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Exploring Indigenous history and heritage

- February 17, 2017

Assistant Professor Margaret Robinson, one of the faculty involved in Dal's Indigenous Studies minor. (Provided photo)
Assistant Professor Margaret Robinson, one of the faculty involved in Dal's Indigenous Studies minor. (Provided photo)

Each year, the province of Nova Scotia celebrates Heritage Day on the third Monday in February — and each year it celebrates a different aspect of the province’s history and culture.

This year’s Heritage Day celebrates Mi'kmaq Heritage in Nova Scotia. And for students interested in learning about Mi’kmaq history — and Indigenous issues more broadly — there have never been more academic offerings available on campus.

Expanded course offerings for Dal’s Indigenous Studies minor, which was first launched in the fall of 2015, and a new certificate program aimed at students in professional programs are among the new options students have had to choose from this year.

But perhaps the biggest change of all was the addition last summer of new Assistant Professor Margaret Robinson in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, to help with the creation of new courses for the minor program.

A Nova Scotia-born Mi’kmaq woman with a PhD in theology as well as years working in LGBTQ and Indigenous community health research in Ontario, Dr. Robinson brings a unique perspective to the program.

“My courses focus on skill development,” she says. “I want people to leave with the skills that will enable them to bring critical analysis and awareness of indigeneity to whatever they might encounter in the future.”

New courses

Dr. Robinson developed several new course offerings based on feedback from students about what topics they had expressed interest in as well as her own interests and strengths.

New classes on Indigenous representation in film and contemporary Indigenous art were introduced last fall alongside a new course on Indigenous women and the state, which examines the factors that have shaped the relationship between Indigenous women and state apparatuses such as the health system, the school system and the federal government.

This term, Dr. Robinson is teaching a course on Indigenous research methods and another on living queer as Indigenous women. She is also teaching Contemporary Issues in Indigenous Studies, one of two core courses in the program.

Sparking conversation

When Dr. Robinson joined the program last year, she says she wasn’t sure what to expect from students when they arrived in her classes. She was relieved to find that most were already well informed on some of the basic issues.

“It’s so much easier to teach people who are already interested in the topic and already pre-disposed to learn about it,” she says, “that you don’t have to convince them that Indigenous lives are worth learning about.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t difficult moments.

“Sometimes people do not realize when they first start taking an Indigenous Studies course how many things they are going to learn about that they didn’t know and some of it is very upsetting,” she says. “They’re realizing the degree to which injustices occur within our country and that can be really disturbing when you first encounter it.”

That’s why she always makes sure to talk about the skills they can use to help deal with some of the emotions and anger they might feel.

Dr. Robinson says the response from students to her courses has been positive and that this term she even had to expand capacity in one of her courses, a first for her.

She says the minor can serve as a great complement to many different programs and give students an edge.

“Indigenous Studies as a topic meshes very well with a lot of other issues because our lives touch on so many other elements of the world,” she says. “Having that minor can really help distinguish you from other people with the same degree.”

A student who might be interested in environmental law, for example and want to go to law school might stand apart from other students with similar backgrounds by having an added Indigenous Studies specialty.

Growing interest

Program coordinator Diana Lewis says students who have taken courses offered through the program have had success in finding positions in government, non-governmental organizations and in community organizations.

“For such a young program to have that translate into employment opportunities is a really great thing,” she says.

Prof. Lewis says more than 270 students have enrolled in Indigenous Studies courses in the program’s first two years. And while not all of those students end up pursuing the minor, of course, she says the number doing so will grow the longer the program is around, especially now that there are more courses to choose from.

Another new option open to students this year is an Indigenous Studies certificate, which requires three courses rather than the six needed to complete the minor. Prof. Lewis says they introduced the option this year primarily to accommodate those students in Dal’s professional programs who don’t have the flexibility to take a lot of electives but still want some Indigenous courses.

In the immediate future, Prof. Lewis says there are plans to offer students a Mi’kmaq language class online through Cape Breton University starting this fall, with the aim of Dal eventually offering its own. Over the longer term, she would like to see the Indigenous Studies program expand into a major and, eventually, into a doctoral program.

Learn more: Indigenous Studies at Dal


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