In a wide-ranging conversation, First Nations University professor Jo-Ann Episkenew and Simon Fraser University professor Deanna Reder discuss the realities and challenges faced by Aboriginal academics and students in Canadian universities.

Jo-Ann:    I am a Métis woman living in Regina and working as Associate Professor of English at First Nations University.  “Tâwaw cî?” means, “Is there space?” in the Cree language.  Is there space for Aboriginal people and perspectives in English departments across the country?

Deanna:    I am also a Métis woman and I live in Vancouver. I work as Assistant Professor in English and First Nations Studies at Simon Fraser University.  It has been twenty years since the 1988 International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, when Sto:lo and Métis author Lee Maracle demanded that non-Aboriginal writers and academics “Move Over.”    My Aboriginal colleagues and I are here as a result of this famous directive—and to give credit where it is due, we are also here because of those who have made space. That being said, has enough changed?

Jo-Ann:   Like many Aboriginal people, I began university later in life.  I was 35 years old and a single parent of four children.  At that time most of us were mature students, almost all were parents, and the majority were female, single parents.  Little has changed.

When analyzing literary works, most scholars are very conscious that ideology is embedded in the text; what they often forget is the ideology they bring to their reading.  Few White, middle-class professors have any idea what goes on in the shadow world Aboriginal people occupy on the margins of Canadian society.  Their interpretations of Aboriginal literature based on experiences they learn early in life are normative.  Worse yet, Aboriginal children learn very early that the settlers’ experiences are “normal.”  I was reminded of this a few weeks back when my six-year-old granddaughter pointed to the cover of a DVD featuring Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson and said that she had already seen the movie with “the Chinese guy and the normal guy.”  I wondered if she thinks of herself as “abnormal”?

Deanna: In my childhood, I learned to segregate my two worlds. What I learned at home was never reflected at school and what I learned at school often had little relevance at home.  From kindergarten to university, I never saw any reflection of what it means to be Cree or Métis in any of my classes.  The only Native literature I remember reading was Pauline Johnson’s “The Song my Paddle Sings,” which I hear from my students has gone out of vogue.

While I never had an Aboriginal teacher in the public school system, nothing much changed in the 1980s, when I first started my BA. Until my PhD, I have never had an Aboriginal professor, nor did I ever meet any.  There were no courses on Native literature or even works by Native authors.  In fact, as far as I could recognize at the time, there were no other Aboriginal students in my classes.  So segregated was my personal experience from my life as a student that this did not seem strange to me.

In about 1988, I had the chance to hear Abenaki poet and National Film Board Director Alanis Obamsawin give a talk at Concordia University in Montreal.  At the time, I did not know her work but was drawn to hear her speak. I remember being both so impressed and surprised by what she had to say that I actually went up after her talk to ask her if it was actually true, if there really were books written by Native authors, and if so, what were the titles.

Jo-Ann: As an English major at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College at the University of Regina in the late 1980s, I attended classes with other Aboriginal people and read a few books by Aboriginal authors, but the approach to the texts, ironically, excluded Aboriginal people. In a required class on literary analysis based on New Criticism, we examined Leslie Marmon Silko’s story “Lullaby” (1981), which was the subject of the first writing assignment.  Although I can’t remember the topic of the assignment, I do remember my grade, a D+/C-, because it hurt my pride.  In his feedback, the professor explained that I received such a low mark because I did not address the suicide at the end of the story.  I didn’t know that there was suicide.  My professor, a Montreal anglophone, pointed out that when the central character, an older Dene woman, wraps herself and her drunken husband in a blanket on cold night and prepares to go to sleep outside she is, in effect, killing herself and her husband.  Unable to bear the weight of her tragic life, the old woman chooses death for herself and her husband.  I wondered if he was basing his interpretation on stories of old Native people walking out into the wilderness to die.  If one is focusing only on the text and has gleaned one’s knowledge of Aboriginal people from Hollywood and urban legends, this could be a plausible interpretation.  However, what is missing is the context of both text and readers.

Silko and her characters are indigenous to the American South-West, so the land that seemed so frightening and dangerous to my professor is their home.  The old people live in a hogan, a structure made out of rocks, earth, and wood, which is as much a part of the land as the cluster of rocks beside which they spend the night.  It would not be suicidal for them to take shelter beside these rocks and cover with their blankets; indeed, they would have carried blankets along with them for just such that purpose.  These are traditional people, and despite their tragic lives, they have survived.  To an Aboriginal reader, “Lullabye” is not a story of suicide; it is one of survival, albeit filled with references to the suffering from a lifetime of colonization and oppression.  For Aboriginal readers, “Lullabye” is an inspirational and empowering story of the elders’ ability to endure.

Of course, as reader, my context differed radically from that of my professor.  Although I, too, spent my early years in a large urban center, I moved to northern Saskatchewan as a teenager.  I’ve lived with trappers who regularly go out on foot to check their trap lines regardless of the weather.  Sometimes they sleep out in the bush wrapped in blankets—albeit by a fire—in temperatures falling below -20°C.  This is how Aboriginal people who live on the land exist; this is how we have always lived.  My husband grew up on Standing Buffalo reserve near Fort Qu’Appelle in southern Saskatchewan.  He tells how he walked from Fort Qu’Appelle to Muscowpetung Reserve, a distance of about 40 km., one cold winter night.  When he was too tired to go on, he made a shelter in a farmer’s field by piling bales of hay around himself, slept there for the night, and finished walking to the reserve in the morning.  I didn’t tell this to my professor, however.  Somehow, at the time, I was embarrassed to reveal that I—and my people—still live this way.  Somehow my husband’s story smacked of poverty and social problems and all the things I was sure that my professors associated with Aboriginal people.

I was also reluctant to explain my world to my professor for fear that he might not believe me.  What if he accused me of telling or believing tall tales?  What if he asked me to cite my sources and show him where I had found my information?  How do you cite your life?  (This is something that Aboriginal students and scholars are regularly asked to do.)  His was the voice of authority, and I was just an undergraduate student.  In the end, I silenced my voice, kept my knowledge to myself, and tried to always be cognizant that my professors knew nothing of Aboriginal realities.  I followed the rules, tried to anticipate their objections, and wrote “objective” literary analyses that did not reflect my “insider” experience.  Although I earned my degrees, my scholarship was diminished because of this self-censorship.

Deanna:  While at Concordia, in the middle of my B.A., I experienced a life-changing moment that helped me reconcile my sense of my identity with my academic interests, when I attended the often-discussed 1988 International Feminist Book Fair. It would make a good story if only I had attended the well-documented moment that kicked off the appropriation debate, when Aboriginal intellectuals like Jeannette Armstong and Lee Maracle stood up to writers, academics and publishers, and challenged them to “buy books by us, not about us” and to “Move Over,” to make room for Aboriginal voices. I wasn’t actually at that session. Instead, I attended a reading by Native poets and writers. I did not know at the time that all of the most eminent Aboriginal women writers across North American were present.

What I remember, besides the pleasure created by their words, was the sense that for the first time in my university experience, I knew that I was somewhere where my mother would have felt comfortable and would have enjoyed.  I immediately decided this was the field that I belonged in.

I was, however, a little premature.  Even by 1991, when I started my M.A. at York University I had naively decided to focus on Aboriginal literature, not realizing that it would be difficult to find any courses to take. Instead I consoled myself with the study of nineteenth-century Canadian literature. What I remember to be most remarkable is that even though my studies focused on previously neglected nineteenth century women’s writing, there was no knowledge of what Penny Petrone described as the Ojibwe literary coterie who wrote at precisely the same time.   So in keeping with the times I wrote my end of term essay on the image of the Indian.  Not exactly Native Lit. but a popular topic at the time.

Even if I had been able to go directly into a Ph.D after my Masters, I would have had trouble at that time finding a supervisor. As it was, I needed to suspend my studies in order to deal with the demands of my family. By the time I re-entered grad school in 2001, a handful of faculty across Canada, including Margery Fee at UBC, had refocused their research interests to include Native literature. While this sort of detail may seem irrelevant, this fact has tremendous impact on this area of study because graduate work cannot be completed without qualified people who are able to supervise. This is somewhat reminiscent of the generation of Canadianists before me who went though similar experiences, discussing books many of their colleagues had never heard of or taken seriously. There are obvious similarities between the emergence of Canadian literature and Native literatures as fields of study: a lack of respect, never mind prestige, that the critic must fight against; the need to have new works not only taught in the classroom but taught proficiently; the fight against hegemonic forces that have dismissed these literatures.

Still, this current situation is less similar than it appears. In the 1970s,  promoting Canadian literature was akin to self-discovery.  If Expo ’67 in Montreal, coinciding with Canada’s Centennial, was a critical moment when this country began to think of itself as a nation, then the promotion of Canadian literature by Canadian faculty would reaffirm this identity.  But there is no bastion of Aboriginal literary scholars to lobby for the teaching of Aboriginal literatures in universities. This is not to diminish the efforts of those who have worked to include Aboriginal literature in classrooms; however, those who have done this work have not had the same sort of affirming experience and have not subsequently had the same effect in their classrooms.  In fact, the situation is very complex for the non-Aboriginal teacher in this field.  One of my favourite quotes about this situation is something that you, Jo-Ann, have written elsewhere, that “any class on Shakespeare would not be complete without a comprehensive examination of the political and religious situation in Elizabethan England, no doubt comprised of information that the instructor has gathered from books in the library.  These scholars need not worry that there just might be an Elizabethan enrolled in his or her class and that Elizabethan student just might dispute the information given in the lecture.  However, this might very well occur in a class on contemporary Aboriginal literature.”

Jo-Ann: Perhaps some Elizabethan ghosts haunt those classes wishing they could speak!

A few years ago, a large Canadian university sought to hire a Canada Research Chair in Aboriginal Literature at the Tier I level.  When a member of the search phoned and asked if I could help, I laughed and suggested they look south of the border, but the president wanted candidates not only to be Aboriginal but also Canadian.  I know most of the Aboriginal faculty in English Departments in Canada, and I can count their number on my fingers.  I asked where she planned to find such a person, and how many Aboriginal Ph.D.s had her university graduated?

Deanna: While there have been many changes in departments of English since Maracle’s famous dictum, there is still much work to do.  Many Aboriginal PhDs hired in English Departments since 1988 (for example, Thomas King, Daniel Heath Justice, and you, Jo-Ann) have been trained internationally. In the past twenty years Canadian Departments of English have produced less than a dozen Aboriginal PhDs.

Jo-Ann:  And conditions for Aboriginal faculty are often difficult. Most of the 265 full-time faculty in Canadian universities who identified as Aboriginal in the 2001 census work in isolation with colleagues who know nothing about Aboriginal cultures and often don’t care.  David Newhouse of Trent talks about “the Red Man’s Burden,” his name for the arduous task of continually educating colleagues and administrators about Aboriginal issues, and then, just when people begin to understand, they leave, and the process must begin again.   It is not as if anyone assigns us that task; it’s just that if we don’t educate our colleagues they can inadvertently make our lives miserable.  Another challenge that Aboriginal faculty face is working with colleagues who have made their careers as “experts” on Aboriginal people and who are often threatened when they find themselves working with new Aboriginal faculty who might question them.  Having “real live” Aboriginal people around—especially well-educated ones—can complicate a career when one is used to working with anonymous informants and historical records.

Few of our colleagues understand that most Aboriginal faculty are motivated by our common desire to heal our communities to make things better for future generations.  As faculty, we strive to decolonize the academy and the world beyond.  Decolonization is “about empowerment—a belief that situations can be transformed, a belief and trust in our own peoples’ values and abilities, and a willingness to make change.”   It is hard to explain that Aboriginal faculty are inextricably linked to our people and accountable to our communities.  The social problems that affect our communities are not distant objects of intellectual curiosity.  They are personal because they affect our families and friends.  Aboriginal scholars are also hyper-aware that what we teach and how we teach—even in English—has real consequences in the material world.  Our departments, however, often have difficulty knowing how to respond when community needs take precedence for Aboriginal faculty.  Likewise, our communities have difficulty when they perceive that we’re working to advance our own careers rather than using our education to give back to our people.  In the midst of these pressures, Aboriginal students and faculty need support.

Deanna: What I found to be essential to my graduate work was the First Nations House of Learning, situated in the middle of campus at UBC.  There I was able to attend meetings with a support group for Aboriginal graduate students initiated by visiting Maori scholar Graham Hingangaroa Smith; I also participated in annual province-wide Aboriginal graduate student conferences initiated by Jo-ann Archibald. I was able to find colleagues interested in discussing Aboriginal epistemologies and had the incredible opportunity to drum and sing with Cree and Ojibwe ceremonialist and counsellor Alannah Young, learning not only about my own traditions but also the complex protocols of Coast Salish nations.  Because of this training I began to think about the concerns around protocol in relation to my own work.  What principles should govern my intellectual work?  I describe these influences, so important to my education, because this mentoring did not lie within the Department of English but was the result of the vision by the first generation of Aboriginal academics at UBC. For all the work that still needs to be done, it is to UBC’s credit that it supported this initiative.

Jo-Ann:  Often, the university speaks as if it understands our challenges and will welcome the change that Aboriginal faculty bring; however, many Aboriginal scholars report that they received mixed messages when they began their careers.  A number of Aboriginal colleagues were hired, ostensibly, as agents of change only to find that the system is not only resistant to change but also hostile in the face of it.   It is not as if our settler colleagues set out to discriminate.  Typically, they welcome Aboriginal scholars into their midst and try to help them establish their careers.  Many colleagues, however, imagine that we would only bring out our cultures only on officially-sanctioned occasions, such as multi-cultural festivals and Aboriginal student days, and the rest of the time we would work and live like them, albeit in a darker hue.  Peggy McIntosh writes, “whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow ‘them’ to be more like ‘us’.”  Clearly, “[d]ecolonization is hard work, as it requires a realignment of individuals and communities toward a different vision of possibility.”   Many colleagues do not share a different vision and do not want their departments to be realigned.

Deanna: I agree. I very much appreciate and value the contributions of non-Aboriginal scholars, such as Renate Eigenbrod, Judith Leggatt, and Jennifer Kelly, who are helping to build this field.  I appreciate the work of my own supervisor as well as that of Susan Gingell who supported the ground-breaking work of Janice Acoose. I don’t want to speak for these scholars, but I want to acknowledge their decolonizing work and their struggles that have helped to make space in the university.

Jo-Ann: The university is a very difficult place for Aboriginal students and faculty who often suffer intense feelings of psychosocial disintegration while trying to survive in an individualistic competitive environment.  Delaware playwright and poet Daniel David Moses talks about the shock of discovering the university is more concerned with what we do than who we are in contrast to Aboriginal communities which are more concerned with connections and relationships.  Many Aboriginal people cannot “put up with” the culture of the university “and just make their way, unacknowledged, imposed upon, aching, back to their home[s].”   Each Aboriginal student and faculty member must find some source of strength to survive the university.  But can the university make room for Aboriginal people—not as brown imitations of white people but as our true selves, replete with community ties and obligations?

Deanna:  Even if departments currently do not have an Aboriginal literature specialist, I suspect that they will be looking for one shortly.  And my prediction is based on simple demographics.  Right now university enrolments are in decline because, among many things, simple declining numbers of children in high school.  But currently the population of Aboriginal youth is growing and is a population that is comparatively under-enrolled in university, what business calls an “untapped market.”  I suspect that many departments, if they haven’t already, are going to want to develop courses in this field and possibly hire a specialist.

Based on the circumstances as they are today, let me imagine the scenario at a typical Canadian university (and I base this on some of what I have observed).  The department has advertised for an Aboriginal candidate in the field. I suspect the hiring committee was surprised to receive a fraction of the applications normally submitted, perhaps only a dozen.  And of this dozen, only one is Aboriginal but this candidate isn’t quite finished his or her PhD and might very well not be a good fit.

Rather than give up in despair, I want to encourage departments to consider a few other options.  For example, a few Aboriginal scholars who have earned their doctorates in the faculty of Education actually focus on literature in their studies (see the work of Haida and Musqueum scholar Dolores Van der Wey and her Cree student Lyn Daniels).  And if the Dean is visionary, consider hiring, even as a visiting scholar, a creative writer with a M.A., such as Richard Van Camp or Marilyn Dumont.

But more than that, grow your own.  Make sure that the Aboriginal students who take the obligatory first year English courses see some reflection of themselves in your curriculum, see some way to connect their lives at school with their lives at home.  And if you have any question whether or not this is still needed, ask your first year students if they have read any books written by an Aboriginal author.

I hope that you will be pleasantly surprised by positive responses. I, however, recently asked 180 first year students the question I asked Alanis Obamsawin in 1988:  “can you name the titles of books that are written by Aboriginal authors?”  Only one student put up his hand.  He couldn’t remember the title but he had read a poem in the previous term.  It’s author?  Pauline Johnson.

Earlier versions of this conversation were presented at a Canadian Association of Chairs of English session of the 2008 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Vancouver, British Columbia.


  Maracle, Lee, “Native Myths: Trickster Alive and Crowing” In Language in Her Eye: Writing and Gender, eds. Libby Schier, Sarah Sheard and Elanor Wachtel (Toronto: Coach House P, 1990), 185.
  Episkenew, Jo-Ann, “Socially Responsible Criticism,” in Creating Community:  A Roundtable on Aboriginal Literatures, Renate Eigenbrod and Jo-Ann Episkenew, eds. (Penticton and Brandon:  Theytus and Bearpaw, 2002).
  Petrone, Penny, Native Literature in Canada: From the Oral Tradition to the Present (Toronto: Oxford UP. 1990), 35.
  Episkenew, 65.
  Newhowse, David, plenary address to the Navigating the Academy:  A CAUT Symposium on Aboriginal Academic Staff  (Winnipeg, Manitoba, February 1, 2008).
  In Justice, Daniel Heath, introduction to “Conjuring Marks:  Furthering Indigenous Empowerment through Literature,” The American Indian Quarterly 28, no. 1 & 2 (Winter/Spring 2004):  5.
  Pete, Shauneen, telephone conversation, May 15, 2008.
  McIntosh, Peggy, “White Privilege:  Unpacking the Invisible Napsack,” Independent School (Winter 1990),, (accessed May 12, 2008).
  Justice, 5.

  Moses, Daniel David, “The Trickster’s Laugh:  My Meeting with Tomson and Lenore,” The American Indian Quarterly 28, no. 1 & 2 (Winter/Spring 2004):  110-1.