New Letter of Understanding recognizes distinct demands placed on Indigenous faculty members

Vanessa Frank

In mid-August, UWOFA and the employer signed a new Letter of Understanding (LOU) that will make review processes more equitable for Indigenous faculty members.

The Indigenous Faculty Members LOU recognizes additional and distinct demands placed on the time and workload of Indigenous faculty members through involvement in a number of activities that support Indigenous education, research and scholarship across the university, including guest lectures, prioritizing Indigenous community-based work and engagement, planning and consulting on development of new courses, academic advising and support for students, as well as ongoing expectation to consult on Indigenous-related committees and initiatives. The LOU recognizes that, for Indigenous scholars, research, scholarship and creative activity may include research carried out based on traditional/Indigenous knowledge, and the practical applications or dissemination of such research generally, or specifically through engagement with Indigenous communities.

Specifically, the LOU modifies the following articles in the Faculty Collective Agreement: Annual Performance Evaluation; Promotion, Tenure and Continuing Status; and Workload. All processes, procedures and relevant meetings associated with those review processes shall be conducted from a culturally appropriate perspective.

Brent Debassige is Director of Indigenous Education and an associate professor in the Faculty of Education. Debassige worked with members of UWOFA and the employer’s Joint Committee to ensure the LOU is culturally appropriate for Indigenous faculty members. Debassige recently spoke with UWOFA about how the changes contained in the LOU will affect Indigenous faculty members’ working conditions.

This interview has been condensed and edited for brevity.

The LOU stipulates that maintaining relationships, responsibilities and commitments to Indigenous communities shall count as part of the service requirement of academic responsibilities. How important is it to explicitly recognize that?

BD: Maintaining relationships, responsibilities and commitments in Indigenous communities are indicators of a need to expand the definition of service, which is typically focused on administrative and scholarly service. If we include other types of labour that have relevance to Indigenous communities, along with scholarly service, that academic responsibility becomes an overflowing bucket of different types of labour. The labour associated with Indigenous communities is essential to doing respectful and ethical Indigenous research, and, by its close association, is embedded in the process of Indigenous research; but, in scholarly circles, this labour is not observed with the same significance as it is within Indigenous contexts.

Now, with the LOU, there’s enough flexibility for Indigenous scholars to determine where it’s most appropriate for the labour that they do to be situated. And oftentimes, what happens with Indigenous labour in the academy – whether it can be classified as teaching or research or scholarship/service – it doesn’t fit the definitions available in the Collective Agreement, and the labour ends up pushed to where it doesn’t have value in evaluation processes.

This Letter of Understanding greatly assists Indigenous researchers in that it recognizes Indigenous scholars’ distinct types of labour as essential to meeting their academic responsibilities. The LOU permits the Indigenous scholar greater autonomy in locating the labour in the places where it ought to be considered – something that actually has value and weight that’s tantamount to what it actually is, as opposed to the pre-defined non-Indigenous constructs that simply marginalize Indigenous labour in those categories as defined under the Collective Agreement.

It sounds as though the definition of scholarly service was incomplete for Indigenous scholars before this LOU took shape. Is that a fair characterization?

BD: We grappled with this notion of limited definitions under the CA when the committee was doing its work because, for example, so much of my research work is about building relationships. I consider relationship-building to be labour that is properly listed under the academic responsibility of research. It is a research activity. The academic literature on Indigenous research corroborates my thinking on this point. Within the context of the university setting, we tend to think about fulfillment of research responsibilities as peer-reviewed publications that are based in a particular process for judging value, merit and contribution, and the Collective Agreement defines these understandings. But within Indigenous communities, those interactions of meaningful relationships are intimately interwoven with how we are expected to do our research.

The relationship-building piece is an immersive activity and involves interacting with and in the lives of other Indigenous peoples. It is also an essential aspect of the ways that the co-production of knowledge occurs over an extended period. So these lines between teaching, research and service become blurred, because they are very much centered on making sure that we are staying true to the cultural milieu and ethical responsibilities of those First Nations communities that we work with, but also ensuring that we’re fulfilling those aspects of responsibility, that reciprocity and those other pieces of giving-before-taking and trust-building, which is all part of Indigenous research by Indigenous peoples. The Collective Agreement’s academic responsibilities do not distinguish as cleanly for me in the work that I do. They are very much overlapping features and, really, I see Indigenous relationship-building and community-based labours less as service and more as research and/or teaching activity.

The LOU provides for an alternative workload that includes a year free of teaching for a tenure-track Indigenous faculty member. What brought that about? Why is that important?

BD: Ultimately, each teaching, research, and service bucket is going to be overflowing. And the reason is mostly linked to shifts and movements that universities have embraced recently. So when we consider Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) calls to action, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and we can go back further to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, we can identify a series of documents, declarations, policy statements, accords and agreements from a number of post-secondary institutions and affiliated organizations that have implemented some direction for changes … and Indigenous peoples’ contributions are central here where they have asked questions and committed to the labour that has led toward post-secondary institutional change where we consider: What is the commitment to, and what is the level of understanding, to being, for example, a treaty beneficiary or somebody who currently resides or is employed in a place where Indigenous Peoples have been displaced from? What level of understanding and comprehension do non-Indigenous peoples have of their responsibilities in the Indigenous – non-Indigenous relationship? And really, it’s not Indigenous peoples’ responsibility to educate non-Indigenous people, but sadly Indigenous peoples have primarily received the burden of such concerns because, again, institutions, systems, and the structures that exist within Canada haven’t done a great job of preparing Canadians with a thorough understanding of the particular issues and responsibilities that they have in their relationship with Indigenous peoples.

And so, what this means then is that Indigenous scholars are typically overcome with requests. It comes from those that are genuinely interested in learning more or need assistance on a wide range of issues, concerns and crises… and there are so few Indigenous faculty and staff able to be involved in triaging the number of requests. The suite of priority-setting within those requests requires a great deal of emotional, cognitive and hidden labours, as well. There is often an expectation that Indigenous scholars and Indigenous staff have a responsibility to simply just do this labour. And the investments, the human resourcing investments, are one of the primary needs right now for institutions across the country, in order to meet what feels like a tsunami of requests and needs that are internal and external to universities. Decisions to exclude Indigenous peoples has great consequences too. Indigenous scholars and staff provide a distinct range of skills, competencies and knowledges that provide clear direction on culturally responsive approaches that mitigates against future crises. ‘Nothing about us without us’ is a motto that is significant to Indigenous autonomy, but to the discernable scholar it also makes evident the indispensable contribution Indigenous peoples make by labouring and participating in activities associated with the modern university.

What the Indigenous Faculty Members LOU does is to recognize that Indigenous scholars have a substantial amount of additional and distinctive demands placed on them, and the outcomes of these demands can at times contain high stakes. Given the history in this country, Indigenous community members already rightly carry distrust for activities conducted by members of the modern university. Decisions made at senior levels are going to have impacts on Indigenous students, on Indigenous faculty, Indigenous staff and Indigenous communities. Damaged relationships can be irreparable or involve substantial time, effort and resourcing to repair. In turn, Indigenous programs of research and sites of Indigenous and non-Indigenous engagement can be profoundly impacted where careers and other collaborations are threatened. Ultimately, then, it becomes a question of the Indigenous scholar determining whether there’s going to be harm caused as a result of activities if I or another doesn’t intervene. Do I ignore what I can predict will result in a problem or a risk of harm? Or do I take responsibility and accept the burden, again, to do this work on behalf of the university? Noteworthy here is that this sort of labour – or what I might call volunteer work – doesn’t necessarily fall in the domains of teaching, research or service, but it’s certainly something I’m committed to in terms of making Western University a healthier community for all, especially Indigenous students, staff and faculty. This LOU recognizes that that hidden workload is substantial.

The LOU states that, where the appointment is for an Indigenous scholar, at least one member of the Appointments Committee shall be an Indigenous scholar. That number seems low. Why isn’t it higher?

BD: We’re conscious of trying to walk that tightrope of trying to continue to ensure that the university is advancing, but also trying to balance the level of expectation and the level of additional labour that this is going to require.

In each of the committees and meetings that I’ve attended when these issues arise, I find myself taking responsibility for the cognitive and emotional labour involved in unpacking peoples’ assumptions or assertions about Indigenous peoples and Indigenous initiatives. There are distinct pathways needed to be in place to promote culturally responsive, anti-racist, and decolonizing outcomes, but not everyone understands or feels it is their responsibility. Dealing with the assumptions people might have and helping to demystify these complex issues in the moment it occurs, while also trying to maintain a certain calm about it, is heavy emotional and cognitive labour. At times it’s quite difficult because, of course, it gets frustrating when you’re constantly having to deal with new people who lack the deeper understanding of these issues in a university the size of Western, and having to re-educate, re-educate, re-educate. I probably shouldn’t say this, but some are slower learners than others, especially in terms of the application and the concretization of this learning in terms of how it can produce healthier impacts, a healthier climate for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in the university. Indigenous peoples are invested in the project of bettering the university. We wouldn’t involve ourselves if we felt that being employed here is unimportant. But we are few. The amount of distinctive Indigenous labours and inequities are intensifying, and the stakes are high. Western’s administration and faculty members should be proud of this small but important step in supporting Indigenous faculty members as recognized in the Indigenous Faculty Members LOU.

Miigwetch (thank-you).