Understanding the needs of Indigenous students with Sheri Fabian, Tamara O’Doherty and Matthew Provost
By Janet Homeniuk
Sheri Fabian and Tamara O’Doherty, teaching faculty in the School of Criminology, along with Matthew Provost, a fourth-year Indigenous student majoring in Indigenous Studies and minoring in Communications, who is from the Blackfoot Confederacy and the Piikani and Kainai nations, recently completed a Teaching and Learning Development Grant (TLDG) project: “Understanding the needs of Indigenous students” (Read the full final report >>)
This participatory action pre-research project was one in which Indigenous students were involved in all aspects of the study, including the planning and creation of research instruments for the next stage in the formal study, which requires ethics review. These students also participated in data collection, transcription, data analysis and report preparation over the span of the project.
With Indigenous students as partners, the research team incorporated an Indigenous framework towards post-secondary teaching and learning.
The need for this project stemmed from the acknowledgement by SFU that: “educational institutions have long been recognized as both a tool of colonization and a source of continued oppression for Indigenous students.”
Indeed, these expectations are highlighted in the SFU Aboriginal Reconciliation Council (ARC) (2017) report: Walk this Path with Us, along with recognition that the institution envisions a future where Indigenous students can “flourish,” “be recognized and celebrated,” “respected” and “see their culture[s] as an essential part of the fabric of the University”
As criminologists, Fabian and O’Doherty are well-versed in evidence of the impact of residential schools, intergenerational trauma, the historical and on-going over-representation of Indigenous peoples in all aspects of the Canadian criminal justice system, and the systemic effects of colonization.
Using a decolonial framework in their research, Fabian, O’Doherty, and Provost centered the voices and experiences of Indigenous students in their project to understand how to best study what the needs of Indigenous students were in order to feel safe, included and respected at SFU.
They committed that in undertaking the above processes, they would demonstrate respect for Indigenous protocols, and would learn and employ Indigenous methods of creating and sharing knowledge, and would ensure that at every step, this project remained guided by, and accountable to, Indigenous students.
From research subject to active co-creators of knowledge
Fabian and O’Doherty designed the project in accordance with collaborative action research principles; they sought to work with Indigenous students in ways that could transform the students from research subjects into active and equal co-creators of knowledge.
This process increased their accountability to the student collaborators as they developed the research parameters together, brought data back to the students throughout the project, and ensured the student collaborators guided the final report and recommendations.
“Prior to beginning our research project, we understood the need to build relationships with Indigenous students in order to see our project through, although neither of us truly understood the magnitude of this undertaking. Moreover, we quickly learned that our traditional Eurocentric expectations regarding research timelines would not work,” Fabian and O’Doherty agreed.
With a longer research timeline in mind, their proposal was approved on December 6, 2016 and their first meeting with Marcia Guno, then director of the ISC (Indigenous Student Centre) followed in January 2017 and the project was completed in 2020. (In comparison, most TLDG projects are completed within a year to eighteen months from beginning idea to final report.)
Following their initial meeting, they met numerous times to discuss how the project might unfold and what was needed to begin on an appropriate and intentional basis. Guno brought Matthew Provost into the conversation when she was ready, and together they worked to ensure that the project proceeded respectfully and in keeping with Indigenous practices.
Provost says, “The big reason I wanted to be involved was personal. A lot of my work revolves around support for Indigenous students here at SFU. These aren’t new issues; they are ongoing, on a weekly basis. And at the time Marcia approached me, I had noticed a peak in hearing about mistreatment from my peers. And this was at the beginning of the semester, in the first week of classes. I thought this project would be able to look at why this keeps happening and why it goes un-noticed.”
In addition to the introductory town hall held in March 2017, organized by Guno and the ISC, the research team held four town halls to gather information about how they might proceed. Preceding each session, Fabian and O’Doherty hosted four informal meetings with the student research collaborators.
Between 8 and 21 students attended each session and identified many of the critical issues that Indigenous students face in the classroom, and within the institution more generally.
The town halls provided the research team with clear ideas of the questions that need to be asked of Indigenous students, some methods that can be employed, and the supports that need to be built into future collaborative work.
Common experiences of Indigenous students
Three primary themes emerged from the conversations during the town halls which outline common experiences facing Indigenous students and the importance of gathering data on this topic: hostility in SFU classrooms, structural barriers at SFU, and Indigenous students’ solutions for SFU.
Provost notes, “People don’t understand what Indigenous students have to get through just to get into the classroom. I want the next generation of Indigenous students to be able to focus on just being students.”
Through the town hall meetings, researchers found that Indigenous students are not feeling comfortable—or as comfortable as they ought to be at SFU—largely the result of hostile classrooms and structural barriers.
Hostility in the classroom
Hostility in the classroom includes insensitive, racist, and hurtful comments, actions, and inactions that lead to feelings of exclusion. Indigenous students report having to choose between saying nothing to an inappropriate student or professor because they fear an impact on grades, or being excluded, or feeling like a spokesperson if they do choose to respond.
Structural barriers include intolerance and a lack of compassion from SFU staff outside of the classroom and the repercussions of cutting the Bridge Program. Rather than dwelling on negatives, these students provided suggestions for professors, Indigenous and non-Indigenous students to improve the educational experience of Indigenous peoples.
That said, the participants have also made it clear that the potential of the project—and the town halls themselves—were important to them. Research collaborators shared that students have reached out to them asking when the next town halls will be held.
It appears that at least some students relied on the town halls as a place of support and validation. It is also clear that the classroom and institutional experiences of these students are ongoing and systemic.
Student-centered research/Students as partners
Over its duration, this project changed substantially from the initial approved proposal. The researchers initially believed they could receive ethics and conduct interviews and a survey with a single grant. They quickly realized they were overly ambitious and had under-estimated the time it would take to build relationship and community prior to undertaking the research.
They sought to center the work on Indigenous ways of knowing and teaching; to do so, they learned that they had to set aside preconceived notions of timelines and goals and allow space for knowledge to emerge from trusting relations in a form of ‘pre-research’ phase.
Specifically, it was important to them that Indigenous students were involved in all aspects of the study, including the planning and creation of research instruments, data collection, transcription, data analysis, final product creation and report preparation. Having undertaken community-based collaborative research in the past—and given TCPS 2 (2018) requirements that research with Indigenous persons must be conducted with Indigenous guidance and principles of reciprocity and respect—they left all elements of study design up to the students.
Based on what the researchers have learned thus far, they feel that to continue to do this work ethically and with careful attention to Indigenous ways of creating and sharing knowledge, they will need to develop several more phases.
In the first phase of their next TLDG, they have started building upon the foundation that they established over this pre-research phase.
Their next step, always taken with students at the center, has included making decisions about how to gather Indigenous student stories. They are in the process of applying for ethics review and hope to begin gathering data in fall 2021.
They plan to co-create the research tools, collect, analyze, and interpret the data together, and share the data with the larger body of town hall participants and Elders. This iterative feedback process and grounding of data in Indigenous relational processes and knowledge will inform decisions on how to represent the data, and the creation of the final products.
One of the key goals of the ISTLD is to support investigations of specific issues related to faculty teaching practices that affect student learning. An underlying purpose of ISTLD-supported projects, and this specific project, is to ameliorate student learning experiences at SFU.
This project has already achieved that goal for the primary investigators, who have incorporated key learnings into their teaching and research practices.
“Indeed, we fear that we may, thus far, be the individuals to have benefitted the most from this project and we hope to change that in the future so that the benefits can be shared more equitably,” notes O’Doherty.