Discussion regarding the current status and role of SFU’s department of First Nations studies (FNS) broke out in the latest SFU Senate meeting on February 5.


Single-digit faculty

When a motion to approve the action plan for the department resulting from its external review was proposed, senator David Burley began the discussion by commenting that he had noticed in the Dean’s summation and commitment of resources that the faculty consisted of only 3.5 members.

“I don’t know if any department in any university on the scale of SFU would have a department of 3.5 members,” he said. Senator Burley also expressed concern regarding the proposed action plan for the department, particularly the three limited-term appointments suggested.

“I am really concerned about how the program became a department six or seven years ago, and why there has been no support since that initial transition from a program to a department. [. . .] And it really makes me angry seeing how First Nations studies has been treated over the years, and how it’s being treated at this present time in terms of a commitment of resources to allow the department to move forward. [. . .]  I note that it’s an extremely difficult challenge to recruit First Nations individuals, and you’re not going to get them with limited-term appointments,” he ended.

The decision to convert the First Nations studies program at SFU to a full-fledged department was noted in the minutes of the March 2012 Senate meeting. As quoted by senator Colin Percival from the 2012 minutes: “A concern was raised regarding the small size of the department. It was clarified that members from other departments and faculties will be recruited when necessary to help meet the requirements of the department.”  

In place of First Nations studies chair Deanna Reder, dean of the faculty of arts and social sciences Jane Pulkingham represented the department, and she agreed that while FNS was currently SFU’s smallest department, it was not by a long stride. She also noted that since the development of the action plan, she had committed one continuing faculty position to First Nations studies. Pulkingham also indicated to the department’s three fairly new multiple-year term appointments as an indicator of progress within the department, as they are an improvement over the sessional appointments the department used to hold.


Graduate program plans thrown into question

Further on in the discussion, the viability of a graduate program in First Nations studies, which has been recently talked about within the faculty, was brought into question. “Even with one continuing-term position and two limited-term positions, the plan as it’s been laid out by First Nations studies in terms of a graduate program, in terms of all other things they want to do, is virtually impossible to implement,” commented senator Burley.

Pulkingham agreed with this observation and noted that the faculty currently has a priority on expanding capacity to move towards making this goal more realistic. “The graduate program is an aspiration, it’s not a commitment,” she said, “And it’s a commitment that would not see its feet hitting the ground for several years should it happen.”

“I agree with you that it cannot be done with that complement [of faculty], but we are looking at how we might get there.”


Ethical implications for reconciliation 

Senator Daniel Laitsch broadened the implications of the discussion when he motioned to speak. “I’m just a little trouble by lumping the [FNS] department in with all the other departments, as if there’s not an ethical imperative at this time and in this place and at this university to support reconciliation, to support our Indigenous faculty and colleagues,” he said.

Pulkingham commented that, to this end, there had been discussion among the chairs and directors of the faculty that “perhaps the faculty should adopt a stance that all hires will be Indigenous,” but it was too early to make a comment concretely on the possibility.        

On the same vein of the university’s broader ethical commitment, senator Jamie Scott said, “The intentions are not clear, and I don’t think the vision is either at SFU for this idea of ‘indigenization.’ [. . .] And then having a unit that is, no offence or anything, that is wimpy, and it’s small, and it’s not moving ahead, and yet there’s this large vision that we’re supposed to indigenize the university.”    

“It seems to me that this idea that we’re going to indigenize the faculty is not run by Indigenous people, it’s not from an Indigenous point of view necessarily.” – Senator Jamie Scott

Senator Scott agreed that the issue was a catch-22, but she emphasized that “if you don’t have a strong group of Indigenous scholars that are somehow working together [. . .], it’s going to be real hard to attract those folks, and to actually accomplish the end that we’re envisioning.”

 Vice-president, academic and senator Peter Keller commented for the record that “increasing the number of Indigenous faculty at Simon Fraser University is a strategic priority.” He referenced a financial obligation placed upon himself as VP, where he has agreed to pay the first few years’ salary of any Indigenous appointment. “That is to incentivize all of you,” he said towards the Senate members present, “to do your absolute best to try and attract Indigenous faculty to Simon Fraser University.”


SFU President Andrew Petter wrapped up the discussion after the motion on the action plan was approved by saying, “Our concerns are about a single department and its capacity, but the need for a more Indigenous faculty across the university is [. . .] certainly one that I think the university has a high priority on.”