Canada (University of Calgary) New Indigenous Pathway programs at the crossroads of cultural practice and western teaching

Imagine sitting in one of your first university classes among hundreds of students, listening to the instructor talk about the subject at hand — let’s say, biology. The discussion is focused on the flora of southern Alberta, and the instructor is showing some slides of plants with which you are very familiar, but the conversation about these plants is from a very western, scientific lens.

Whether this knowledge is familiar or new, for Indigenous students entering post-secondary programs, the opportunity to engage in Indigenous ways of knowing and Indigenous perspectives in an interconnected world creates a sense of cultural relevancy in curriculum as doors are opened to shed light on Indigenous knowledge systems in science.

Finding a new path to learning
Recognizing the need to remove barriers and increase Indigenous students’ access and understanding to core classes, it’s clear that there’s a need for programs that foster inclusiveness and academic success for Indigenous students.

In response to the Calls to Action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the University’s Indigenous Strategy, ii’ taa’poh’to’p, the faculties of Science and Arts together have created an opportunity for those who identify as Indigenous (First Nations, Métis, or Inuit) to be admitted through a new initiative: the Indigenous Pathway programs, beginning in early 2023.

Last year, UCalgary created the Indigenous Admission Supplementary Process, which specifies that faculties with a bridging or pathway program can consider 20-level high school courses for direct admission to major programs in their faculty. Students will complete 200-level foundations courses in lieu of any missing prerequisite courses to ensure they have the requisite knowledge and skills to be successful in their programs. They will also receive academic, personal, and cultural support from an undergraduate program advisor (Indigenous) and the Writing Symbols Lodge.

“Faculty-based pathway programs offer Indigenous students a strong start in their select degree programs,” explains Shawna Cunningham, director of UCalgary’s Indigenous Strategy “The programs offer an opportunity for Indigenous students to take advantage of culturally relevant academic and peer support in a learning environment that includes Indigenous ways of knowing in first year courses.”

Combining ways of teaching, knowing and learning
Students admitted into the programs are guaranteed admission to their desired major program in the Faculty of Science or the Faculty of Arts upon completion of foundation courses in English, mathematics, biology and chemistry. All seats in the foundations courses are reserved for students in the pathway program to support their ability to build strong connections and community with their classmates.

Members of the faculties of Arts and Science jointly conducted consultations with members of UCalgary’s Office of Indigenous Engagement and the Writing Symbols Lodge and also with the leaders at Old Sun and Red Crow Community Colleges to develop the Indigenous Pathway programs.

“Creating opportunities for learning in, though and about Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, the foundations courses and curricula will be designed and, whenever possible, taught by Indigenous scholars,” says Dr. Aoife Mac Namara, PhD, dean of the Faculty of Arts. “Rain Prud’homme Cranford (author of Smoked Mullet Cornbread Crawdad Memory, which received the 2009 First Book Award in Poetry from Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas) and Josh Whitehead (award-winning author of Making Love with the Land [2022] and Jonny Appleseed [2019]) which was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and winner of CBC’s 2021 Canada Reads) are two of the many exceptional professors who will teach in the program.”

“Everyone deserves access to post-secondary education if they want it,” says Dr. Kristin Baetz, PhD, dean of the Faculty of Science. “Our goal with the Indigenous Pathway is to help ensure all of our students have equitable opportunities to reach their potential. Blending these forms of knowledge can help them achieve that.”

Students in the Indigenous Pathway will meet with faculty undergraduate advisors to develop their individualized programs, and normally complete all required foundation courses in their first term. They’ll also be encouraged to access the Writing Symbols Lodge for support on their individual and collective journeys.

Says Cunningham, “Cultural supports available through Writing Symbols Lodge will help Indigenous students, not only connect to culturally specific support services, but also find and sustain a sense of community, which is foundational to an Indigenous relational way of being together on this important educational journey.”

Building a more inclusive environment
After successful completion of required foundation courses, students will be admitted to their degree program in the Faculty of Science or Arts.

Indigenous-taught and Indigenous-designed programs matter. Where universities once focused more or less exclusively on western knowledge, the new pathway programs gives Indigenous students an opportunity to experience higher education enriched by Indigenous ways of knowing, doing, being and connecting. Says Dean Mac Namara, “This is an important step toward decolonizing higher education here on Treaty 7 Territory.”

“It’s a learning experience for us as well,” adds Dean Baetz, “and a welcome step towards building bridges. Everyone benefits from programs like this.”

Shawna Cunningham agrees and says, “Cultural relevance and inclusion of Indigenous knowledge systems in academia is an important and respectful step forward in reconciliation through education.”