Jan. 30, 2024

Award-winning research explores collective knowledge of post-secondary Indigenous staff

Shawna Cunningham shines a light on contributions of Indigenous student service centre leaders from across Canada
Shawna Cunningham received the 2023 Council of Graduate Schools/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award for her research. Photo courtesy of Shawna Cunningham
Shawna Cunningham received the 2023 Council of Graduate Schools/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award for her research. Courtesy Shawna Cunningham

Since the mid-1970s, Indigenous student service centres have advanced decolonization and Indigenization efforts at higher education institutions across Canada. Despite these substantial contributions, the collective knowledge of the personnel within these units has largely been ignored. 

Through her doctoral dissertation at the Werklund School of Education, Acting Vice-Provost (Indigenous Engagement) Shawna Cunningham, EdD’23, is shedding light on the significance of the centres and the role the individuals leading and working within them play in creating cultural safe spaces for Indigenous Peoples in Canadian post-secondary institutions.  

To gain insight into this distinct community of practice, Dr. Cunningham wove together thematic elements of the shared experiences of nine current and former Indigenous leaders of Indigenous student services centres, saying, "The dedication, impact and perseverance of individuals within this distinct community of practice has left behind a legacy of, often overlooked, transformative milestones in the academy, paving the way for current and future efforts towards decolonization and Indigenization in support of institutional aspirations towards reconciliation.” 

Shared experiences

In 2000, Cunningham became director of what was then The Native Centre, now Writing Symbols Lodge, at the University of Calgary. As director, she engaged with a network of individuals in similar roles across Canada. The wisdom exchanged among this group inspired her to gather these narratives for her dissertation. 

Along with decolonization and reconciliation, the story circle participants offered insights into what it is like to oversee an ‘Indigenized’ space and advocate for meaningful inclusion of Indigenous people in post-secondary. Cunningham, who was born and raised in southern Alberta and has ancestral ties to Métis communities in St. Albert, Grouard, Lesser Slave Lake and Lac St. Anne, wove her family’s history and Métis heritage into the project through short vignettes and creative prose.

With storytellers coming from urban centres and smaller communities across the country, the diversity of experience and expressions of Indigeneity were considerable. While customs and languages differed, the participants were unified in their experiences of systemic oppression and marginalization within post-secondary; concerns that Indigenous students were not a priority for the institutions; and struggles with trauma, fatigue, and burnout. 

“I'm perpetually on the edge of burnout, or, I shouldn't say that: I am burnt out. I'm perpetually trying to claw my way out of burnout,” revealed one of the story participants.

Reconciliation fatigue 

Cunningham noted a distinct increase in requests made of Indigenous staff within the centres following the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which called for post-secondary institutions to engage in meaningful acts of reconciliation. The responsibilities placed upon individuals at institutions without Indigenous engagement portfolios or Indigenous studies programs were even greater as student centres often became the first stop for those looking to engage in this process. 

“There's high demand on those roles, and I think when institutions are trying to respond to the TRC, they're looking to the Indigenous student centres to assist them in a variety of different activities,” she says. 

One participant remarked, “We started passing around that term, reconciliation fatigue. We want to see this good work happen. And we understand that much of the work, the majority of the work, should have Indigenous representation, but we were few and far between. […]  Reconciliation fatigue. It's a real thing.”

Others highlighted ongoing challenges for equitable and sustainable resources and institutional support for the centres: “It all starts with resource allocation. Before you can begin to look at those areas and develop strategies to address them, you need to have the resources.”

Ultimately, Cunningham says the people in these positions want to help, but this additional work must be recognized and adequately provided for.

Regardless of their numerous obligations, staff have not wavered in their duty to support Indigenous student success. Accordingly, together with a review of centre financial and human resources to ensure the long-term sustainability of services and culturally relevant programming, the collective called for holistic service models that address all aspects of a student’s life and well-being. 

Maintaining relationships

Though concerned about the frustrations related in the story circle, Cunningham was also inspired by the accounts of resilience and commitment to community. 

“They really are focused on seeing Indigenous students succeed. That's why they're there, seeing communities prevail and flourish and thrive,” she says. 

The workload for these leaders is diverse and demanding as one participant shared, “Leadership, moderating, facilitating, teaching; whatever they need done, I'll get it done.”

Since completing her thesis, Cunningham has continued her affiliation with the project participants by collaborating on a series of presentations at academic conferences. She says she feels a sense of responsibility to share the stories with the public. 

The study garnered the 2023 Council of Graduate Schools/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award. Recognizing the significance of the research, UCalgary’s Faculty of Graduate Studies selected the project as its annual nomination in the humanities and fine arts field. This award is available each year to individuals who, from the perspective of the award committee, have completed dissertations representing original work that makes a significant contribution to the discipline.  

Cunningham, the first UCalgary recipient in the award’s 40-plus year history, says she is honoured by the acknowledgment and pleased with the potential it offers to further share the wisdom of the participants. 

“I think creating awareness is what is really important, and hopefully the award will draw attention to the dissertation and the individuals serving in these important roles.”  

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