Folio News Story
January 6, 2006

Maori education scholar shocked at Canada's treatment of aboriginals

Argues we have much to learn from New Zealand example

by Geoff McMaster
Folio Staff
Dr. Makere Stewart-Harawira, left, at a convocation ceremony in New Zealand. Stewart-Harawira says Canada needs to go much further in embracing first nations.
Dr. Makere Stewart-Harawira, left, at a convocation
ceremony in New Zealand. Stewart-Harawira says Canada
needs to go much further in embracing first nations.

As an instructor at Auckland University in New Zealand, Dr. Makere Stewart-Harawira would think nothing of teaching with an infant on her hip. It's simply how things are done in a Maori-inspired culture, she says.

"If you don't have day care, you bring your kids with you," said the relatively new professor of education policy studies. "I've taught many times with kids on my hip. If students are stuck they bring their kids to class…it's about whatever is needed. You take care of it because you're family."

The Maori notion of family, or 'whanaungatanga' is at the foundation of Maori culture and spirituality, and bears a striking resemblance to the sharing circle tradition seen in many Canadian First Nations. And yet, while New Zealand society has successfully integrated many principles of Maori culture and knowledge, Canadian society continues to keep native people at the edge of the circle in ways that Stewart-Harawira, herself South-Island Maori, finds difficult to accept.

"There's been a lot of culture shock," she said of her 18 months here. "While I knew that the position of Maori in New Zealand is much stronger than the position of First Nations people here, I wasn't prepared for the enormous racism.

"Maori culture is much more visible in mainstream society. We are a bilingual country, and our two official languages are English and Maori. So that was a shock to me, to come to a bilingual country in which the two languages are English and French," but where aboriginal languages are scarcely acknowledged.

Stewart-Harawira believes aboriginal populations have much to learn from each other. That's why she has begun work on an international centre for aboriginal education at the U of A, modelled after similar institutions at the Universities of Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

"There is enormous potential for international collaboration between indigenous networks," she said, pointing to a recent memorandum of understanding for an exchange of scholars between the U of A and Massey University in New Zealand as one example.

Her own research explores concepts of global citizenship and the impact of economic and political integration, such as free-trade agreements and the European Union, on regional communities, especially those with large aboriginal populations.

But she is also interested in how educational systems create policies of inclusion that bring about systemic change, rather than tacking on token accessories of aboriginal culture to accepted ways of knowing.

The current revision of Alberta's social studies curriculum is a case in point, she says. "This idea of infusing aboriginal values…my concern around that is that it's a kind of tinkering – the idea that, 'here's this real body of knowledge and we'll infuse this other body of knowledge into it and make aboriginal students feel better'…but it doesn't work like that.

"We went through this at home, a kind of add-on of Maori ways. So children learned to count in Maori and talk about Maori things. But underneath it all was a kind of deficit model that said the reason Maori students fail in school is they have low self-esteem. So if we insert some of these Maori things into the curriculum, they'll feel better…it was a dismal failure."

Stewart-Harawira argues that Canadians, and the U of A in particular, could borrow a page from New Zealand's struggle with integration. As in Canada, there has been a drive in New Zealand to bring more aboriginal students through the secondary school system, increase their enrolment in university and train more aboriginal graduate students to take up positions in post-secondary institutions. For the most part it works, she says, largely because education policy pays more than lip service to Maori culture.

"When I left Auckland, we had 40 Maori PhDs working at Auckland University. You can count the number of aboriginal PhDs here on less than two hands.

"If this university had a real commitment, I would see signage in Cree and/or Blackfoot. I don't see that," she said. "I walk around this campus, and I see nothing that tells me this is Cree territory…this university is located in historically, profoundly important land, but there is no evidence of that."

She admits that administrators have made an effort to change things, adding that it's also up to the U of A's native community to take an active role. And so she has called on members of that community to gather for a strategy meeting in the New Year aimed at making the university's indigenous heritage more apparent.

The concept of family "is what I take for granted as being at the heart of an indigenous way of doing things," she said. "One thing I'd like to see is a way of creating that environment of nurturing amongst all aboriginal scholars and students across campus."