For Indigenous Peoples, education becomes a tool for empowerment once more


Change can come from the smallest of actions. Somebody in a land far away acts on a thought to sail off to lands anew where such of riches await and from that comes multigenerational damage to an entire continent’s diverse First Peoples’ language, culture, rights and laws.

That truth about change works both ways. Look to the University of Victoria for evidence of that, where the aspirations of 20 years ago have grown into world-changing Indigenous-led studies for new generations of students paving a path to truth and reconciliation. As students across the country graduate from June 13 to June 16 at UVic, we are providing new scholars with the expertise to improve communities through education in Indigenous languages ​​and law.

No longer do Indigenous students feel alone in a sea of ​​non-Indigenous faces, as recently recalled by UVic chancellor Marion Buller —former chief commissioner of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls about when she was studying law at UVic in the 1980s. The often-empty office space occupied by the Native Students Society of Buller’s time has been replaced by the busy and welcoming First Peoples Housea “home away from home” for many Indigenous students at UVic.

UVic students, scholars and administrators participate in a circle with Gov. Gen. Mary May Simon and Vice Regal Consort Whit Fraser. Photo courtesy of UVic Photo Services

No longer are Indigenous studies in Canada perceived as token colonial nods to doing the right thing in a land that has historically done wrong. Those studies — including graduate programs in Indigenous governance and Indigenous language revitalization — have now matured into powerful mechanisms for ensuring a level of societal knowledge and practice for Indigenous graduates that is unprecedented since colonization.

Those graduates will lead change not as Indigenous people trying to make the best of a colonial system, but as leaders on their own terms, grounded in place, land, family and cultural knowledge. They bring an Indigenous perspective to their work and study, and the world is changing as a result.

And it all began with small actions. Long-ago collective efforts to support Indigenous language resurgence led to the launch of a series of Indigenous-led UVic initiatives. Over time, that has grown into undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs that are graduating new cohorts of Indigenous speakers and leaders whose efforts are helping to revive languages ​​across Canada. These graduates are strengthening efforts and expertise in areas like family-based language resurgence, adult immersion programming, and wellness through language recovery.

UVic’s Department of Indigenous Education leads a national grant in collaboration with nine Indigenous community partners across Canada. the NEȾOLṈEW̱: One mind, one people project aims to deepen the understanding of adult Indigenous language learning and its connection to well-being, and focuses on understanding and enhancing Indigenous adults’ contributions to reviving Indigenous languages. The project themes include the creation of language learning assessment tools, documenting proficiency-building efforts and the development of a digital hub for networking and sharing successes, strategies and resources.

An Indigenous-led commitment at UVic to study and teach the laws that governed First Peoples before colonization has grown into the world’s first dual law degree, the four-year JD/JID program (degrees in both Canadian law and Indigenous law). These graduates have the power to influence constitutionalism and Indigenous governance, criminal and environmental law, as well as family law and child protection. This is bringing local and international recognition of the legal orders that governed First Peoples long before British law tried to extinguish them in our country.

The first cohort of the Indigenous law degree program graduates this year, and the program is now entering its fifth year, with 100 students in all. The growth in numbers of students and faculty — six of whom are Indigenous and teach primarily in the JD/JID program — speaks to the success of the program and the need for more space. Construction will soon start on the National Center for Indigenous Laws at UVic, providing a home for this vital work.

Indigenous studies have matured into powerful mechanisms for ensuring a level of societal knowledge and practice for Indigenous graduates that is unprecedented since colonization, write Val Napoleon @UVicLaw & Onowa McIvor @uvic. #Indigenous #UVicEd

Ace Gov. Gen. Mary May Simon noted in a recent visit to First Peoples House, education was one weapon used to try to destroy Indigenous languages ​​and cultures through the residential school system. But in the hands of Indigenous educators, it’s a tool for empowerment once more.

Indigenous Peoples are finding new voice and influence as our laws and languages ​​are being restored. In turn, we bring the wisdom of our ancestors to the complex problems of the modern world.

This is how change can happen: One small action sets things in motion, and many more follow, each one a step forward.

Val Napoleon, acting dean, Faculty of Law, Law Foundation Chair of Indigenous Justice and Governance at the University of Victoria.

Onowa McIvor, professor and President’s Chair, Indigenous Education, at the University of Victoria.


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