17 Troubling Curricula: Teaching and Learning about MMIW

Shauneen Pete

Shauneen Pete[1]

The issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) is largely misunderstood in Canada. As educators it is incumbent upon us to better prepare our learners to respond to emergent societal issues. How do faculty and staff in one prairie university work together to ensure that our learners gain a greater understanding of Indigenous peoples broadly; especially those experiences that contribute to the higher rates of violence directed toward Indigenous women?

In 2015, during a series of campus engagement sessions organized through the Office of Indigenization, information was gathered about how and where students are learning about MMIW issues; and how faculty are designing courses to address this topic in their own teaching. This case study summarizes one of the approaches that a group of concerned faculty and staff undertook to expand discussions about MMIW issues across the curriculum areas on our campus. As we trouble notions of curricula, we work toward academic decolonization and Indigenization.

Universities in Canada have been more actively engaging in decolonizing and Indigenizing practices. Our university, like many other Canadian universities and colleges, had entrenched Indigenization into our strategic plan. The work of Indigenization was operationalized through an Office of Indigenization; and led by an Executive Lead: Indigenization. Part of the work plan of the Lead was to inspire curriculum reform throughout the university. As faculty and instructors on our campus, we troubled dominant curriculum norms about what was worth knowing, and thus what was worth teaching and learning.

This chapter broadly addresses the question, “As faculty working to support deeper levels of Indigenization on our campus, how do we take up Indigenous worldviews and experiences in our curricular practices?” More specifically, this chapter is designed to respond to the question, “How can teaching about Missing and Murdered Indigenous women be practiced in ways that enhances learning about Indigenous experience, and engages learners in the practice of critical social justice?”

In this chapter, I explore one Canadian university’s commitment toward correcting the lack of Indigenous content available to learners; and, more specifically, the lack of opportunities to learn about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). For us, the absence of content in university courses about the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples meant that few people understood why violence directed toward Indigenous peoples was important to know. A group of like-minded faculty from several disciplines came together to explore our collective concerns for the curricular holes we identified. We agreed to facilitate a symposium to engage other members of the academic community (students, colleagues, community members, and alumni) in conversations about Indigenous peoples, and more specifically about Missing and Murdered Indigenous women. Symposium participants engaged in a series of discussions over the course of the week-long symposium. At the conclusion of the symposium, participants indicated that faculty must engage in a critical examination of the colonial curriculum and begin to embrace a practice of academic Indigenization and decolonization.

As discussed elsewhere in the book, terminology regarding Aboriginal and Indigenous identities have continued to shift since Torn from Our Midst was published in 2008. Scholars, including myself, use Indigenous when referring to First Nations, Metis and Inuit; and I use Indigenous when referring to the original peoples within an international context. Where a reference to Aboriginal is used in a quotation or referenced in a text or participant comment, I will privilege the original word choice.

I begin this chapter by addressing my own positionality as a First Nations woman and scholar. Then I present the context and describe a series of exercises that were designed to engage students and faculty in conversations about MMIW; lastly, I connect the voices of the participants to recommendations meant to guide faculty toward academic programming reform.

Situating Myself

My name is Dr. Shauneen Pete. I am from Little Pine First Nation in Treaty 6 territory (Saskatchewan). I served as the Executive Lead: Indigenization at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, from 2013 to 2016. During those three years I was responsible for animating the priorities set forth in the University Strategic Plan, and the Indigenization Plan. I provided leadership to encourage greater levels of Indigenization in every administrative and academic unit; this included building our capacity to engage in academic Indigenization.

As an educator, I have worked for nearly three decades to confront the colonial constructions of knowledge, and our ideas about schooling and education. During that time, I have worked as a high school teacher, educational consultant, curriculum writer, faculty member, and university administrator. I’ve taught education courses that focus on anti-oppression, anti-racism, social justice, and Indigenous education. I’ve taught Indigenous Studies courses including a course on Native Women in Canada. In the Women’s and Gender Studies department, I taught a class entitled, Indigenous Women and Feminism. My curricular choices aim to expose my learners (mostly white and female; often middle-class and Christian) toward a more accurate understanding of settler-Indigenous relationships in Canada. My courses include inquiry into topics associated with racism, the social construction of difference, power, and hegemony. I draw my learners toward an awareness of their own privilege, and white identity development. In these courses we critically examine the ways their social positioning often denies them access to an awareness of the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples.

Regardless of what course or what level I’ve taught, I have worked diligently to re-center the voices and experiences of Indigenous women because I believed that if I didn’t do so, learners would not gain those understandings anywhere else. Upon coming to learn (for the first time) the history of systemic inequality my learners often wonder, “Why didn’t we learn this before?” In my view, most Canadians have been structurally denied the opportunity to learn about Indigenous peoples. While some provinces have mandated the inclusion of Indigenous content in the K-12 curriculum, this work is often perceived as optional by white educators. Canadian higher education also reflects the marginalization and omission of Indigenous ways of knowing, experiences and pedagogies. As a result, the inclusion of Indigenous content is usually the responsibility of Indigenous educators, and we are under-represented in Canadian higher education: therefore, Indigenous content is marginalized or largely absent in the academy.

This limited access to Indigenous content is problematic not only for the Indigenous students who seek to see their experiences reflected in their areas of study, it is also detrimental for members of the dominant group, visible minority students, and new and visiting students who tend to then adopt dominant ways of knowing and learning. These ways of knowing ill prepare all learners for the intercultural demands that an ever-increasingly diverse society offers; in particular, they limit the possibilities for new relationships with the rising Indigenous population of this prairie province. Many of my learners express that they were raised with very narrow and limiting views of Indigenous peoples, that they rarely interact with Indigenous peoples, and that what they learned in school about Indigenous peoples was mostly rooted in the past. It should be no surprise that our campus, like many others in Canada, has experienced various forms of ignorance, racial bias, and racism in our many years.

Campus Context

The University of Regina is located in Treaty 4 and Treaty 6 lands in the province of Saskatchewan, Canada. It has a federated relationship with First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv) which offers academic programming in Indigenous Education, Business, Fine Arts, and Indigenous Studies, among others. First Nations University offers many U of R students an introduction to Indigenous perspectives, worldviews, and scholarship that is not generally offered at the U of R.

Under the leadership of President Vianne Timmons, the U of R has been actively working toward indigenization as outlined in the university strategic plan. The members of the Indigenous Advisory Circle to the President define indigenization as the transformation of the existing academy by including Indigenous knowledges, voices, critiques, scholars, students, and materials as well as the establishment of physical and epistemic spaces that facilitate the ethical stewardship of a plurality of Indigenous knowledges and practices so thoroughly as to constitute an essential element of the University. It is not limited to Indigenous people, but encompasses all students and faculty, for the benefit of our academic integrity and our social viability. (Indigenous Advisory Circle 2012)

In 2013, when I became Executive Lead of Indigenization, there were several academic programs that had already developed courses that introduced learners to Indigenous experiences (Social Work, Fine Arts, and Education, to name a few). However, at that time only one course (offered infrequently) through Women’s and Gender Studies exclusively taught about the issues of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. As I began in this leadership role, I couldn’t help but wonder, how learners are ever to gain a deeper understanding of our histories and contemporary issue if Indigenous experiences are not included in the curriculum. At the same time, I was conscious that our campus was still recovering from the violent harassment and active resistance directed toward a visionary Indigenous undergraduate student who had called for mandatory Indigenous Studies on our campus. I understood that leading our faculty and students to higher levels of academic Indigenization would illuminate the racism that always was on our campus.

The Challenge of Cognitive Imperialism

Cognitive Imperialism insists on “one language, one culture and one frame of reference” (Battiste 2000, 198) at the expense of all other ways of knowing. Canadian’s embrace dominant ways of thinking. This dominant way of thinking extends to the vision and narrative we prefer to tell about ourselves – that we are a kinder, peace making nation, we are multicultural and fair. This narrative so permeates dominant thinking, that in 2009, Prime Minister Harper declared that there was no history of colonialism in Canada! The problem with these dominant ways of knowing is they are not true: dominance masks the violence of colonization; and cognitive imperialism masks anything that doesn’t fit into that frame of reference. I believe that cognitive imperialism results in what Kuokkanen refers to as “epistemic ignorance”: the inability of educational institutions to teach what they don’t know. In the absence of other than dominant ways of knowing, dominance is replicated. Therefore, higher education is a system that denies all people the opportunity to learn anything but the dominant ways of knowing . . . except in marginalized spaces: for example, courses on Indigenous women offered through Women’s and Gender Studies and / or Indigenous Studies but not elsewhere. The marginalization of academic programming about Indigenous experience leaves most learners unaware and, therefore, unconcerned about the experiences of Indigenous peoples—often resulting in a “blame the victim” response when topics of inequality are explored.

My former colleague, Dr. Mike Cappello, often says, “We are steeped in racism, it’s the air we breathe.” White dominance in the academy often goes unexamined, and members of the dominant group often see departmental structures, majors and minors, course content, and instructional strategy choices as “normal” and “the way things are supposed to be” in the academy. Instructors and learners alike often replicate dominant worldviews in course design and assignment choices because that is what they know to be “truth.” For example, in her book, Unsettling the Settler Within, Paulette Reagan (2010) reminds us that one part of the residential school history in Canada “is the story about well-meaning paternalistic educators, government and church officials who sought to educate and assimilate Indigenous children into mainstream Canadian society “for their own good”’ (5). When the dominant narrative of a benevolent education is retold in higher education, it makes invisible the violence in which this process was enforced. Children were removed from their families . . . children were punished for speaking their language . . . children were sexually, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually abused. Not until we begin to examine the social construction of dominance can we begin to see how colonization itself is a violent, racialized, and sexualized act. Epistemic ignorance replayed in the academy allows the violence of colonization to be masked. Epistemic ignorance replayed in the academy has very real effects on our learners. I offer three examples from our own campus.

The Murder of Pamela George

In 1995, Alex Ternowetsky and Steven Kummerfield, both university students, were found guilty of killing Pamela George. The two men were celebrating the end of term when they decided to pick up a prostitute and, “after failing to persuade one Aboriginal woman working as a prostitute to join the two of them in the car, one man hid in the truck. Approaching the woman twice, and being refused twice, they finally succeeded in persuading another Aboriginal woman, Pamela George, to enter the car” (Razack 2002). The court would hear how, following oral sex, the men took turns beating her. Razack explains, “In their everyday life, they would have had almost no chance of encountering an Aboriginal person” (136). Razack asks, “How do young men such as Alex Ternowetsky and Steven Kummerfield come to know themselves as beings for whom the definition of a good time is to travel to the parts of the city inhabited by poor and mostly Aboriginal peoples and there to purchase sexual services from an Aboriginal woman?” (136). This story reminds us that our learner’s attitudes are shaped by the larger colonial and racist attitudes that we all live with. As an educator, working within the very institution that these two men attended, I can’t help but wonder, had the university taken a more active role in decolonizing academic programs prior to 1995, would these two men have justified their actions all in the name of a good time?

Playing Indian

In March 2014, I awoke to a phone call from a senior university administrator. The night before, the U of R Cheer Team dressed like cowboys and Indians for an end of season practice. During the practice, they took photos of themselves, which they posted on Instagram and Facebook, in a mock battle scene . . . imagine, the “cowboys” with guns (fingers) pointed toward the “Indians” who are crouched animal-like with their claws and knives ready for battle. Or, in the other photo of the group, one “Indian” with fingers overhead signalling feathers, hand over her mouth in a gesture akin to “whooping.” I was informed that in response to their now very public actions, I would offer the team cultural sensitivity training. In preparation for meeting the team, I asked my colleague Dr. Mike Cappello to work with me to deliver the training. I did so because, like Mike, I had years of experience in teaching anti-racism courses and understood that white learners “hear” me differently than they do my white colleagues. We began the cultural sensitivity training by asking them, “How did you learn about Indigenous people in your home, school, and community?” Through their story sharing they came to see that their own experiences as white women were very similar: they learned about Indigenous people from watching the Disney movie Pocahontas; some expressed how they cherished their Pocahontas costume as children and later into young adulthood. They reiterated that they didn’t intend to do any harm—that they were just having a fun evening together. Mike drew the women’s attention to the book I Thought Pocahontas Was a Movie, edited by our colleagues, Dr. Carol Schick and Dr. James McNinch. The book explores the 2001 Tisdale rape case involving Dean Edmondson (age 24), Jeffrey Brown (age 25), and Jeffrey Kindrat (age 20). The victim was a twelve-year-old First Nations girl. Like Kummerfield and Ternowetsky before them, these men were out drinking and driving . . . having a good time. They picked up the girl, offered her beer and then took turns sexually assaulting her. Upon first seeing her, one of them said, “I thought Pocahontas was a movie.”

Mike and I explained to the cheer team how their actions, playing Indian, allowed them to, firstly, replicate the savage Indian imagery through their gestures and dress, and, secondly, engage in the romanticism of Pocahontas without ever having to pay the price for her sexualized and racialized identity. Mike and I drew the team’s attention to the uncomfortable parallels between Pocahontas and the young rape victim: here, some of the team members were surprised to learn that the real Pocahontas was a girl of eleven or twelve while John Smith was a man of twenty-eight. They came to realize that the case of Pocahontas—treated as a romantic equal in the Disney movie; was really not all that different from the way the media and the justice system made the young rape victim both womanly and wanton, and therefore consenting to the sexualized activity (gang rape). In the case of Edmondson, Brown, and Kindrat all were referred to as boys by the media and the legal system, even when they were all in their 20s and several years older than the girl. As “boys”, these men, like John Smith from the movie, were helpless in their response to the sexualized identity of the girl.

To go further, Dr. Cappello and I shifted the focus back to the Cheer Team members “playing Indian” in an overly sexualized and “animalistic” way and the how problematic that choice was. We explained that the choice was not all that different from the way in which Edmondson, Brown, Kindrat, Ternawetsky, and Kummerfield interacted with Indigenous girls and women: as sexualized objects. The cheer team members adopted the dominant narrative of the “sexy squaw” when they donned the short, fringed skirts and braided their hair. One of the privileges that these young women had that actual Indigenous women did not have, was that they could take off the costumes at the end of the evening. Real Indigenous women did not share in the ability to shirk the markings of their brown woman’s bodies: they are ever cast as wonton, promiscuous, sexually available for those out to have a good time.

I didn’t know this was wrong. In the weeks that followed the cheer team incident, Mike and I spoke to these issues in our own classes and we were invited to a couple of classes to discuss the interconnecting issues of cultural appropriation, MMIW, and violence directed toward Indigenous Peoples. Often, the learners would comment that “the matter was blown out of proportion”; “these were just girls having fun” (referencing the cheer team); and in some cases, we heard “I didn’t know this was wrong.” We were not surprised by these responses; in fact, the level of ignorance expressed by these learners is reflective of the norms of Canadian society. As educator’s we are committed to correcting absences in the curriculum.

The Violent Rejection of Indigenous Content

Not long ago, a Facebook post was circulated on the university page called UofR Confessions. The post referenced the mandated Treaty Education requirement in our provincial curriculum. The author wrote: “In response to the teacher who wants Treaty Education integrated, you really think that it will work? No. Just do what I do. Don’t teach it all. . .. It’s a farce. Nobody cares about treaties. . .. I’m not teaching that crap.”

In our province, the inclusion of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit content has been a required component for over thirty years and mandatory Treaty Education has been provincial policy since 2007. Yet, in the case of this educator (and many more like her/him), as a member of the dominant group, violent rejection of Indigenous content is justified . . . and there are no repercussions for not fulfilling the provincial mandate. The exclusion of Indigenous content helps no one—not the Indigenous learners who don’t see positive reflections of their histories and contemporary experiences; nor the non-Indigenous learners who maintain socially constructed ideas of dominance.

Clearly there is a need for our university and community to proactively address race and racism, and to tell a more accurate history of Indigenous/(white)settler relations in Canada. In our work in the Faculty of Education, my colleagues and I have learned that confronting white dominance is to trouble curricula. We name whiteness in the curriculum, and we engage our learners in an examination of the experiences of marginalized peoples in the face of colonial dominance. As my students learn, often for the first time, about residential schools, the pass and permit system, or Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, they often are overcome with anger, guilt, and shame. They express anger toward a system of education that didn’t teach them about these topics; they feel guilt and shame as they come to recognize that the “luxury of ignorance” (Howard 2006) is a privilege that members of the dominant group share. I remind them that anger, guilt and shame often dis-able learners from moving forward in their understanding, but it also can serve to motivate them to a deeper practice of social justice education. This deeper practice would ensure that learners are able to move beyond denial, dismissal, minimization, and, in some cases, violent rejection of the experiences of Indigenous Peoples. The point is not simply to discomfort white-settler learners, but to help them grow their stamina for the ambiguity of knowing this uncomfortable knowledge—knowledge that is common sense for those more marginalized in society and invisible to members of the dominant group. In my teaching work with mostly white students I’ve learned that feeling guilt (and shame and anger) is the price of a legacy of privilege and the luxury of ignorance (Howard 2006) that dominant group members experience. I recognize that these learners can, and will learn to overcome these feelings when educators practice pedagogy in ways that facilitate them coming into the space of race-based stress and moving through it. Building their stamina for ambiguity and thus their resilience offers members of the dominant group (and those that align with them) a starting point for reconciling relationships with Indigenous peoples.

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women: A Symposium

In December 2014, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated that the issue of Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women “wasn’t high on his radar.” In response, a number of faculty and administrators at the U of R and First Nations University of Canada proposed to work together to development a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Forum. The purpose of the forum was to foster discussions around the topic with an aim of informing public policy.

The committee members included Dr. David Malloy (VP Research), Dr. Brenda Anderson (Luther College), Dr. Lynn Wells (VP Academic, FNUniv), Dr. Mary Hampton (Psychology Department), Dr. Kathy McNutt (Executive Director, Johnson Shoyama School of Public Policy), Steve Palmer (The Collaborative Centre for Justice and Safety), the late, Dr. Jo-Ann Episkenew (Indigenous Peoples Health Research Centre), Dr. Judy White (Dean, Social Work), Dr. Kim McKay-McNabb (Sessional Lecturer, Women’s and Gender Studies), Hirsch Greenberg (Justice Studies), and I. The committee purposefully engaged faculty and staff from a broad range of affiliations: we understood that MMIW issues have interdisciplinary implications. Additionally, we invited diverse faculty and staff to participate in planning the symposium in order to reduce potential duplication with other events we were involved in, namely the 2015 Canadian Criminal Justice Association Meeting and RESOLVE 2015 events.

The committee members agreed that we would offer a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Symposium (March 24 to 27, 2015). The symposium included three round-table discussions and a World Café event. The round-table discussions were meant to provoke discussions with faculty colleagues, undergraduate and graduate students, and community/alumni members, on how we are taking up the issue in our curricular practice. In my role as Executive Lead, I wrote field notes based on each roundtable discussion; Moses Gordon made field notes during the World Café event; and I compiled and analyzed our notes, wrote and submitted a final report to the VP Research and committee members. I present the format and findings from each of the round-table sessions and the World-Café in the sections below.

MMIW in the Liberal Arts

The first roundtable discussion was held at First Nations University of Canada. Three presenters discussed how the topic of MMIW was taught in the liberal arts, particularly in English Literature, Native Studies, and Indigenous Health Studies. The three presenters included Holly MacKenzie (Doctoral Candidate at UBC), Dr. Jesse Archibald-Barber (First Nations University of Canada, English Department), and Johannah Bird (Briercrest College, Native Studies). There were approximately twenty participants, including one of the Indigenous Studies classes from FNUniv.

The presenters explained the methods they use to re-center MMIW issues in their classes. They cited using literature as one example of how to raise the topic. They also use contemporary issues presented in media as a catalyst for directing learning toward MMIW, issues of colonization, social inequality, gendered violence, and the daily lived experiences of Indigenous women and girls.

Some of the teaching resources included April Raintree by Beatrice Culleton; Maria Campbell’s book, Halfbreed; and the poetry of several Indigenous authors. These instructors identified how they invited Elders and community members to serve as guest speakers. They talked about the importance of talking circles to support students in responding to trauma that arose because of the content. They also spoke to how they must anticipate racism and prepare their response to it.

MMIW and Professional Programs

The second roundtable featured Dr. JoLee Sasakamoose, Assistant Professor in Educational Psychology, Faculty of Education (U of R). She explained that, in anticipation of revising her graduate course (Counselling Girls and Women), she wrestled with the foundational questions of teaching and trauma in the classroom. She knew she wanted to include topics associated with racialized violence and MMIW. She was also cautious: she explained that the faculty member must respect that teaching in this way had the potential to trigger learners, and faculty members had to anticipate the need to address the trauma as it arose in the classroom. Dr. Sasakamoose relayed that she opted to slowly introduce these topics and that she drew purposefully from the foundational documents developed by the Native Women’s Association of Canada. She was mindful of her pedagogical choices and decided that her learners would develop their own “gendered autobiography” whereby they would explore the intersections of race, class, and gender in their own lived experience. A second assignment included a review of a book about the life of one missing or murdered Indigenous woman. This book review would offer the learner the background information necessary to track the lack of action on the part of justice, child welfare, and social services agencies. Her learners gained a deeper understanding of how interconnecting differences compound access to services and fair and equitable treatment by service providers. Her intention was to offer her learners an opportunity to reconsider their own identities, their identities within their chosen profession, and as service providers working toward social justice.

Several faculty members were in attendance, including faculty from the Saskatchewan Urban Teacher Education Program, the School of Business and Luther College. Dr. Sasakamoose responded to questions about accessing and reviewing teaching resources and about how she planned on addressing racism, anti-racism and responding to racist comments in class.

Learning about MMIW: Student’s Voices

In hindsight, it would have been more appropriate to start the week of MMIW roundtables with the student roundtable. This discussion was led by three students who were in a course on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (Women’s and Gender Studies) taught by Dr. Brenda Anderson. These learners identified a clear gap in access to content about Indigenous Peoples in their experience on our campus. All three speakers stated that they had gained little access to content about Indigenous peoples in their Kindergarten to Grade 12 schooling experiences and that access to this content did not improve once they became university students. One student stated, “In my five years here, these issues were never introduced”.

The panelists were asked to identify how effectively the topic of MMIW was portrayed in their university classes. The students spoke to what they viewed as systemic ignorance within the entire system of formal education. They noted that their teachers and professors knew very little about Indigenous experiences and did not teach about it. Audience members reiterated that they found access to Indigenous content very limited, even with access to courses offered through First Nations University of Canada.

The students explained that they went out of their way to find courses about Indigenous experiences. They chose to audit classes and took additional courses beyond their formal academic program of study to learn about Indigenous Peoples. A participant from the audience added that, in her experience, the severely limited number of approved electives that she could take as an engineering student meant that she (and her classmates) could not learn about MMIW, let alone anything else to do with Indigenous experiences. In her case, she took courses beyond her program in order to address her individual learning needs.

The participants on the panel agreed that more attention to academic Indigenization was needed on our campus. They confirmed that the system failed to offer them even a basic understanding of anything related to social justice, let alone the specific content that would have helped them to better understand MMIW issues. One student noted that had she seen Indigenous Studies or Women’s and Gender Studies listed in the course catalogue under the Electives options, she probably would have taken one of those courses sooner in her program. As it turned out, she, like many of her classmates, read the electives list and saw “English, Sociology . . .” and chose English because it was first of the options. She explained that it wasn’t until her final year that she realized other options were available. The student voices panel served to remind participants about the priority for curricular reform on our campus.

At the conclusion of the three days of roundtable discussions, I illustrated the presenter narratives and the participant responses together into one large drawing. The image was intended to provide World Café participants (many who were not involved in the earlier roundtables) to quickly review the discussions held earlier in the week.

What emerged from the drawings was a clear need on the part of learners to have a re-centering of Indigenous content in the curriculum offered by our university. On the part of faculty, there was a desire to continue to ensure that Indigenous literature, issues, and pedagogies are practiced in our teaching work. I also understood that faculty and instructional staff required practical supports to help strengthen academic Indigenization including establishing a data base of teaching resources, developing workshops to support faculty on addressing racism in courses with Indigenous content, and the need for faculties to re-examine the selected elective choices and the order in which they are presented in the course catalogue. World Café participants understood from reviewing the image that students desired and needed academic programs that offered greater access to Indigenous content.

World Café Event

On March 27, we concluded the week-long MMIW symposium with a day-long event that was designed to further encourage discussion, creativity, and action planning with individuals committed to social justice. The organizing committee decided to use a World Café approach to facilitate community engagement.

The World Café approach is designed to encourage small group discussions (four to six people). The approach allows for a progressive series of conversations (approximately twenty minutes per round), with some participants changing tables between rounds to encourage a broad conversation. At the end, participants are encouraged to share discoveries and insights from all of their conversations. Participants are encouraged to draw, doodle, play, and link comments and ideas on paper provided. The vision for the World Café approach was not realized due to the smaller than anticipated number of participants. As a result, we modified the event to engage two groups in a facilitated session. The ultimate goal remained the same: to pool together the collective knowledge of the attendees with the aim of promoting a serious and open discussion regarding potential resolutions that may affect future policy changes and generate effective solutions to the current social epidemic of violence against Indigenous women.

To better reach a community-oriented audience, we decided to hold the World Café off campus. We recognized that the costs of parking on campus could be a deterrent for some members of the community. We were pleased that a local church community offered their kitchen and communal space for our purposes. The minister supported our request to begin and end our gathering in a smudge ceremony. Kokum Brenda Dubois was offered tobacco to begin the final day of the symposium in a good way; she offered participants an opportunity to smudge and she was invited to begin our discussions in prayer.

The communications strategy for this event included inviting members of First Nations and Métis organizations from Regina and beyond. Invitations were also sent to local organizations engaged in providing supports to families of MMIW (Newo Yotina Friendship Centre, Circle Project, Women of the Dawn Counselling Centre, All Nations Hope, Regina Alternative Measures Program, Regina Tribal Services, the YWCA, and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations – Women’s Commission). Several government representatives attended, as did members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), and members of the media, a bus driver, local police services, and the RCMP. This group included a mix of settler and Indigenous peoples as well as queer and straight peoples. Due to the number of participants, we restructured our event so that we had two table with six to ten people per table. Each table had a facilitator who was responsible for guiding the participants toward the questions and documenting their responses. I served as facilitator for the whole event.

Following introductions, I reviewed the roundtable discussions that had happened earlier in the week. In preparation, I had utilized visual facilitation methods to communicate the emerging themes from the round-tables. The visual images offered to World Café participants gave them an opportunity to see and hear how discussions on campus unfolded. Some participants commented that they were not surprised that so little is taught about MMIW on campus as in their experience the university offered very little content about Indigenous people either. Participants were able to identify terms they wanted to know more about, and they were invited to engage in deeper examinations of pre-professional training, the need for in-service training and proposed policy needs for each organization. Once the format of the World Café was explained to the larger group, the facilitators guided participants to refocus to their small group discussions.

During the facilitated discussion with the groups we began by identifying the root causes of the ongoing crisis of MMIW. The colonial and patriarchal nature of Canadian society was central to this first part of the discussion. Respondents identified a clear connection between colonization and its impact on education and the general lack of understanding between settler people and other more marginalized groups.

Questions to Guide the World Café Activity

To focus the discussions for the World Café activity, we identified broad questions that encouraged participants to respond from their various roles and lived experiences. In this case, I asked each group: Why are the rates of MMIW so high?

In response to the questions, participants shared stories about their understandings with one another. It was clear that their diversity allowed for a deeper examination of MMIW that included a recognition of intersectionality, understanding the matrix of oppressions, and a deep knowing about the effects of colonialism.

As participants spoke, group facilitators documented the findings on chart paper. One respondent began with a discussion about how Neoliberal policies including global issues of poverty, power, and the economy contribute to violence directed toward Indigenous women. Another participant added, that patriarchal systems of power, including legal systems, make violence socially acceptable. Within that patriarchal system Individualism is privileged at the expense of a community of care. This allows for greater levels of isolation, vulnerability, and violence, which are compounded by a lack of support networks. Individualism combined with social mobility is not attainable for all peoples and the myth of meritocracy.

In the second group, the discussion began with a conversation about the dehumanization of Indigenous women since colonization. They explored the evolution of stereotypes that devalue Indigenous women. Both groups addressed settler willful ignorance about colonialism and its effects; including, racism, stereotypes, and discrimination. To go further, participants also addressed the naivety of young people who often believe that violence won’t happen to them.

Both groups spoke in overlapping ways about patriarchy and colonialism. They wove together a story of how the interconnecting systemic issues of poverty, urbanization, over-representation of Indigenous peoples in the justice system, residential school impacts and the child welfare system all tie to lateral violence, and intergenerational trauma. At the same time, given that context, they wondered how when the “good life” is made unattainable, how do Indigenous people rise above. Participants reflected on how the messiness of colonialism and capitalism combined shift our focus to both individualism and meritocracy—ideals that only deepen the perception that victims of violence are responsible for their own troubles.

At various points in the conversation, participants refocused their attention toward an examination of white masculinity. They reminded one another that the issue of MMIW was not only a story about Indigenous women, but more importantly and often invisible in the discussion is the troubling ways in which white-settler masculinity has been created. The examples of Ternawetsky and Kummerfield were offered up for discussion. One participant relayed what she understood about this case. She described how the two students who killed Pamela George were described as boys by media and how they were simply looking to blow off some steam during the end of term.

Participants were also quick to note that not including queer and other ways of being a man also limited our examination of white-settler masculinity. Participants returned again and again to the question—how do we teach our boys to be men in ways that don’t center on violence?

Participants were invited to take a short refreshment break. When they returned the facilitators asked them to consider the following question: What are the first steps that individuals and families need to take when a person goes missing? Participants said, trust your instincts—you know your family members best; if it feels wrong it probably is wrong and don’t hesitate to begin to plan a response. This should include calling family and friends so that you can begin to document a timeline of sightings and a description of what the person was wearing. They suggested that you should check social media feeds to add depth to the timeline; begin to use social media to spread the word of a disappearance. Participants identified that concerned family members should also review the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) and the Sisters in Spirit website. Participants identified the need to work with families to establish a communications strategy. They recommended that families identify community agencies to contact such as public health outreach nurses and police services. They suggested that the local Street Worker Advocacy programs should be contacted if that applied to the situation. They wondered if any of the community agencies had developed a check-list of actions to take in response to a missing family member. They suggested that before families contacted media, they should establish a system for communicating updates. For example, they suggested that the family have one family representative be responsible for speaking with police and media.

They also noted that talking about prevention in your families was necessary. They suggested that individuals be encouraged to check on family members and friends regularly and to encourage young people to use the Find A Friend Apps and GPS on their phones.

After the lunch break, participants were asked: Who are the stakeholder groups and what are their roles in addressing MMIW in Regina and area? Participants identified the justice system, provincial government ministries and local community agencies as important to preventing and responding to incidences of violence directed toward Indigenous women. They concluded that the justice system must challenge the status quo and move more quickly toward significant policy and procedural changes. They stated that the Minister of Social Services needs to prioritize sufficient staffing levels and address staff burnout rates. The Ministry of Social Services needs to increase funding to support families, aligned with the well-documented needs in the province, and offer consistency in file transfers so families don’t have to continue to repeat themselves because of the lack of internal communication systems.

Participants suggested that Addictions and Counselling Services required more facilities for treatment, and different forms of addiction and trauma services. They need to ensure culturally responsive care and an increase in ethnic minority and Indigenous counsellors. Participants suggested that new access pathways to service and care that were designed with families and working people in mind would enhance service delivery.

One group suggested that there needs to be a community service hub to encourage inter-agency intervention planning with individuals and families in imminent danger. The other group suggested that while established governments, community agencies, and police services need to demonstrate commitment toward addressing this issue, they didn’t want the general public and advocacy groups to feel that they played no role. They suggested that individuals use social media and a unified voice to re-educate other members of society about the prevalence of violence directed toward Indigenous women. Participants pointed out that we need to mobilize to convince governments to spend the money now on prevention and education; and keep up constant pressure for policy reform.

As our day together drew to a close, facilitators redirected the participants to the final question: What actions are necessary to reduce the rates of violence directed toward Indigenous Women? Respondents reminded one another that change takes time. They called on one another to be dedicated, patient, and persistent. They said that we must work together to redefine notions of masculinity. They suggested that as individuals we needed to break down the dominant notion of individualism and move toward collective responsibility for all people and that we needed to reclaim empathy in our daily lives. Additionally, they suggested that settlers begin from an understanding of Indigenous traditional knowledges to disrupt colonial dominance and that, as Indigenous Peoples, we needed to reclaim, reaffirm, and recreate cultural identities.

Participants said we all have a responsibility to break down stereotypes in public education by liberating the positive stories of Indigenous peoples. They called on one another to establish long-term educational goals that included anti-racism and decolonization. They stated that we needed to educate about violence to transform all of our approaches to physical and sexual abuse; educate within professional programs. They suggested that all learners in K-12 as well as higher education be offered the opportunity to learn in northern, First Nation, and inner-city communities. The participants stated that youth need to be engaged in defining a way forward; one participant suggested that the Canadian Roots Exchange program could be one way of developing youth leaders. Another suggested that all learners should be introduced to diverse Elders; transformative curriculum practices; and should engage members of the dominant group in responding to the question: “What’s in it for us?” Participants did not shy away from challenging dominant colonial knowledges in education. They insisted that we transform the story of Canada to a more honest understanding of our collective colonial history and the resulting contemporary issues. They would like to see us engage in imagining a better Canada by reimagining what it means to be Canadian. Doing so would include a more honest examination of our racist past, white superiority, and ongoing colonialism.

Participants suggested that we utilize social media to tell different stories about Indigenous peoples and to challenge dominant ideas about them. They want us to transform media by telling a variety of stories and to re-centre stories of Indigenous women. They suggested that we could all play a role toward strengthening Indigenous identities and sense of worth and reform the dominant narrative about the lived experiences of Indigenous women.

As well, the participants were informed about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work and the long-awaited final report. The participants suggested that the path forward has to be framed by reconciliation. They suggested that all Canadians need to advocate to close the funding gap for Indigenous programs and to insist on poverty reduction among Indigenous Peoples.

As we drew closure to the day, we called both groups together. We created a circle and they were asked: What is the final message you want policy makers and others to hear? Each participant spoke in turn. One participant stated, “We need to decolonize our minds! We need to stop exoticizing the Indian. We need to teach about contemporary Indigenous lives.” Another affirmed the idea that MMIW were not just an individual issue and that this was a social societal problem. This idea was affirmed by another participant who stated that we have to work together, to create and sustain ally relationships. Someone said, “We need systemic change now,” and another person suggested that we needed resources allocated to redress violence, while the next person suggested we needed policies to address femicide and the institutional supports to entrench those policies.

As the day drew to a close, participants were asked to share one last reflection on the day and to make commitment for a take-away task. Kokum Brenda was asked to close the day with a prayer. As folks left the church, my administrative assistant (Moses Gordon) and I gathered the data together and reflected on the week. In the days that followed, we developed a final report for the Vice-President (Research); this chapter expands on that final report.

I found that the responses offered by the panelists and World Café participants provided helpful approaches to considering how to reform my own curriculum practice. As a professor actively engaged in enhancing our practice of academic Indigenization at the university, I feel that there is much we could be doing differently in relation to academic programming. I offer some suggestions that may be adopted by other universities and colleges.

Decolonizing Universities & Colleges

Universities and colleges need to ensure that academic Indigenization is respectfully resourced, not only financially but also through the creation of positions to drive these reforms. I recommend that faculties provide annual funding to Women’s and Gender Studies programs to develop and deliver MMIW courses. I suggest that university teaching centres promote anti-oppression and anti-racism teaching approaches to build the capacity of faculty to take up troubling dominant curricula and then require faculty to report on courses that include a critical examination of colonialism in Canada. Teaching centres can promote workshops, events, and activities that support informal learning about Indigenous issues, experiences, and pedagogies.

A quick way to implement structural changes in the university is to ensure that Women’s and Gender Studies and Indigenous Studies courses are privileged through naming them first in course catalogue elective offerings. We need to also encourage cross-referencing of courses across discipline to offer greater access and acceptance of Indigenous courses.

A longer term decolonial action would be to reframe the liberal arts to support interdisciplinary inquiry into large issues such as Indigenous land/water rights and on-going settler colonialism. These suggested approaches offer some approaches that could reform higher education in Canada, and they would allow for deeper levels of academic decolonization.

Troubling Curricula through Decolonization

I suggest that, in order for more systemic changes to be achieved, faculty must confront epistemic ignorance and cognitive imperialism through decolonizing practices that include the following: (1) Ensure that courses that address settling Canada also address the systemic racism that underpinned colonization, (2) explore the violence of settlement, and (3) unpack the colonial myth that we are a country founded on multiculturalism. Courses also need to introduce Indigenous worldviews as taught by local Elders and with traditional Knowledge Keepers and should model the use of Indigenous languages to describe concepts and experiences, recognize place names, and explore theory.

In order for faculty to take up decolonial work well, they must be prepared to respond to racisms as it emerges in the classroom. They will also need to be prepared to critique colonial constructions of masculinity and sexual orientation. Building faculty capacity to teach in this way means they will have to compile resource lists that support MMIW teaching and learning. They must also be prepared to seek out new relationships with Indigenous colleagues, guest speakers, public intellectuals/scholars/elders who may help them to continue to grow personally and professionally. Faculty may have to explore alternative pedagogies including arts-based, and Indigenous pedagogy in their own teaching work to reduce trauma and inspire a community of care. These new orientations toward teaching work may lay the groundwork for reforming teaching practices.

Indigenizing Teaching Practices

Indigenizing teaching practice should begin with re-centering Indigenous scholars and scholarship with an emphasis on the voices of women, youth, and members of gender diverse communities. By re-centering these voices, we cannot help but address the issues of gendered violence. Indigenizing teaching practices can also be informed by land-based learning experiences and by interacting with local community organizations, elders, and community members as sources of knowledge.


The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Symposium responded to Prime Minister Harper’s comment that MMIW issues were “not high on [his government’s] radar.” Since then, Canadians have seen a change in government, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) release of their Calls to Action (2015), and the completion of a national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. With so much attention on these issues nationally, we, as educators, must play our part to correct systemic ignorance by actively participating in both institutional decolonization and Indigenization. We must engage in troubling curriculum. To not do so means we fail not only Indigenous Peoples but also fail members of the dominant group who do not understand their roles and responsibilities toward reconciliation.


Battiste, Marie, ed. Reclaiming Indigenous Voice and Vision. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2000.

Razack, Sherene. Gendered Racial Violence and Spatialized Justice: The Murder of Pamela George. Race, Space, and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society,y. edited by Sherene H. Razach, 121–156. Toronto: Between the Lines, (2002).

Schick, Carol, and James McNinch. I Thought Pocahontas Was A Movie: Perspectives on Race/Class Binaries in Education and Service Professions. Regina: University of Regina Press, 2009


  1. Author Note: The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Symposium (2015) would not have been possible without the generous support from the Vice-President (Research) at the University of Regina. The chapter is informed by the final report presented to the Symposium planning committee by the author. The author acknowledges the support provided by Moses Gordon (term administrative assistant) and Mike Dubois (events planner). Moses was instrumental in collating the data gathered during the World Café event.Correspondence concerning this chapter should be addressed to Shauneen Pete, Indigenous Resurgence Coordinator, Indigenous Education Department, Faculty of Education, University of Victoria.


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Global Femicide by Shauneen Pete is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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