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Aug. 11, 2017

Learning is ceremony, and ceremony is learning — it is a core philosophy brought by Associate Professor Kathy Absolon-King to Wilfrid Laurier University’s new Centre for Indigegogy.

The centre, launched by Laurier’s Indigenous Field of Study program* through the Lyle S. Hallman Faculty of Social Work in Kitchener, provides educators and practitioners with Indigenous-centred holistic training and development. The centre’s offerings are part of an ongoing effort by the university to weave Indigenous learning and understanding into the experience of all Laurier students, faculty and staff.

As highlighted in Laurier’s 2015-2020 Strategic Academic Plan, supporting Indigenous communities through education is a priority for the university. With campuses located close to urban Indigenous populations, including 18 First Nations communities, Laurier is committed to supporting Indigenous learning and ways of knowing, while empowering Indigenous students through an enriching post-secondary experience. These efforts are an important component of Laurier’s commitment to building and supporting an inclusive and diverse environment.

“Indigenous learners are the single-most under-represented group in Canadian higher education,” says Laurier President and Vice-Chancellor Deborah MacLatchy. “As a university, we have both an obligation and an opportunity to acknowledge and support the unique needs of Indigenous communities and to create a climate where learning about and understanding indigeneity is part of the Laurier experience for students, faculty and staff.”

A key element of the Laurier strategy is to involve and empower Indigenous members of the university community.

“We’re starting to focus on a new phase of initiatives at Laurier that embed Indigenous knowledge and people throughout the academy,” says Jean Becker, a former elder within the Faculty of Social Work and current senior advisor of Indigenous Initiatives at Laurier. “We have to change the environment to make space for our Indigenous students to flourish.”

The effort to Indigenize is something that both Absolon-King and Becker believe will help post-secondary programs and degrees become more experiential and meaningful for the Indigenous community in Canada.

A New Centre for Indigegogy

As an Anishinaabekwe academic and social worker, Absolon-King has too often seen Indigenous people come into the world of academia as students or educators and check parts of themselves in at the door.

“We’re offering training to help Indigenous educators grow from their own Indigenous centre and trust what they have to offer,” says Absolon-King, inaugural director of the Centre for Indigegogy.

With experiential programming that integrates ceremony and cultural knowledge and practices, the centre currently offers two certificates taught by allies, elders, faculty and practitioners of the (Aboriginal) Indigenous Field of Study program.

The first certificate — the Indigenous Educators' Certificate in Indigegogy — offers Indigenous educators an experiential and skill-based learning opportunity intended to build knowledge, confidence and capacity to teach from their Indigenous selves.

“There are few places in Canada where Indigenous educators can engage in training and development that is rooted in Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing,” says Absolon-King. “While mainstream training still tends to omit the context and history of colonization, our program addresses it and provides more than just intellectual training — it’s emotional, relational and spiritual.”

The second certificate — the Decolonizing Education Certificate — offered by the centre provides all educators, including non-Indigenous faculty and educators, an understanding of Indigenous perspectives in the history of colonization. Modules in this certificate explore topics including land, policy, governance, social control policy, solidarity, resistance movements and healing movements.

“Most educators across Canada have not had to take Indigenous studies courses and, nowadays, ignorance is not good enough to build solidarity or teach the truth,” says Absolon-King. “The centre’s certificates are in alignment with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action by offering certificates and modules that reflect the truth and we think we’re heading in the right direction and we’re really proud of it.”

The Centre for Indigegogy was a collective effort by the Indigenous Field of Study team, emerging from the experience of delivering a masters-level graduate program that is unique in its delivery and offering. The Indigenous Field of Study is the first Master of Social Work program in Canada that is rooted in a holistic Indigenous worldview and contemporary social work practice.

“We should look to education as a way to understand the truth if true reconciliation is going to happen,” says Absolon-King.

Enriching Diversity at Laurier

For Jean Becker, it is paramount that Laurier identifies and addresses the gaps that will help Indigenous students and faculty succeed in their studies and academia.

She has served as the university’s senior advisor of Indigenous Initiatives since 2010 and she is also a member of the university’s Indigenous Education Council. Among her first priorities when starting the role was to provide Indigenous students with a place of safety, while also working to Indigenize the university.

As part of these efforts, Becker has managed support staff as well as the student centres on Laurier’s Brantford and Waterloo campuses that work directly with Indigenous students.

The university has been steadily increasing the range and types of Indigenous programs and support initiatives available to the university community.

Laurier recently hired an Indigenous curriculum specialist who will work with faculty members wanting to teach or research culturally relevant Indigenous curricula and topics. And each year, the university community in Brantford, Kitchener and Waterloo is invited to participate in Indigenous Awareness Week, which highlights the contributions of Indigenous knowledge to education through a series of special events.

First-year students at Laurier who self-identify as Indigenous have access to a scholarship through the SEEDS Program, while unique spaces such as the circle rooms on Laurier’s Brantford and Kitchener campuses are where Indigenous Studies classes and Indigenous faculty meetings take place.

Laurier’s Indigenous Student Centres in Waterloo (located at 187 Albert Street) and Brantford (located at 111 Darling Street) provide a space for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students to study and socialize.

The student centres also boast vibrant community medicinal and vegetable gardens with native plant species. In Brantford, the garden provides a unique type of experiential learning as students, staff and faculty have been invited to attend garden care and knowledge-sharing sessions.

The Indigenous Student Centres also offer a wide range of services, including academic advising, financial aid information, access to a resource library and research support, and cultural events programming, such as Indigenous craft workshops and the visiting elder program.

“We’ve developed our own initiatives and have worked with partners within Laurier — such as the Writing Centre — to provide fully integrated student support,” says Becker. “Doing this has led to a reputation in the province and beyond for the work we’ve done in supporting our Indigenous learners.”

Of late, Becker has been looking at ways to develop Indigenous cultural awareness training for staff and faculty in collaboration with Laurier’s Human Resources Department, while also looking at how to increase the number of Indigenous faculty members at Laurier and Indigenous representation in the university’s governance structure.

“Racism and ignorance about Indigenous people is deep in Canadian culture —many people really don’t know who we are or what we’re on about, so part of our job is to provide that education,” says Becker. “We’re making headway, but there’s more work to be done.”

* Laurier’s Aboriginal Field of Study is in the process of officially changing its name to the Indigenous Field of Study, pending Senate approval.

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