Education Special: Ayaangwaamizin Academy

COUCHICHING FIRST NATION, Ontario - First Nations higher education is taking a new approach on the Ojibwe Couchiching First Nation reserve in southwestern Ontario.

The Ayaangwaamizin Academy of Indigenous Learning offers the only degrees in Native Philosophy in North America, assisting students to develop programs relevant to Native communities and become skilled negotiators for First Nations concerns.

"Ayaangwaamizin, means walk carefully, not for your own sake, but for others," said Dr. J. Douglas Rabb, co-founder.

With 30 years in mainstream universities, Rabb has seen Native students fail. Native people have to walk carefully in the dominant society, as they do in the bush, and not lose their own values, he said.

"Since South Africa got rid of apartheid, Canada doesn't look as golden as it used to. Look at the reserves. Why is that the case? If you understand why, maybe you can do something about it. Most Native people don't know the real reasons."

Rabb co-founded the academy with Dr. Dennis McPherson, his former student and former colleague at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.

The academy is a student-owned corporation, independent of the band, and does not recognize the accreditation standards of the federal government's Universities Act. Theses and dissertations in Native Philosophy are peer-reviewed in the same way that professional publications are by medical, law and engineering societies.

"We are trying to advance a concept that flies in the face of Canada and in some ways the United States too, which is that Aboriginal people of the Americas have always had today, and unless they bargain it away, will have tomorrow their own right to educate their own children," said McPherson.

A program not sanctioned by the government does not limit job opportunities, said McPherson. If the Academy hired all of its graduates, while recruiting more, he envisions a student body of eventually 20,000 with full staff. There are also community-based jobs.

"Once we have this knowledge and degree, even if it is working in our communities and teaching its members how rich our history is - I'm constantly quoting from things my grandparents told me, what value system they gave us, the ethics that were used - the knowledge that we gain will perpetuate us as people," said band member Edna Lockhart, a graduate student who is a post-secondary education counselor on the Couchiching reserve.

The time for Ayaangwaamizin was right when Lockhart and 15 other Native graduate applicants were rejected from McPherson's Native Philosophy program at Lakehead. The university, which would not return phone calls, changed requirements after receiving the applications, declined a continuing $250,000 Rockefeller Foundation grant and shut down the program.

Then in April 2001 Rabb submitted his request for early retirement and appointment as Professor Emeritus, stating that he could not live with the unethical rejections.

Academics were not an issue. Lockhart received her undergraduate degree from Lakehead.

"It's not the people there," said Rabb, it's the system. Lakehead is only one example."

McPherson, who continues to teach in a regular Lakehead department, said that racism is inherent on campuses, but that First Nations people face other obstacles.

"The problem that has to be overcome is one of confidence and esteem of the Aboriginal communities themselves, which is to say, they can go to an institution not sanctioned and receive a more than adequate education. Most are not at the stage yet to say that," he said.

Government-sanctioned schools have a poor track record.

A 2002 report by the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations showed that 17 out of every 100 First Nations youth do not go beyond eighth grade.

McPherson says the average for all ages is sixth grade.

That doesn't get you very far," said McPherson. "And if we are only going to accept those Indian students who progress straight from high school into a college or university, we would probably dealing with none."

The average age of his Native students is 35.

"Many students attend college to receive the funds in order to get off welfare, he said. Often it is the only way they are exposed to education.

Although these monies are under-funded by Indian and Northern Affairs, band members, or status Indians, have access to use them for any type of program they choose, according to Lockhart. As part of her job, Lockhart takes applications and determines each applicant's budget for books, tuition and living expenses.

Ayaangwaamizin has undergraduate courses such as pre- and post-contact periods, influence of terminology on identity; indigenous learning from within oral tradition, art and material culture; and the application of critical thinking to professional, educational and life circumstances in Aboriginal communities, with standard concentrations in education, advocacy and law. It offers graduate and post-graduate degrees in Native philosophy.

"The idea that such a movement is happening is hard for people to understand," Lockhart said.

The chronic substance abuse, violence and other conditions for First Nations people on reserves and in cities have prompted the United Nations to continually drop Canada's ranking in its best country to live in survey. Think tanks and human rights organizations have pointed to these problems for years.

But it is the First Nations people who have the solutions.

"When we talk about higher learning, social working, its not working for us, because we are trying to learn a whole different way of doing things and we are resisting it. Our communities worked very well without these modern tools. Nobody made judgments," said Lockhart.

Indian women in Canada have lived three different divisions of being Indian: born an Indian, then no longer an Indian being off reserve, and then in 1985 being Indian again, she said. Those are the types of issues that need to be taught and learned.

"We lack the words that will explain the feelings. There are no good words that will explain the Indian as a feeling person. There are so many different issues, this is what Ayaangwaamizin is looking at - correcting, or working with, or making us not different but able to understand and be understood."