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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2013

Promoting Aboriginal scholarly activism

By Wayne Peters
During November’s first weekend, Aboriginal academics from across Canada will gather in Toronto for CAUT’s fourth Forum for Aboriginal Academic Staff. Over three days, participants will explore the role of Aboriginal academics as activist scholars for social and political change.

Special attention will be focused on two themes: their role in the community and the public arena; and their role within the academy. Guided by plenary presentations from recognized Aboriginal academics Margo Greenwood, Greg Younging, Leroy Little Bear and Priscilla Settee, discussions will reflect on how cultural revitalization, working with allies, and educating colleagues and senior administrators can build and enhance these activist roles. A history of hundreds of years of European and, indeed, Canadian colonization of Aboriginal peoples has certainly provided more than enough motivation for the cause of Aboriginal activism. The transgressions have been many. The fallouts continue to be devastating.

Today, Aboriginal communities are known to bear higher rates of poverty, suicide, addictions, health problems, unemployment, illiteracy, domestic and sexual abuse, and violence than other sectors of our population, while racism and oppression continue to further exacerbate the problems.

So, activism in the name of social and political change has a long and strong record of protest and struggle in Canada’s Aboriginal communities that has forced much change. The “red power” movement that flowed out of the US during the 1960s inspired many north-of-the-border resistances, demonstrations and occupations protesting, for instance, sub-standard living conditions on Aboriginal reserves, government appropriations of Indigenous lands, and the destruction of the environment brought by government-sponsored mining, hydro-electric and other energy projects.

The late 1960s witnessed the rise of the National Indian Brotherhood. The group came to prominence in 1969–1970 by building sufficient political opposition to stop the Tru­deau government’s adoption of the infamous White Paper which advocated for the abolishment of the Indian Act and, what was at the time, the Department of Indian Affairs.

About a decade later, the National Indian Brotherhood became the Assembly of First Nations. This period also saw the emergence of other political and activist organizations of Indigenous peoples to assert the cultures, rights and claims of Indigenous peoples.

While the organizational-level advocacy delivered by such groups is essential, there is always a need for a more grassroots-level activism such as typified by the ongoing Idle No More protest. Like the earlier red power movement, Idle No More began in response to the introduction of federal legislation. In the present case, it was Harper’s Omnibus Bill C-45 which provided the impetus. It was seen to be circumventing Aboriginal protections and rights under the Indian Act and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in order to acquire land and eliminate environmental protections to facilitate resource development.

So, what are the key pieces that distinguish the without-warning and fluid nature of the Idle No More movement from other movements in the past? Certainly, social media played a huge role in its coordination and its ability to communicate its messages to a diverse audience at the local, national and international levels. As well, it incorporated a variety of forms of demonstration, including organized teach-ins, protests, rallies, blockades, flash-mobs and consciousness-raising projects.

Perhaps the most significant uniqueness of the movement, though, is that it was largely led by young people, many of whom were women. A Globe and Mail article from earlier this year (“What’s behind the explosion of native activism? Young people,” Jan. 18, 2013) identifies “university-educated Aboriginals, most of them women, who are impatient with the pace of change” as the driving force of the movement.

This is an observation also shared by Dan MacDonald, the CAUT executive committee’s at-large member (Aboriginal), who recently travelled to Victoria, Australia to represent CAUT at the National Tertiary Education Union’s 2013 Indigenous Forum. He later wrote in an article for the NTEU’s e-bulletin, edXpress (#008, June, 2013), that many attendees spoke of the “inspirational nature of a grassroots Canadian movement” and of the “impact that ‘Idle No More’ is having in their communities and on their campuses.”

Dan further observed that “A young generation of activists is emerging worldwide …” and that “It may be the energy of students and young community members that will fuel our attempts to bring progress to the universities.”

One of the primary roles for all academics is to foster a well-educated and independent-thinking citizenry and, yes, to inspire our students to be effective “activists” in advancing society’s common good, as was seen with the Idle No More movement. While there is much promise to be seen in the increasing numbers of Aboriginal students on our campuses, the ranks of our Aboriginal academic staff colleagues, on the other hand, remain disproportionately low at less than 1 per cent.

As Dan rightly identifies, the unfortunate gap this produces is that a generation of Aboriginal youth seeking post-secondary education are largely denied the presence of Aboriginal peoples as academic staff, a pre­sence which undoubtedly underwrites those students’ success on campus and later in life.

CAUT’s November forum provides an opportunity for Aboriginal academic staff to better define their roles as activist scholars in the community, in the public arena and within the academy. This is an important conversation: one that is vital to opening up our campuses to more Aboriginal academics and, thus, to creating that much-needed presence that will inspire activism in gene­rations of Aboriginal students to come. CAUT stands ready to learn how it can help.