For a number of years, many Canadian universities have embarked on a process known as “indigenization” (to be followed shortly after with the addition of “decolonization”). This has been embraced especially intensely by my former employer, Mount Royal University (MRU), which posted the following Tweet on Canada Day from its official account:
This Canada Day we reflect on what it means to be Canadian and reaffirm our commitment to indigenization and decolonization. Is your mind colonized – a poster campaign at MRU challenges beliefs and biases regarding Indigenous people. #decolonize http://mru.ca/decolonize
The Tweet has four media attachments featuring knowledge claims that must be accepted to avoid the stain of colonization. These are colored according to the supposedly indigenous “medicine wheel” (red, white, yellow, and black)—colors that indigenous elders often associate with the four “races” of mankind. The attachments detail indigenous peoples’ alleged innate environmental consciousness (red), their supposed development of 3,000 potato varieties (black), the “knowledge” of traditional ceremonies and stories (yellow), and the declaration (white) that “christopher columbus met Indigenous people in ireland 16 years before his trip across the atlantic to north america.” (The attachments use only lowercase letters, except for the word “Indigenous,” a convention which is supposed to combat oppression.)
MRU is arguing that questioning these ideas is an indication of a “colonized mind”, which breaches its academic duty. Instead of facilitating the conditions needed for open and honest debate, administrators are inveigling members of the university community to accept dubious pronouncements under the guise of improving indigenous-non-indigenous relations.
The attachments, and the poster campaign promoting them, stem from an event held on September 30, 2021 called “Acknowledging National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.” The event featured Linda ManyGuns, the recently hired Associate Vice-President of Indigenization and Decolonization. In her presentation, ManyGuns stated that her office was going to put “truths” forward that had been previously excluded from the academic record.
One of these “truths,” according to ManyGuns, was that “Christopher Columbus actually met indigenous people in Ireland 16 years before he even got on his boat.” She went on to state that indigenous peoples “were already there [in Europe during the 1470s]” and that “it was our responsibility as educators” to include this “fact” in a “new history.” She concluded by asserting that we needed to move forward toward reconciliation with “good hearts and good minds,” which would enable everyone to “decolonize and indigenize together.” Instead of teaching students about the strengths and weaknesses of different evidence-based viewpoints, therefore, MRU was planning to berate people who did not accept obscure, historically dubious anecdotes.
When one investigates the claims put forward in the Canada Day Tweet’s attachments, more questions than answers arise. For example, is it really a “fact” that Christopher Columbus met indigenous people from the Americas in Ireland during the 1470s? There is no convincing evidence to support this claim, which appears to be drawn from a book by Jack D. Forbes, The American Discovery of Europe. The “fact” is that Columbus, who was in Galway in 1477, allegedly noted in a book margin that he saw two people drifting in some sort of strange boat/raft. Columbus (if it was he who saw this) assumed that the people were from Cathay, which solidified his belief that he could reach the Orient from Europe.
But even if the individuals in the boat actually were indigenous people from the Americas—something that has not been established—it doesn’t amount to them “already” being in Europe before Columbus “even got on his boat,” as ManyGuns declares. This raises the question of why an academic institution would castigate faculty, students, and staff for being skeptical of such a contentious “fact.” What does it do to the process of critical thinking for MRU to signal that only a “colonized mind” would challenge ManyGuns’ arrogant, unsubstantiated pronouncements?
The answer is that it acts to poison MRU’s academic environment so that only one view will be accepted. Instead of encouraging open-ended inquiry based upon reason, evidence, and logic, MRU is adopting the anti-intellectual and autocratic position that one should go along with highly improbable claims in order to bring about what it perceives to be “reconciliation” with indigenous peoples. It also indicates that the educational enterprise has been captured by activists, who are the ones actually “colonizing” the university and exploiting it for their own material benefit. This is buttressed by administrative marketing campaigns, like MRU’s Canada Day Tweet, that psychologically shame and bully students into silence. This has nothing to do with “truth” and everything to do with promoting MRU’s “You Belong Here” brand.
While it might seem strange that an institution of higher learning would go down this path, the affliction is becoming the norm at Canadian universities which embrace “indigenization” and “decolonization.” “Indigenization” means infusing indigenous cultures into all facets of university life. Although some aspects of this are innocuous, such as renaming buildings after notable indigenous dignitaries and showcasing aboriginal art work, things become more contentious when universities demand that we unconditionally “respect” and “value” indigenous “ways of knowing” and “knowledge production,” and engage in the targeted hiring of indigenous academics on this basis.
The addition of the word “decolonization” is even more concerning, as this means removing things that are perceived to be oppressive to indigenous aspirations, such as allegedly offensive library and archival materials. “Decolonization” is actually a political tool that is used to replace the cannon of The Enlightenment with indigenous spirituality, dogma, and pseudoscience as part of an effort to assert indigenous cultural superiority (hence ManyGuns’ insinuation that pre-contact indigenous people somehow influenced the voyages of Christopher Columbus). Calling universal human struggles and achievements “oppressive” is a tool used to limit access to any knowledge the indigenizers and decolonizers do not want others to learn, as this would challenge their political project of increasing power and exerting control over institutional funds.
At MRU, indigenization was first brought to the Arts Faculty Council in fall 2014. It was announced by Kathy Shailer, the provost at the time, who provided no academic rationale for the initiative. This was followed by a draft “Aboriginal Strategic Plan” in June 2015, which referenced two documents: The Association of Canadian Deans of Education’s “The Accord of Indigenous Education” (2010) and “Universities Canada principles on Indigenous education” (2015). Various “consultations” and “discussions” followed. A final “Indigenous Strategic Plan 2016-2021” was provided as “information” to General Faculties Council, where MRU pretended that widespread agreement existed about incorporating indigenous “ways of knowing” into the curriculum. A great many universities have been teaching standpoint epistemology for decades, and “indigenous ways of knowing” are nothing new to the academy. What has changed is the totalitarian use of the phrase as a cudgel to ensure no one can challenge or criticize indigenists who now hold lucrative positions from which to proselytize.
Throughout the development of these “Plans,” I tried my best to alert the scholarly community about these concerns. I was worried, for example, that, in the 2015 draft, there were two pages of items identifying the “Enablers (need to have to succeed)” and “Barriers (need to overcome to succeed)” of indigenization. One of these “barriers” was “Strong/active individual opposition by MRU community members.” I was also troubled about the fact that supporters of the draft plan were characterized as “allies” of indigenous people, which implied that critics were “enemies.” And even though I suggested that we should hold forums with diverse perspectives discussing the benefits and challenges of indigenization, the series of events held to discuss the initiative—the “Indigenizing Education, Decolonizing Canada Speakers Series”—only featured indigenization advocates. There was even one panel discussion at the end of the Series, held in April 2016, which brought in four participants who were all boosters of indigenization: Marie Wilson, Erica Lee, Chelsea Vowel, and Sean Carleton.
When I finally got one of the leaders of indigenization, MRU indigenous studies professor Liam Haggarty, to help me to organize a roundtable exploring the benefits and challenges of the initiative, the event, held on June 3, 2016, was sabotaged. Haggarty, the panelists that he invited (Robert Innes and Keith Carlson), and an MRU indigenous studies faculty member, Renae Watchman, all conspired to portray the critics of indigenization—Albert Howard and me—as holding views that were beyond the pale. Particularly disturbing were the actions of Haggarty, who was engaged in a private Twitter exchange with several people during his moderation of the event. While pretending to be impartial, Haggarty posted a Tweet surreptitiously to his followers characterizing Albert Howard’s presentation thusly: “Without a doubt the most violent, racist presentation I’ve ever witnessed.” This was followed the next day by a private Facebook discussion initiated by Innes, and involving Haggarty and Carlson, that belittled Albert Howard and me in front of over 90 people.
When I discovered after the fact that this had occurred, I demanded that Haggarty and Watchman provide evidence for their defamatory claims. After receiving no response, I notified the Dean of Arts and warned him about how indigenization was creating a climate hostile for open inquiry. The toxic work environment, however, continued from 2016-2019, with various faculty members calling me “racist,” “anti-indigenous,” and a purveyor of “hate.” Mount Royal University did nothing to address this poisonous environment. Instead, it promoted Haggarty and Watchman, and even gave the latter a distinguished faculty award in May 2019 “for her unapologetic voice for social justice in the MRU community and around the world.”
As I pointed out in my previous article for Minding the Campus, this poisonous environment eventually resulted in another indigenous studies professor (who, interestingly, was in the audience during the ill-fated June 2016 roundtable) trying to mobilize an anonymous “student-led initiative” to complain about me to the administration for defending a journalist’s reference to the book title White Niggers of America. This then led to a petition to get me fired for being “a racist professor at MRU,” which was signed by over 6,000 people. These efforts were eventually successful, and I was terminated from MRU in December 2021.
While it is tempting to blame my termination on the malevolence of certain individuals and the opportunism or timidity of MRU administrators, my firing can be directly linked to the indigenization (and decolonization) initiative. This initiative, as was indicated by the pronouncements of Associate Vice-President ManyGuns, is intent on transforming the university from an intellectual space, where critical analysis is encouraged, to one where only support for indigenization dogma is allowed. The university is no longer a place for disputation, but one in which the celebration of certain indigenous viewpoints is required.
It is not yet widely understood that university indigenization, and its latest reincarnation, “decolonization,” is hostile to academic freedom and open inquiry. Its adoption as university policy pushes out anyone who challenges its assertions, because its aims are political, not intellectual. One can clearly see this in the Indigenous/Aboriginal “Strategic Plans” imposed by MRU, which state that one must “respect” and “value” indigenous “ways of knowing” and “knowledge production.” Instead of asking what these “ways of knowing” and forms of “knowledge production” are, and whether they are consistent with evidence-based scholarship, universities increasingly demand that one must accept them or be purged for having a “colonized mind.” The result has been to seriously undermine the academic ethos of universities and the development of empirical knowledge and theoretical understanding.
The most harmful consequence of the initiative, however, is that it has acted to isolate indigenous people from scientific progress, justifying their deprivation, dependency and exclusion. Because of indigenization’s condescension and bribery, the honest exchanges needed to pursue the truth are discouraged. This impedes the actual struggle to improve the terrible circumstances facing indigenous people who are not integrated into the modern world. As a result, indigenization ensures that deplorably low educational levels will continue to plague indigenous communities in Canada.