Debate continues over Canadian universities’ elder-in-residence programs

EDMONTON, Alberta – The presence of elders has become increasingly formalized on technical, community and university campuses over the last 10 years. Elders have always visited to share their expertise and life experiences, and their primary permanent function has been to serve as teachers of culture and language.

The position of elder-in-residence is increasingly becoming a permanent position and the function is considered integral to recruitment and retention. The benefit of elders to students was one of the topics considered at the 2006 Indigenous Scholars Conference held this spring at the University of Alberta. Conference presentations ran concurrently with an elder’s council.

The concentrated higher education system in Canada means that aboriginals represent significant percentages of student populations in many locations and the roles of elders are rapidly becoming more formalized. Opinions about their benefit to students vary from institution to institution.

“The elders at the conference decided they should have a role, but that it should be decided by elders themselves,” said Cora Weber-Pillwax, assistant professor of educational policy studies at the University of Alberta.

“How can elders be incorporated in the true teaching of culture and history and the understanding of what it’s all about, and what those ceremonies are all about, how culture was based a long time ago? It’s not part of the curriculum,” said Cree elder Don Cardinal of Winnipeg.

Weber-Pillwax said she was not really in support of elders-in-residence, except for certain parameters. Most people in the north have elders in their own communities and their teachings could be totally contrary to that of other elders or family clans.

The University of Alberta has no permanent elders and spends little on visiting guests, she said.

In contrast, the University of Manitoba’s elder-in-residence program is 10 years old. Roger Armitte, Anishinabe, there since its beginning, said that other elders are being brought in to meet the needs of students from other nations and those of young women. Armitte said he is actively involved in all aspects of ceremony and academics with strong university support.

Red River Community College in Winnipeg meets the needs of the diverse group of aboriginal students in Winnipeg with a different approach. Red River, known for its technical education expertise, has two elders who each counsel two days per week.

“With so many different groups, we have elders working across cultures,” said Dean of Aboriginal Education Marti Ford. “If my background is Inuit and Jules LaValle talks about Ojibwe traditions, it is a sharing of culture and values between students and elders.”

Students from the greenspace management and engineering programs utilized knowledge from elders to create a medicine wheel garden of their own design on campus for use by all of the students. With 13 entrances for the full moons, the 102-foot-wide circle incorporates the four directions and four colors in its design and will contain traditional medicines.

At the University of British Columbia, Richard Vedan, director of the First Nations House of Learning, said that they are just formalizing the role of elders beyond language teaching by bringing in language instructor and Musqueam elder Larry Grant two days per week. An endowment brings in additional visitors.

“Larry provides continuity in time and place; as people become accustomed to his presence they drop by.”

Musqueam elders and community members are invited to every ceremony, as it is their community which hosts the presence of the university, said Vedan, who also commented that there continues to be a struggle in defining who is an elder.

“My rule is anyone who says they are an elder isn’t. It is still an important discussion.”

As Suzanne Stiegelbauer reported while on faculty at the University of Toronto, “There’s not many who are teachers who know the teachings as they were handed down and who know how to put that into your life and practice it as every day living.”

Yet, in many instances, the value of an elder to the administration is still as a figurehead. As Stiegelbauer put it, universities have yet to achieve “involvement of real elders in a real way, not for image or personal gain.”

Glaring examples of this in Canadian academia involve recent administrative takeovers of Native programs after successful implementation by Native scholars under the advisement of elders.

“In medicine you first learn in the traditional way and then you can go farther, but you will then understand it both ways. You can apply the traditional or Western way but elders have to teach that, be part of the curriculum. If you don’t have that, the university takes over and bastardizes the whole thing,” said Cardinal.

In addition, universities for the most part seem eager to make their resources available to aboriginal students, but do not see the value of aboriginal communities making their resources available to the university.

In northern Manitoba, however, where Native people are the majority of the population, the two-year-old University College of the North was chartered with the interests of surrounding communities in the forefront.

New President Denise Henning, Choctaw/Cherokee from Oklahoma, left her post at the troubled First Nations University of Saskatchewan last year during a flurry of suspensions, firings and accusations of administration corruption.

She considers this a unique opportunity in mainstream education because the student population is 75 percent aboriginal and local legislators lobbied for the university’s charter.

“Our new programs are very aboriginal in their approach, being sensitive to different learning styles; and as we grow we are hiring a lot of people, making sure if they are not aboriginal, they have aboriginal values.”

Elders vote on the governance and curriculum of the university. There is an elder’s council and the faculty is now 48 percent aboriginal.

The university is accredited to grant undergraduate degrees. Most community-oriented First Nations colleges in Canada, except for First Nations University in Saskatchewan and a handful of other schools, have been denied independent accreditation by the Canadian government.

The university promotes the collaborative learning of cultural traditions.

“Math and science is where we are behind because they are not taught as part of the lived environment,” said Henning. “Beadwork teaches division and fractions; pottery and firing, physics and chemistry. Life makes them tangible, so that we are not terrified of going into medicine and engineering.”

There are two permanent elders-in-residence, but the council members also serve as student advisers, which maintains a balance in sharing of responsibilities.

Henning said that elders are not just there for prayers and to be given tobacco to.

“That’s exactly right,” said Cardinal, a pioneer of First Nations treaty rights. “From what I see of universities, there is not much effect on higher learning. Elders are being used mostly in the counseling aspect. There just hasn’t been a direct involvement of elders. And it’s been all verbal. It hasn’t been written down.”

Another Indigenous Scholars Conference presenter, Marie Battiste, director of the Aboriginal Research Education Centre at the University of Saskatchewan, has repeatedly stated that the use of elders for purely spiritual functions is a result of the entrenched Eurocentric outlook of Western administrators.

“The renewed interest in indigenous knowledge has sparked a reconsideration of the universal value of Eurocentric knowledge, which requires a reformulation of the legitimate conditions for indigenous education,” Battiste wrote for the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium. “The immediate challenge is how to balance colonial legitimacy, authority and disciplinary capacity with indigenous knowledge and pedagogies.”