The following interview was conducted with leaders at the North Island College Faculty Association. They responded collectively as a group.
Could you give us a bit of history about the North Island College (NIC) and the North Island College Faculty Association (NICFA)?
North Island College began in 1975 as an open, distance college. Its mandate was to take learning to the smaller communities on Northern Vancouver Island. Rather than focus on brick-and-mortar classrooms, the prime focus was on access and providing training and education for students where their families and supports were. This included more than 35 First Nations communities throughout the NIC region.
A focus on Indigenous access and inclusion has always been a priority from the very beginning when Bobby Joseph, an essential figure in the push for reconciliation in BC, was the first NIC board member.
Initially set up with several small centres and distance education programs offered across the north of the island, NIC now has four major campuses and a combination of in-person and remote learning options. In recent years NIC has also welcomed international students from around the globe to a wide variety of programs.
North Island College’s Faculty Association was established in 1990 and has been a key member of the provincial Federation of Post-Secondary Educators since that time. Our membership is made up of faculty from across the college regions and decanal areas, including University Transfer, Trades, Fine Arts, Business, and Health and Human Services. Both regular and sessional faculty are members of our single union allowing for easier transition to regular ongoing employment within the college.
What are some of the particular challenges Indigenous faculty members are facing at North Island College?
NIC has been a leader in developing and offering Indigenous-focused courses and incorporating Indigenous pedagogies into our curriculum, but these courses often remain on the periphery and struggle to gain consistent, ongoing funding. Although Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing and being are infusing the curriculum, Indigenous faculty, including Noxsala (elders), note that Indigenous ways are not included or considered in any administrative practices, procedures, or policies.
For example, Indigenous faculty are concerned that hiring practices do not consider different ways of knowing or expertise, thus excluding qualified instructors. Further, cross-cultural communication challenges make some Indigenous faculty members feel unheard and devalued; the different style and pace of conversation creates more pauses which non-Indigenous speakers are typically less comfortable with. This results in interjections that cut off Indigenous speakers.
Further, there is a feeling that Indigenous inclusion has not been a priority for college administrators; the former president established and championed a college-wide committee dedicated to diversity in the college community but did not include Indigenous issues within its purview. In stark contrast, another college-wide committee engaging with the Calls to Action laid out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has lacked participation and acknowledgement from senior administrators, including the president. NIC has recently appointed a new president whom we are hopeful will be more attuned to Indigenous protocol and reconciliation.
While NIC has had Human Rights hiring exemptions in place for almost 20 years that give priority to Indigenous applicants in certain areas, Indigenous faculty say more needs to be done. Indigenous representation among faculty and other college positions needs to increase to alleviate the burden of work straining current Indigenous faculty within the classrooms, departments, and college. Typically, in addition to their regular workload, Indigenous faculty act as counsellors, advisors, and consultants to students, other faculty, and administrators throughout the college community.
One of your initial steps to Indigenize the bargaining process was to include an Elder. When did you start that practice and what drove the decision?
As the incoming Chief Bargainer, my priority was inclusivity. I called both individual and group meetings at each campus to consult with faculty throughout the college, ensuring the opportunity for representation and meaningful input on issues from all faculty. To solicit specific input from the Indigenous perspective, I met with friend and colleague Wilma Gus at the Port Alberni Campus who suggested I meet with Elder Evelyn Voyageur. Wilma arranged a lunch meeting at which she introduced me to Evelyn, and we began to develop a relationship, an essential aspect of Indigenous ways of being. Evelyn agreed to become a member of the bargaining committee and help guide our processes.
How do you think that this has shaped the faculty association’s bargaining priorities and the bargaining process?
Although NIC holds up Indigenization as a priority in its academic strategic plan, there is little evidence of internalizing these values in the processes and policies at the administrative level. As faculty who had been working to Indigenize our courses and curriculum, we felt it was necessary to infuse our processes with Indigenous ways as well. NICFA had begun that process by including a Noxsala (elder) as a voting member on our executive since 2017 and as an essential part of a bargaining team since 2018. In Indigenous cultures in our area, a Noxsala is an elder but not all elders are Noxsalas. Noxsalas are knowledge keepers and wise ones within our Indigenous communities.
In developing our guiding principles for this round of bargaining, it was clear that inclusivity and giving all faculty a voice that would be heard and valued was paramount. We felt that in addition to including a Noxsala on the core bargaining team, we wanted to begin to introduce Indigenous values into the bargaining process. This was done through the Protocol Agreement in which we included an acknowledgement of the traditional territories on which the college resides and required that the traditional lands on which the bargaining meetings were taking place would be acknowledged at the beginning of each meeting.
Further, we requested that our Noxsala would be present at all bargaining meetings and that each side would be allowed to invite individuals to witness the proceedings. This witnessing is in keeping with the Indigenous traditions in our area as a way for the community to participate in official proceedings and to carry knowledge of these proceedings forward. This last provision was met with some resistance, particularly from the Post-Secondary Employers’ Association (PSEA) representative who did not demonstrate an understanding of, or support, our attempts to indigenize the bargaining process. Because we were unwilling to proceed without these elements within the Protocol Agreement, we persisted and explained the position and justification behind these requests, finally coming to an agreement between both sides.
In what other ways are you ensuring that your bargaining process and priorities reflect Indigenous perspectives, upholds Indigenous rights, and contribute to decolonization and Indigenization?
In addition to the gains at our local level, we also saw some gains at the provincial bargaining table. Seven of the locals around BC participate in bargaining together on what is known as the Common Agreement. This round of bargaining, we were able to bargain three days leave with pay for cultural days of celebration for self-identifying aboriginal faculty. Further, we negotiated that unpaid leaves of absence for participation in political elections and office should also apply to aboriginal governance.
As well, a Letter of Understanding (LOU) on Employment Equity – Aboriginal Employees addresses the under-representation of aboriginal employees and further states that both the provincial employees’ association and faculty associations will encourage and support locals in making application to the Human Rights Code of British Columbia for special consideration in attracting and retaining aboriginal employees.
We continue to maintain that authentic and meaningful input and representation of Indigenous faculty on the bargaining committee and at both bargaining tables is a priority. Moving forward, we will continue to work with Evelyn, our Noxsala, to encourage inclusivity and ways that are appropriate to the local traditions of our area. We will look at using talking circles with faculty members as a means to identify and develop bargaining priorities for future rounds and ensure everyone is given an equal opportunity to express their concerns fully. We also hope that we can begin to create a bargaining process that is more truly consultative and less adversarial in keeping with the Indigenous ideals of decision-making. We are approaching this through open and frank conversations at local-level meetings following this round of bargaining. These meetings help to build relationships and encourage understanding of the larger situation and the issues at stake for both NICFA and NIC administration.
How have these changes impacted the collective agreement?
The most significant gains to the collective agreement have been made at the provincial level on the Common Agreement. These gains include leave for cultural days, political elections, and appointments in Indigenous governance that are equivalent to those for non-Indigenous political activity.
At the local level, the gains made have been less overt and have involved getting the college and provincial government bargaining agent (PSEA) to agree to several letters of understanding that ensure conversations on many issues happen locally, not provincially. From our perspective, this allows for a greater degree of collaboration and discussion on these issues than provided by the current bargaining process. In this process, a deeper appreciation of the complexities of issues and a constructive problem-solving model is possible that encourages the building of shared understandings and relationships, allowing for a more positive and collaborative way forward. We would like to continue to advocate for improvements to the hiring processes and policies at the local level.
How has the college reacted to the proposals you have put forward?
Although no evidence of an effort to Indigenize the bargaining processes was forwarded by administration before bargaining began, there was some understanding and willingness to accept these shifts at the local level and to advocate for them with the provincial bargaining agent, who seemed much less aware of or willing to engage in these indigenizing measures. Once the provisions within the protocol agreement for including a Noxsala and witnesses in the bargaining process were explained using the language in the TRC’s Calls to Action, it was very difficult for management to disagree or refute these requests. NIC’s bargaining representatives seemed quite amenable to further discuss issues raised at the bargaining table by means of letters of understanding. NICFA has interpreted this and our subsequent interactions with them during the COVID-19 pandemic as moving towards a more consultative and collaborative relationship.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the bargaining process and member engagement?
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the midst of the bargaining process in March of 2020 significantly impacted our ability to bargain. We immediately pared down our proposal package to the essential issue for us, namely our demand for improvements to equity for our sessional faculty and the elimination of the secondary pay scale for them. We were fortunate to be able to come to an agreement with NIC on this key issue and conclude bargaining before the end of June 2020.
On a positive note, NICFA worked swiftly and with purpose to engage all faculty when the pandemic hit, getting information out to them quickly and effectively through regular online meetings that were held weekly during bargaining, and then biweekly or monthly after the new collective agreement was ratified. Faculty members appreciated the regular and clear communication from NICFA in the absence of communication from the college leadership. As a result, our faculty are a more engaged union and abreast of the ongoing developments that have arisen since spring 2020 than they have been for quite some time.
Reflecting on the changes that NICFA has made, what recommendations would you make to other faculty associations considering Indigenizing their bargaining process and representative structures more broadly?
The first step in this process would be to ensure the foundational groundwork on Indigenous ways of being and knowing is established in a deep and meaningful way within your membership and institution. Whenever possible, the process to indigenize should be directed and led by the Indigenous community at your local. We would recommend that individual faculty associations consult regularly and thoroughly with Indigenous faculty within their own institutions and with local Indigenous community leaders to gain an understanding of the priorities and protocols in their geographic and cultural regions. This consultation is an ongoing process and needs to be done by building and maintaining relationships within your institution and local communities. We have tried to approach this process with a great deal of humility, an acknowledgement of what we don’t know, and a willingness to ask questions (sometimes repeatedly and in different ways) in order to get the information needed to move forward.
A significant and ongoing effort needs to be made to include Indigenous representatives on decision-making bodies of your associations, including executive and bargaining committees. In addition, these positions need to include release time or money whenever possible to compensate faculty for this essential work and make sure we are not contributing to the continued overwork of already overstretched Indigenous faculty.
Finally, it is essential to acknowledge that this work is challenging and can be quite uncomfortable. We must cultivate a willingness to sit with the discomfort it creates by beginning to dismantle our well-established colonial structures. We all need to have a willingness to acknowledge and move beyond our own complicity in those colonial structures to move forward and beyond them. Indigenization is a process that takes a great deal of time and effort with often only incremental changes. Multiple generations of oppression mean it will take generations to achieve reparation and reconciliation. We need to be committed to the process and effort involved.
Janis Almond is faculty in The Department of Accessible Learning at North Island College in British Columbia. She was the Chief Bargainer for the North Island College Faculty Association during the 2020 round of Bargaining and has served on the NICFA executive for the past 20 years.
Dr. Evelyn Voyageur is an Elder in Residence at the Courtenay Campus with specific focus on supporting curricular changes to the Bachelor of Nursing program. She also teaches in the Indigenous Language program and serves as the Noxsala on the NICFA executive.
Erin McConomy teaches in the English Department and coordinates Academic Supports through the Library and Learning Commons. Currently she is the Chief Steward and Chief Bargainer for the next round of bargaining.
Shirley Ackland is faculty in the Office Administration Department. She has served on the NICFA executive for 30 years, currently as the outgoing President of NICFA and a Member-at-Large for the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC.
Dr. Jen Wrye teaches Sociology in the Humanities and Social Sciences Department at North Island College and recently has been hired as a faculty member in the Centre for Teaching and Learning Innovation. She is currently the NICFA Secretary and the incoming President of NICFA.