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Linc Kesler has taken the reins as Director of the UBC First Nations House of Learning - photo by Martin Dee
Linc Kesler has taken the reins as Director of the UBC First Nations House of Learning - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 55 | No. 3 | Mar. 5, 2009

A Vision for Aboriginal Engagement

By Sean Sullivan

As UBC dedicates unprecedented resources to boost the recruitment of Aboriginal students, faculty and staff, it’s also leading a charge to recast Aboriginal involvement and engagement at all levels of education.

One of the people leading that charge is Linc Kesler, who in January was named Director of the UBC First Nations House of Learning and Senior Advisor to UBC President Stephen Toope on Aboriginal Affairs.

His goals are ambitious: Attract new scholars to redevelop curricula that incorporate Aboriginal history. Engage Aboriginal people in the production and definition of knowledge. Maintain early contact with Aboriginal learners, helping to bridge gaps that have traditionally kept large numbers from university classrooms.

Born in Chicago, Kesler’s mother was Oglala-Lakota from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, his father a German-American from rural North Carolina. Following studies at Yale and the University of Toronto, Kesler taught for 20 years at Oregon State University, where he led a team that established an Ethnic Studies Department and an Indian Education Office.

In 2003 Kesler joined UBC as the first director of the nascent First Nations Studies Program. Under his leadership, the program has grown to offer a major and minor in First Nations Studies, with three full-time and one part-time faculty.

The growth preceded UBC’s new Aboriginal Strategic Plan, which outlines the university’s engagement with Aboriginal peoples and communities, and its inclusions and representations of Aboriginal histories, cultures, and understandings. Kesler co-chaired the working group that developed the document.

Following extensive consultations across campus, a draft plan was finished in December 2008 and submitted to Toope for review.

The challenge now, Kesler said, is to put those good ideas into practice.

“Native people are very accustomed to seeing plans and initiatives announced with great fanfare, but not always seeing positive results follow,” he said. “Our goal is to make it real.”

As the strategic plan begins to take on a life of its own, Kesler says the university stands to make its greatest progress this year in the recruitment of more Aboriginal faculty and staff, and other faculty experts in Aboriginal areas.

“They can bring attention to areas in which we have real gaps in our understanding and what the university is able to offer,” he said.

An example, he says, is the teaching of Canadian history. The standard curriculum has lacked a meaningful discussion of the relationship between First Nations and others in Canadian history.

“That’s very significant in terms of what kind of understanding Canadians have of issues such as land claims disputes, and their role in Canadians’ own history,” he said.

“We have to make up for the absence of some very basic knowledge at the university level, and that’s unfortunate. It makes it more difficult for students to progress to advanced work. “

There’s also a vast, embedded set of assumptions about Aboriginal learners that need to be confronted, he said, most of which stem from social circumstances and a history of prejudice and marginalization.

But building a solid curriculum that incorporates First Nations practices is not the only answer.

“We can build a really good curriculum at the university level, but as scholars we must also engage with Aboriginal students at a younger age. For many reasons, too few Aboriginal students complete high school with university prerequisites”

There’s a shared understanding among academics that there’s a bottleneck, he said.

“If the students aren’t coming through secondary education, and even earlier on aren’t identifying university as something within their reach, they’re less likely to stay connected with the curriculum and the choices that would get them to university, he explained.

“It’s up to UBC to communicate with Aboriginal students much earlier in their careers to create greater awareness of what university is, and what it can do for them.”

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Last reviewed 10-Mar-2009

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