McGill’s B.Ed. in Listuguj.
“What this program has done for Listuguj is ensure that students can stay in the community while earning a Bachelor of Education [degree] that is reflective of our culture, values, history and the vision of how we see education for our children,” says Martin, who will complete her B.Ed. in 2020.
Program taught entirely in-community
The B.Ed. program is one of the first to be taught entirely in-community, a shared priority for the Faculty of Education and the Listuguj community. Similar B.Ed. programs at other universities are taught either partially in-community or exclusively on campus, forcing students to leave their homes and way of life away. Says Tanya Wysote, also a second-year student, “I chose this program because I did not have to move away to be enrolled in it.”
“As First Nations, we not only have strong ties to family and the community at large, but also to the land we are born from,” says Martin. “Being able to remain in the community helps us ensure that students will continue to reside there after they’ve received their degrees. How can we build capacity if we cannot retain our educated members?”
There are 15 students enrolled in the B.Ed. program in Listuguj, all of whom are members of the Listuguj First Nation or a neighbouring Mi’gmaq First Nation, such as Gesgapegiag, and live in Mi’gmaq communities.
Though there is a wide range of ages, most students are generally a bit older than their on-campus counterparts. As B.Ed. students, they are obligated to fulfill the same academic requirements as their peers on the downtown campus, and their course load is comparable, allowing them to graduate with a B.Ed. in four years.
A concerted effort is made in Listuguj to indigenize the coursework and make it locally relevant to Listuguj and the region, another crucial element of the program for both Howden and Martin. Indigenization steers away from the imposition of Western values and institutions on First Nations communities, instead embracing traditional modes of knowledge and nurturing and building important cultural connections between students and their tradition.
For Martin, the indigenized curriculum was part of what made the B.Ed. program so appealing. “I never considered university until this program was offered in my community,” she says. “This program is taught by our own people as much as possible. The realities of our community are intertwined into program delivery, which makes it more relevant and will be an asset in my future employment in the community.”
Indigenized curricula are in part a response to greater attention being placed on improving conditions for First Nations in education. In September 2016, McGill officially launched the Provost’s Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education, whose mandate is to respond to the Calls to Action of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 report on the status and needs of First Nations communities. The Commission identified more than 50 ways that universities can better serve Indigenous students, faculty and staff.
This includes awareness and training efforts made in the non-Indigenous community. A recent donor contribution to the Faculty of Education has created an internship program for non-Indigenous, campus-based B.Ed. students to travel to Listuguj and complete their practicum at Alaqsit’w Gitpu School, a K-8 school located in Listuguj, alongside Listuguj teachers and students. This field experience includes subsidized travel, housing, and a cultural sensitization workshop intended to provide non-Indigenous students a better understanding of the community they will serve. The first cohort of student teachers will head to Listuguj this spring.
While McGill’s B.Ed. program in Listuguj certainly does not resolve all of the challenges facing First Nations students, it represents an important step in improving educational opportunities for those communities, paving the way for First Nations youth to be taught by members of their own community.
“The most important thing is making sure our partners’ needs are met,” says Howden, “and that we’re doing our absolute best to be culturally sensitive. Not all communities can be treated the same.”
Martin concurs, noting, “The fact that Listuguj has overseen this program through a dedicated Council of Educators, which has had some control over the course delivery, has been key, not only in building capacity today in Listuguj, but in the process established that we as a Nation need to be involved in what is best for us.”