Indigenous Education, culture diversity, reconciliation

Seminar with Dr. Michelle Pidgeon on Indigenous Education at the From the Ground Up Scholarship Series

March 14, 2019

Dr. Michelle Pidgeon gave her thought-provoking seminar at the From the Ground Up Scholarship Series on Feb 20. The event series is organized by the Surrey faculty in the Faculty of Education at SFU. Present at the seminar were colleagues from Burnaby and Surrey campus. Michelle began her talk by sharing with us her Indigenous ancestry background and tracing back the journey she has walked as a scholar and how she started her academic pursuit in student affairs and services in higher education. She was born and raised in Newfoundland & Labrador, a province of Canada since 1949 that has a deeper and rich history as its own British colony, and more importantly and firstly, the ancestral terrorities of Beothuk, Mi'kmaq, Innu, and Inuit peoples. The land and its oceans and deep histories have shaped who she is and continues to be.

As an undergraduate at Memorial University in the mid 1990s, she found her passion for student affairs and services. This led her to become a member of a second cohort in the student affairs and services M.Ed. program at Memorial, the first masters program of its kind in Canada (though such programs had been established in the U.S. for years). Driven by a sense of curiosity and responsibility, and an understanding of who she was and where she was from, she began to investigate what was available in terms of Indigenous students support and who was providing it. She soon learned that there was nothing: no conversations, no content, and no faculty hired to study related issues. It was not until her doctoral graduate study at the University of British Columbia under the tutelage Dr. Jo-ann Archibald that she finally had her first Indigenous instructor and began to be exposed to Indigenous related content through the Ts''kel courses provided by the Faculty of Education. The movement and advances in Indigenous education have changed dramatically from the time Michelle was a small child attending public Catholic school in Newfoundland to when she did her masters and then doctorate. Now, as an Associate professor, she was able to reflect on the advances and also envision where opportunities for transformation still exist across the educational sector for Indigenous students and their communities.

After graduating from UBC in 2008, Michelle joined the Faculty of Education at SFU as a faculty member. The past ten years of her scholarship is extensive, with research projects spanning multiple domains, institutions, and countries. Her scholarship includes student affairs and service, recruitment and retention, indigenous student experience and success, intergenerational mentoring, and institutional responsibility and accountability to indigenous education from policy to practice, all in the context of higher education.

One of the major projects Michelle has recently embarked on is a five-year study funded by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight Grant. It examines academic research ethics through the lens of Indigenous philosophies of wholism. Looking at the role and experiences of Indigenous faculty and graduate students working with institutional research ethics boards across Canada and New Zealand, she and her collaborators are aiming to find evidence and insight into how academic institutions, governments, and organizations operationalize and support Indigenous understanding of ethical research. Through this understanding she aspires to influence the development of research policies and practices so that they better support Indigenous scholarship for graduate students, post-docs, faculty, and Indigenous communities.

Several themes emerged from Michelle’s talk and the follow-up discussion.

Recognizing culture diversity of indigenous peoples across the country

Across Canada, there are more than sixty different nations, First Nations, Métis, and Inuk. It is important to recognize them as distinct culture groups. “Different nations have different approaches to intellectual development, property rights, land claims, and education. We must always strive to understand the role of place and the will of the local first nations, ” Michelle stresses. Who is or not present at conversations is very important. Indiscriminate talk that does not recognize the distinctiveness of each cultural group can be harmful.

Valuing Indigenous views of wholism

Michelle invites us to think of a different way of understanding the nature of student success through Indigenous views of holism. “It goes beyond just their intellectual endeavours; it is also about their emotional, physical, and spiritual needs and well-being,” Michelle says. It calls for nurturing from a whole community that is extended to all its members. It is about receiving from and giving back to the community. “This sense of wholeness is how I see the world and what I value at work. Student success is so much more than a good GPA and graduation.”

Creating meaningful change

The call is out for Indigenous education and reconciliation. More and more people want to help and things are happening. With good will and intentional effort, good work gets done. At the same time we have to be careful not to co-opt such efforts. Michelle says, “This is a big challenge we are facing. I want folks to think about how they can be part of the meaningful change and prevent tokenistic actions that we have frequently witnessed.” Meaningful change starts with valuing Indigenous perspectives and developing meaningful and committed relationships. “We as an institution cannot move forward unless we work with communities and partnership with them through sustained effort,” she emphasizes. It is also about taking responsibility for one's own learning journey in reconciliation so the burden is not placed on the Indigenous members of the faculty (or organization)- the Calls for Action from the TRC (2015) are clear that we all have a responsibility to the truth and reconciliation.

Carrying out ethical practices

Ethical practice plays a paramount role in Michelle’s scholarship. Her work is guided by Indigenous ethics and grounded in Indigenous research methods. This gives the sense of who she is as a scholar. Understanding the role of land and place, and the role of social location in reconciliation, and taking on the responsibility to create space for this work, are part of her ethics. Nothing summarizes Michelle’s scholarship better than the four Rs of Verna Kirkness and Ray Barnhard (1991) that she instills in all aspects of her research and community practice: relationship, responsibility, reciprocity and relevance. “These are at the core of what I do.” We would like to end this blog post with the important questions Michelle and the seminar attendees raised for us in Indigenous education and reconciliation in higher education:

  • How do we ethically hold the work together? How can non-indigenous colleagues share the load? How can we define and develop a collective initiative going forward in a deeply individualistic academic context?
  • How can we develop systems that promote Indigenous students success?
  • What does institutional leadership mean in this work?
  • How can we develop successful Indigenous partnerships based on respectful and responsible relationships?

How can we build up new ways to broaden and deepen this work? 

Photo credit: Paula MacDowell