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Business schools launch ‘overdue’ efforts to Indigenize curricula

With an imperative for the corporate sector to work with First Peoples globally, MBAs are finally revamping programs

Student Nathan Crow speaks with Rhonda Crow, Indigenous learning and program coordinator for Indigenous Governance and Business Management with the Dhillon School of Business. Photo courtesy of Dhillon School of Business.

Indigenous perspectives have long been absent from business schools in Canada and other countries with significant Indigenous populations. But as societies globally look to redefine their relationship with First Peoples, schools are adding Indigenous content with new electives, revamped curricula and, occasionally, a mandatory course. Still, heavy lifting lies ahead.

“Business schools and universities in Canada have been slow on this front,” concedes University of Alberta business dean Kyle Murray. “It’s something we probably should have been taking action on decades ago, but there is a lot more momentum now.”

As Canada reckons with its dark history of residential schools and colonial attitudes to Indigenous people, some of that new momentum comes from individual professors. Earlier this year, inspired by a 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) event and a university workshop on decolonizing course materials, U of A business professor David Deephouse delivered a new elective: Introduction to Indigenous Business.

“It’s meant to help people understand more about Indigenous businesses and the context in which they operate,” including the use of Indigenous case studies, says Deephouse.

In modernizing courses, collaboration is key. University of Victoria Gustavson School of Business professor Doug Stuart is refreshing a third-year tax course for 2022 with assistance from Prince George–based Mindy Wight, a member of the Squamish Nation and national leader of Indigenous Tax Services for MNP, an accounting, tax and business consulting firm. The course integrates material on First Nation governments that operate their own revenue systems, as well as how Canadian and provincial government tax rules apply when an Indigenous business owner operates on or off reserve.

“Indigenous and non-Indigenous tax experts, as a matter of serving the public interest, should be learning material to support all business owners in Canada,” Stuart says.

Earlier this year, Sonya Graci, a non-Indigenous professor of hospitality and tourism management at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management, developed a new elective on Indigenous tourism with Indigenous industry leaders. On offer this fall, it is the business school’s first explicitly Indigenous course. Like sustainability and climate change, such content “is a very pertinent issue for all our students,” Graci says.

Indigenizing business curricula

Schools typically pursue one of two curriculum strategies: embed material or create electives. Earlier this year, Australia’s Griffith Business School (where self-identified First Peoples account for 2.1% of the student body) overhauled its Bachelor of Business to incorporate material throughout the four-year degree rather than offer only electives. Griffith is the first business school in Australia to commit to Indigenizing its entire program in an embedded, integrated and interdisciplinary way, thereby introducing students to “the importance of understanding First Peoples Knowledge in a business.”

Previously, Indigenous topics “had always been to the side, in specialized silos,” says Ruth McPhail, academic director. The goal now is to raise awareness among white students of Australia’s rich Aboriginal history and the growing economic power of a new generation of Indigenous entrepreneurs. “This is critical information for students, and we will embrace it in every part of the curriculum,” she says.

Accounting professor Kerry Bodle, the school’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academic director, previously taught Indigenous content, such as history, government policies and cultural protocols, as electives. She was instrumental in blending these topics and additional content into the revised bachelor’s degree while assisting professors to teach the updated courses with confidence.

Descended from Karendali, Kalali and Waka Waka First Peoples, Bodle reflects on the academic sea-change. “When I came for a graduate degree [23 years ago], there was nothing about Indigenous people unless you talked about all the deficits,” she says.

In Canada, UVic’s Gustavson also integrates content across the curriculum instead of mandating a course. Successful implementation, says dean Saul Klein, rests on training faculty members “to feel comfortable to raise and talk about issues that are of Indigenous concern in all of their classes.”

More often, though, schools choose to add electives.

New mandatory courses

One exception is the University of Lethbridge’s Dhillon School of Business, which this fall introduced a mandatory Indigenous course in its four-year undergraduate degree. Students can choose from numerous topics – Blackfoot language, conversational reconciliation and Aboriginal health – to fulfil their obligation.

“We wanted to move on this, so we created the course requirement” especially to educate non-Indigenous students, says Dhillon dean Kerry Godfrey.

For decades, the school has offered variations of a successful Indigenous governance and business management program.

The mandatory course is just a first step. Godfrey has recruited Leroy Little Bear, a long-time Indigenous leader, emeritus professor and senior advisor to Lethbridge’s president on Aboriginal initiatives, to help the school speed up efforts to embed Indigenous content.

The course requirement is “long, long overdue,” says Dhillon assistant professor Don McIntyre, an Ojibway of the Wolf Clan from Timiskaming First Nation. Since the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action, which include closing achievement gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous post-secondary students, he says, “institutions are trying to figure out how to do that.”

At the University of Manitoba’s Asper School of Business, which has run an Indigenous Business Education Partners program for First Nations, Métis and Inuit students for 25 years, a curriculum review now in progress could lead to a possible new mandatory course for all incoming Asper business students by 2023.

“We are in Manitoba – should I say more?” says outgoing Asper dean Gady Jacoby, given that Indigenous people, a fast-growing cohort, currently account for 18% of the provincial population. “We are decades behind where we should be. We need to do as much as possible as soon as possible.”

The school’s strategy extends beyond content, including the appointment this year of Indigenous-focused inclusion consultant Mary Jane Maillet Brownscombe, a Métis and school alumnae, to the inaugural position of executive-in-residence.

We are decades behind where we should be. We need to do as much as possible as soon as possible.
—Gady Jacoby, outgoing dean at the University of Manitoba’s Asper Schoolof Business

Jacoby’s urgency for action is shared by others. Colleges are also expanding for-credit Indigenous programs, with certificates and diplomas at 16 institutions, according to Colleges and Institutes Canada.

Still, challenges remain, including a shortage of Indigenous faculty.

Bettina Schneider, associate dean of community research and graduate programs at First Nations University of Canada, says it’s critical that these business programs hire more Indigenous academics. “It is so important that Indigenous programs include Indigenous scholars who can bring certain perspectives and lived experiences to the classroom,” says Schneider, who is non-Indigenous.

At Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, Rick Colbourne, associate dean of equity and inclusive communities and an Algonquin Anishinaabe member of the Mattawa/North Bay Algonquin First Nation, is leading efforts to develop new courses and reform tenure and promotion to attract Indigenous scholars. Colbourne sets out his benchmarks for success: more Indigenous faculty members and PhDs, more Indigenous undergraduate and graduate students, more Indigenous leaders at the senior levels of university administration, and increased engagement with local Indigenous communities.

Colbourne credits the work of the TRC in kick-starting the new, if belated, work of business schools to equip their graduates with knowledge of Indigenous issues.

“The TRC Calls to Action was a turning point in a lot of ways,” he says. “Business schools needed to start listening to this, and they needed to start taking notice.”

Jennifer Lewington is an intrepid reporter and writes regularly on many topics, including business school news.

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