Should Universities "Foster Respect" for Indigenous "Ways of Knowing"?

April 2023

At the end of January, I travelled to the University of Lethbridge on the invitation of one of its philosophy professors, Paul Viminitz. Viminitz asked me to give a public lecture on academic freedom and teach two philosophy classes. The reaction to the public lecture (ironically titled “How ‘Woke-ism’ Threatens Academic Freedom”) is well known, as it resulted in the president cancelling my talk and then expressing “sincere appreciation” for those who shouted me down when I tried to present my views on campus. My class lectures, however, went ahead and were able to draw attention to some of the reasons for the cancellation (these are available on YouTube and my SoundCloud).

The two class lectures were about what has been called indigenous “ways of knowing”, and asked whether universities should “foster respect” for them. The lectures answered the question with an emphatic “no”. Although critical of indigenous “ways of knowing” in general, my lectures were directed specifically at universities that officially declare that indigenous perspectives should be “respected”. Goal 2 of Mount Royal University’s Indigenous Strategic Plan 2016-2021, for example, argues that the institution as a whole should “Foster respect for Indigenous ways of knowing and knowledge-production and increase capacity for Indigenous scholarship”. Similarly, the University of Lethbridge’s official territorial land acknowledgement states the following: “We honour the Blackfoot people and their traditional ways of knowing in caring for this land, as well as all Indigenous Peoples who have helped shape and continue to strengthen our University community”. Even more surprising, the Mount Royal Faculty Association has recently a negotiated a Collective Agreement that contains the following “Indigenization” article:

The University and the Association recognize Indigenous ways of knowing, voices, and critiques in our practices such as leadership, teaching, and research, and in our physical spaces. The Parties are committed to the protection of the heritage of Indigenous Peoples and recognize that Indigenous Peoples are the primary guardians and interpreters of their arts, sciences, and practices and cultures whether created in the past or developed in the future. This commitment and recognition include, especially, those Indigenous nations upon whose lands the University is situated. In addition to Indigenization efforts, actions of redress will require new, complementary, and additional efforts for the University community to meets its collective responsibilities towards reconciliation.

My opposition to universities “foster[ing] respect” for, as well as “honour[ing]”, indigenous “ways of knowing” is two-fold. First, officially making this declaration discourages professors from critically analyzing the effect that this has on academic standards, especially those put in place for indigenous students. Second, such a declaration is a direct threat to academic freedom because it delegitimizes the position of those who dissent from the party line. Challenging indigenous “ways of knowing” after such a declaration has been made, in fact, is likely to get one labelled as a racist purveyor of “hate speech” who engages in “discrimination”. This poisoning of a university’s intellectual environment then can be used to justify isolating a faculty member and targeting them for dismissal.

Lowering Academic Standards

Trying to understand how university directives to “foster respect” and “honour” indigenous “ways of knowing” lower academic standards raises the question of what these “ways of knowing” actually are. Although not explicitly stated, the language used indicates that these are “methods” or “processes” that result in the development of “knowledge”. Using the plural “ways” also indicates that there could be different kinds of knowledge (often referred to as “knowledges”) produced. This is a postmodern move as it relativizes the universal pursuit of truth that has been a feature of universities influenced by the ethos of The Enlightenment.

As I mentioned in my first lecture in Viminitz’ class, while there are numerous definitions of indigenous “ways of knowing”, the most clear and concise one has been put forward by Marlene Brant Castellano. Brant Castellano, the research director for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, argues that there are three “ways” of producing “indigenous knowledge” – empirical observations, “traditional teachings”, and revelation.

While the empirical observations of traditional societies are not inconsistent with the scientific method, and could be characterized as protoscientific as they rely upon trial and error instead of systematic hypothesis testing, the same cannot be said for “traditional teachings” and revelation. These two “ways of knowing” undermine the truth-seeking function of modern research and scholarship because they rely upon faith and appeals to authority instead of objective processes of verification. For universities to assert that these “ways of knowing” be “respected” or “honoured” is to provide a lower standard of education for the largely indigenous cohort that will be subjected to them.

The Threat to Academic Freedom

In addition to the problem of “fostering respect” and “honouring” less rigorous methods and irrational beliefs, university endorsement of indigenous “ways of knowing” has negative implications for academic freedom. Academic freedom, as was defined by UNESCO in 1997, is

the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies.

As the cases of Mount Royal University (MRU) and the University of Lethbridge testify, university directives to support indigenous “ways of knowing” threaten academic freedom because they are a “prescribed doctrine”. This leads documents like MRU’s Indigenous Strategic Plan and the University of Lethbridge’s official territorial land acknowledgement to constrict discussion and the free expression of opinions, creating the conditions for institutional censorship.

With respect to MRU, my criticism of indigenous “ways of knowing” has been presented as being racist, discriminatory, and hateful by a number of faculty members. This resulted in students maintaining that I should not be able to work at the institution because of my views. Even questions about whether these “ways of knowing” were valid academically resulted in having my employment relationship declared to be “unviable” by MRU’s administration.

The problem of institutional censorship was even more pronounced at the University of Lethbridge, as opposition to my criticism of indigenous “ways of knowing” resulted in the president bowing to pressure and cancelling my talk. This pressure came from the University of Lethbridge Students’ Union and a number of professors who were opposed to my criticisms of the dominant narrative on the residential schools. The Department of Indigenous Studies, for example, “vehemently condemned” my questioning of “the veracity of the unmarked graves of Indigenous children found at the sites of multiple former Residential School sites”. This kind of intimidation is a direct consequence of official demands to “respect” and “honour” indigenous “ways of knowing”, resulting in the actual propagation of “false narratives” about a number of residential school sites.

Indigenous “Ways of Knowing” and Unmarked Graves “Discoveries”

One of the most significant “false narratives” pertains to the “discovery” of “the remains of 215 children who were students of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.” In May 2021, it was announced that a number of “Knowledge Keepers” had a “knowing” that clandestine burials existed in an apple orchard at this former school. This resulted in many universities expressing shock and dismay at the “discovery”. The president of MRU, for example, stated that “The discovery of 215 innocent children found buried in unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops is nothing short of devastating”. He then asserted that “My heart goes out to everyone in our campus community feeling the impact of this discovery”. According to MRU’s president, “we must all stop and reflect on the scale of this tragic event” and “support those who are grieving...”.

But the “ways of knowing” of the “Knowledge Keepers” pertaining to this residential school are actually highly suggestible memories (“traditional teachings”?) that are likely to have been influenced by lurid ghost stories circulating over the last 25 years. In spite of this, the false claim about the “confirmation” of children’s bodies has been used to substantiate the charge that an indigenous “genocide” was perpetrated in Canada. This, in fact, was used by Leslie Lavers, a University of Lethbridge administrator, to justify the cancellation of my talk. I should not be allowed to “whitewash genocide”, according to Lavers. Lavers’ evidence of “genocide” included the following: “Consider the discovery of the remains of 215 children found on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops. How is this not genocide?”

Disputing the “genocidal” nature of the residential schools amounts to not “honouring” indigenous “ways of knowing”, which, according to the Department of Indigenous Studies, “include[s] a ensure that Indigenous...memories....are represented faithfully, truthfully, and safely, on this campus”. To not “safely” represent these memories, in the view of this department, is to “propagate violence against Indigenous Peoples through the rhetoric of historical erasure, dismissal, diminishment, and dehumanization...”. My lecture, therefore, was considered to be “a betrayal...of these commitments”, and should not be granted space on campus.

“Ways of Knowing”: The Opposite of Truth and Reconciliation

My “lived experience” at MRU and the University of Lethbridge directly shows how requirements to “respect” and “honour” indigenous “ways of knowing” not only undermine academic standards. They also are a threat to academic freedom because they act to discourage the disputation of false indigenous memories, beliefs, teachings, and observations.

While five years ago one would have just been ostracized for dissenting from the orthodoxy, challenging indigenous “ways of knowing” seems to be entering a new phase. This can be seen when administrator Louise Lavers states that “Germany now prosecutes Holocaust deniers, partly because there is some truth to the old adage that those who do not know their history are destined to repeat it”. Presumably, this is the same view of Leah Gazan, the NDP MP who is now proposing legislation to criminalize the “denial” that the residential schools were genocidal.

While the initiation of university indigenization was billed as bringing about “truth and reconciliation”, it is actually resulting in the entrenchment of false claims and furthering divisions between indigenous and non-indigenous people. This is because indigenous “ways of knowing” are often untrue, and demanding that they be “respected” and “honoured” entrenches highly prejudicial misinformation. Even worse, the legitimacy given to the false claims incriminating the non-indigenous population makes it increasingly difficult to find the common ground and understanding necessary for us to figure out how to live cooperatively with one another.