Category: Research

Teacher-Researcher Profile

An interview with Dr. Brandon Needham, Principal of Melville Comprehensive School (MCS) and 2020 CBC Future 40 Winner, who successfully defended his dissertation, “Critical Action Research: How One School Community Lives out the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action,” on February 16, 2021. Co-supervisors were Dr. Twyla Salm and Dr. Jennifer Tupper. Committee members were Dr. Michael Cappello, Dr. Anna-Leah King, and Dr. Amber Fletcher. External examiner was Dr. Nicholas Ng-A-Fook (University of Ottawa).

Why did you choose to do your graduate degree at the Faculty of Education, University of Regina?

I completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in history, Bachelor of Education – major in physical education and minor in history, and a Master’s degree in curriculum studies from the University of Saskatchewan (U of S). I chose the University of Regina (U of R) for my doctoral work based on the reputation of the school, specifically, the notable research being conducted in the area of treaty and Indigenous education. My supervisor, and former U of R Dean of Education, Dr. Jennifer Tupper’s seminal work in treaty education became the basis to explore areas of reconciliation education.

The University of Regina was also one of the only doctoral programs not requiring a one-year residency for doctoral students, which allowed me to study and continue my job as an in-school administrator. This was very important for me, as I was not able to take an education leave from my school division to pursue a doctorate. The flexibility in the graduate programs at the U of R makes academia more accessible to those educators who still want to remain connected to a K-12 context and for that I was grateful.

What were the circumstances that led you to your research topic for your dissertation?

Having enrolled in the winter term of 2015, just as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report and the subsequent release of the Calls to Action occurred, this topic seemed timely. Prior to choosing this topic, I had conducted a research project with Dr. Michael Cottrell from the U of S on the implementation of treaty education through treaty catalyst teachers. My doctoral work was an evolution of this earlier work, which sought to investigate the challenges and opportunities in teaching students about the Indian Residential School (IRS) project.

What need were you identifying?

In my time as a classroom teacher and an in-school administrator, I have identified hesitancy from students and staff to engage fully in the teaching and learning of treaty education, and other Indigenous topics found in the curriculum. This was initially the case for me, too, as I began my teaching career. Having grown up in a town void of experiences with Indigenous peoples, I had to (un)learn many of the things I had come to know about Indigenous peoples. Through my various educational experiences, I gained a more nuanced understanding of myself as a White settler and the privilege that accompanies that position. Wanting to create meaningful change in my school community towards the goals of the TRC, this project offered the opportunity to invite others to consider their privileged positions. Much of the research conducted to this point had been with teacher-candidates; I felt that conducting the research project in my school may serve to help clarify the complexities of reconciliatory work in K-12 contexts.

Briefly outline your research question and findings.

The study was informed by the following research question: “What actions can a school community take to engage in the TRC Calls to Action to become a site where truth and reconciliation become possible?”

The findings of the study have been encapsulated in the following way: By living out the Calls to Action in our school community we learned to:

Begin with ourselves

  • Locate oneself in the context of settler-colonialism by confronting the various ways we have and continue to be shaped by it.
  • Understand the context of where the work is happening, seeking to understand the community we wish to transform.
  • Build capacity in ourselves so as to engage respectfully in difficult conversations we encountered on our journey of reconciliation.
  • Practice critical reflection and understand that the journey toward reconciliation is on-going and evolves with time.

Walk alongside Indigenous peoples on this journey

  • Bear witness to truth-telling (survivor stories and other Indigenous counter-stories).
  • Build and foster respectful relationships with Indigenous community members.
  • Create a support network (Indigenous organizations, community groups, academic institutions) to assist in the journey.

Engage in disruptive work

  • Work collectively and collaboratively to transform the teaching and learning of the residential school project, treaty education, Indigenous sovereignty, and ongoing colonial violence.
  • Encourage and influence those around us to include and infuse Indigenous perspectives, values, and cultural understanding into daily practice.
  • Transform the spaces and places in the school to reflect the historical significance of Indigenous peoples.
    Recognize the potential of schools and individuals in schools to be vehicles for reconciliatory actions.

What was memorable, a highlight about doing this research?

A highlight of doing this research project was having been fortunate enough to share this journey with the colleagues who participated in the study. Our group met several times over the course of the school year in the hope to live out the TRC Calls to Action in our school, which led to many meaningful conversations about the influence we have as teachers to make reconciliation more than aspirational.

What kinds of feedback have you received from others?

I have received very positive feedback from others. I have had an opportunity to share my findings through virtual conferences, with only positive comments coming from those sessions.

Were there any unexpected moments of grace coming out of your studies during a pandemic?

I would say an unexpected moment of grace that came out of this pandemic was shown by my supervisor, Dr. Tupper. She was extremely supportive and understanding of the challenges I faced as a graduate student, principal, and father of four children.

What are your hopes for how your work is taken up by others?

My hope is that this work is taken up in ways that continue to invite others to consider their positionality in our settler-colonial system and how they might use their privilege to explore the shared history between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. More work is needed in how students take up and experience reconciliation education and it is my hope that this project can illuminate some of those possibilities.

While a student, Brandon Needham was named one of CBC’s 2020 Future Forty winners. Read the interview by clicking on the image

 

 

 

 

 

 

GA Award recipients

Congratulations to #UREdu Dr. Fatima Pirbhai-Illich and Dr. Fran Martin (UExeter) on being recognized by the Geographical Association with a Journal article award for Excellence in Leading Geography for their article, “Fundamental British Values: Geography’s Contribution to Understanding Difference” in Primary Geography.

The eCelebration took place April 8, 2021 on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GV-wM07mMwc

 

Jim Pattison Children’s Research Grant recipient

Dr. JoLee Sasakamoose with the Wellness Wheel team is recipient of $49,982 from the Jim Pattison Children’s Research Grant program.

Guided by the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action, to provide a culturally secure space for knowledge exchange, mobilization, and co-creation, Dr. Mamata Pandey (SK Health Authority) and Dr. JoLee Sasakamoose (U of R) will be leading the study entitled “Okawimaw Kanosimowin (Mother’s Bundle): A Peer-Driven Approach to Improve Indigenous Maternal and Birth Outcomes.”

According to the Wellness Wheel Facebook Page, the researchers aim “to train Indigenous peers to advocate and assist Indigenous mothers through pregnancy, labour and delivery to postpartum stages. Another goal of the study is to create a mothers care bundle consisting of individual support links and services, essential mother and baby products and traditional medicines in partnership with the multi-disciplinary team.”

University of Regina 3MT® Competition winner

Congratulations to MEd student Whitney Blaisdell on winning the University of Regina 3MT® competition. Along with the recognition, Blaisdell takes home $1500 and she will represent the U of R in the Western Regional 3MT® competition.

The three-minute thesis competition proved to be a “great challenge,” says Blaisdell: “I was surprised at how challenging it was to attempt to describe the importance and current state of play, the research methods I used, the emergent theory, and the implications of the research in three minutes!”

Blaisdell says she benefitted from other aspects of participating in the competition, including the “opportunity not only to share this research on play in an accessible format but also to listen to other students share their fascinating and important research. The finalists had the opportunity to attend a workshop on presenting with Dr. Kathryn Ricketts that was so helpful.”

Overall, Blaisdell says that she has had, “a wonderful experience studying here at the University of Regina in the Faculty of Education with the supervision of Dr. Marc Spooner and the support of Dr. Valerie Triggs and Dr. Patrick Lewis as members of my committee.”

As for the future, along with supporting the offshoots of her current research and doing more research around play, Blaisdell plans to follow her own advice–to play: “I look forward to taking a small break to play and enjoy some warm weather with my family.”

The University of Regina Graduate Student Association (URGSA) described the competition as follows:

The Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) is an internationally recognized competition for thesis-based graduate students in which participants present their scholarly and creative activity and its wider impact in 3 minutes or less. The challenge is to present complex research in an accessible and compelling way with the assistance of only one static slide. Created in 2008 by Dr. Alan Lawson at the University of Queensland, Australia, the 3MT® competition celebrates exciting and innovative graduate student research while promoting communication, public speaking, and storytelling skills. The competition offers an exciting and thought-provoking opportunity for graduate students, pushing them to consolidate their ideas and crystalize their research discoveries. Presenting in a 3MT® competition increases the capacity of graduate students to effectively explain their scholarly and creative activity in a clear and concise manner, and in a language appropriate to a general audience.

URGSA has posted a video of the competition to YouTube:

Sharing Wisconsin Sky, A Cross-Cultural and Cross-Universities Play Reading

This story started with an invitation to do a play reading from my sister and playwright Alanis King, who had been invited by the University of Wisconsin (UWM) to write the script titled Sharing Wisconsin Sky.

The reading was part of a Greater Milwaukee Foundation Grant-supported collaboration between Peck School of the Arts, UWM Planetarium/Physics, and UWM’s Indigenous Language areas, including American Indian Studies and the Electa Quinney Institute. The project team was led by UWM faculty Robin Mello, Jean Creighton, Margaret Noodin, and Joelle Worm.

After a postponement due to the pandemic, the project began in late fall and the students were tasked with a writing assignment: to think of their experiences of the sky, the stars, and their relationship with the planet we are all living upon. Alanis was given the students’ writing contributions, which she then artfully wove together with her own written pieces and scenes that connected the stories together from the Anishnaabe worldview of our relationship to the cosmos.

Dr. Kathleen O’Reilly and Dr. Anna-Leah King

Given the number of characters and Indigenous songs, I was invited by Alanis to take part as a reader. I in turn offered an invitation to the First Nations University’s Dr. Kathleen O’Reilly, who has a penchant for theatre. Both of us were thrilled to kick off our international acting debuts!

I was given the starring role of Giizhigokwe – Sky Woman (no pun intended) and to be a Beneshiisuk Singer of two Anishnaabe songs. Kathleen was invited to read the role of Eclipse.

The 11 readers, comprised of UWM’s project team, students, and guest readers, Kathleen and I, presented on Zoom on December 19, 2020. The reading took about 2 hours with sound checks and introductions. After the play, Alanis thanked everyone and remarked that, “The opportunity to hear the voices of the characters and their stories lifted from the page and brought to life by the talented cast is an excellent way as a playwright to envision possibilities for a future script workshop and eventual production.”

I really cherished learning another Anishnaabe word song and it reminded me of my love for music: Bin bin bindigen Gchimiigwech gaabiizhaayan translates to mean ”come in, thank you for being here.” This whole experience that included many Anishnaabe songs and our language lifted my spirit.

Likewise, Kathleen says, “It was a wonderful experience acting and working with so many talented people. The play is beautifully written and merges Indigenous and non-Indigenous voices through spoken word and song. Reflecting on people’s memories and experiences of the sun, moon and stars, it is a reminder that no matter who we are, or where we are from, we all have looked to the skies with wonder and awe.”

Dr. Taiwo Afolabi

This reading was a learning opportunity for us towards our future research collaboration between the University of Regina and First Nations University, a research project involving diverse storytelling on depictions of racism whereby we will be creating artistic vignettes on race issues. This research project is inspired by, and will be directed by, our new colleague and collaborator Dr. Taiwo Afolabi, a MAP faculty member at the University of Regina.

The play reading was one of our last community engagement initiatives of 2020 and was well worth the effort and time as well as an opportunity to help out where script readers were needed. To our good fortune we have been invited to a second reading in person on the real stage under the Wisconsin sky at the nearby Electa Quinney Institute, the Potawatami community school’s amphitheater.

If all our stars align, there will be more to come!

by. Dr. Anna-Leah King


Alanis King

Alanis King is an Ottawa-based Odawa artist originally from the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve. Her other playwriting credits include Bury, Morning Becomes Electa, Kawabin Elvis, Born Buffalo, Teacher, Kohkum’s Good Medicine Journey, Treaty Daze, Bye Bye Beneshe, Song of Hiawatha: An Anishnaabec Adaption, Order of Good Cheer, Gegwah, Lovechild, The Artshow, Heartdwellers, The Manitoulin Incident, Tommy Prince Story, and If Jesus Met Nanabush. Her published works include 3 Plays by Fifth House Publishers and coming soon The Manitoulin Incident written in three languages. She is the first Aboriginal woman to graduate from the National Theatre School of Canada.

 

Dr. Anna-Leah King

Anna-Leah King (PhD) is an Associate Professor of Indigenous Education, Educational Core Studies and Language and Literacy Education and serves as the Chair of Indigenization at the University of Regina. King is originally from the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve.

 

 

Dr. Kathleen O’Reilly

Kathleen O’Reilly (PhD) is the Graduate Program Coordinator and Associate Professor Indigenous Education at First Nations University of Canada in Regina, Saskatchewan.

 

 


Researching representational practices in musical theatre

Dr. Sara Schroeter Assistant Professor – Arts Education, Drama Education

When Sara Schroeter set out to attend a local musical theatre production one evening, an outing with one of her children, she didn’t expect she would have to have difficult conversations with her family because of the problematic racial representations.

“As a mother of mixed-race children, when I started going to the musical theater and seeing the problematic representations and after talking with my husband and hearing him say the damage was already done, and that this was one of many, many experiences that our children will have, that they might not understand right now, but one day they will, and these experiences will have an accumulated impact [sigh]—that’s when I realized that this is what we are doing with musicals.”

Musical theatre is a popular and traditional feature in many high schools across North America, including Regina. When Schroeter first joined the Faculty of Education as an assistant professor of arts and drama education, she realized she needed to gain a better understanding of musical theatre:

“Musical theatre is what many of my students in Arts Ed understood theatre to be. I needed to better understand what’s going on in musical theatre. I was told that musicals are really big for the local high schools and the community attends these musical shows.”

Schroeter set out to investigate and says, “I went to two musical theatre productions the first year I was here and both had really problematic representations of either race or gender and sexuality—some of the most troubling representations that I have seen recently, certainly something I didn’t expect to see in 2016.”

Her experiences caused Schroeter to start questioning the pedagogical value of musical theatre. She wondered where teachers were drawing their inspiration from and how they were contending with issues of representation in a field that, she says, “is known to have quite a problematic history.”

In 2018, Schroeter’s wondering turned into a University of Regina, President’s Seed Funded research project entitled, “Staging Difference: Examining Representational Practices in Musical Theatre Productions in Regina Schools and on Professional Stages.”

Though a drama educator, this exploration into musical theatre has been a new focus for Schroeter, whose research has mostly focused on youth representations of self and other through drama.

“I study applied theatre and drama in education, and am interested in youth making their own stories and telling their own stories. My research has also examined representational practices, often drawing on critical race theory and cultural studies,” says Schroeter.

Schroeter’s research project involves two parts: “Part of my research is to look at what is going on in high schools, interviewing teachers, and part of it is to go and see contemporary progressive shows, or shows said to be doing progressive things.”

Though her research is not complete yet, and no in-depth analysis has been done on the data, Schroeter is able to share some of her understanding of the issues so far.

Musical theatre productions are essentially money makers, Schroeter says. As such, “they are meant to have an appeal to a large audience. To do this, they rely heavily on stereotypes and tropes to make easily recognizable characters so that everybody knows what story is being told. These representations always comes with issues.”

When musicals are purchased for reproduction at the high school level, as commercial enterprises, strictly guided by copyright law, there is little room for local teachers to make adaptations. This is a problem because, Schroeter says, there are “so many ways in which race, religion, and gender and heteronormativity are written into the productions as a way of telling a particular story about how Americans see themselves and the image they want to portray in American society.”

Summarizing Hoffman (2014) in The Great White Way, Schroeter says, “the musical is in essence part and parcel of the invention of Americanism and white supremacy, with roots in minstrel shows from the 1800s and early 1900s when performers did dress up with blackface, and used quintessential stereotypes, such as mammy.”

As a form of public pedagogy, Schroeter views high school musical theatre as “teaching all of those things that make up what we are understanding and learning—how we construct knowledge.” Referencing Donatella Galella’s work, Schroeter says that “musical theatre is a form of public pedagogy because it tells us stories about who we are and who we imagine ourselves to be.”

As an example, Schroeter points to Hamilton (2015), which is purported to be a very progressive musical production. She says, “Hoffman (2014) writes about songs in musicals, such as the song for change. The main character goes through immense change and the person who sings the song for change is usually a white character who has multiple dimensions, whereas characters of colour are presented as flat characters; they stay the same throughout the show. Hamilton (2015) plays with this by representing white characters through actors of colour. Actors of colour get to play this range of emotion and change, but it is still problematic because they are still representing White folks, so they haven’t changed and disrupted what happens in the structure of the musical.”

Schroeter highlights other problems with Hamilton (2015): “The way the American history is told through hip hop makes history relevant, but it also makes the history irrelevant, because it is a story from which the actors of colour in the cast have historically been excluded—in some ways a re-appropriation. Why aren’t they telling the story of the Haitian revolution or of the theft of lands; there are so many others stories that could have been told that would be relevant to the students who would then see their histories represented in the play. Instead they are being told what is ultimately a white story—a slave-owning story—that has been re-imagined to maybe include the possibility of mixed heritage in Alexander Hamilton, which perpetuates the idea that he was mixed race, but we don’t know that.”

Though musical theatre is problematic, Schroeter understands that it fulfills a purpose: “The musical fills this void in not requiring audiences to work very hard to understand what is going on in the story,” she says. Musicals also “bring various departments, music, dance, theatre, and art departments together for these wide scale productions that involve a lot of kids.”

Schroeter clarifies her position saying, “I’m not taking away from the bonding experience or artistic learning, but I want to know what these productions do to us as a public, pedagogically, and to students in particular, and also to acknowledge, as Gastambide-Fernandez & Parekh found in their 2017 study of arts programs, who is included in those productions and who is excluded historically in drama and theatre programs in our schools.” Schroeter is encouraged that increasingly IBPOC scholars, educators, and artists are raising their voices about this exclusion in representation and taking on leadership roles in musical theatre, such as director and producer.

Schroeter still wants to see plays integrate music and art with drama, but she would love to see them be stories relevant to youth. “I’m not going to deny that kids want to do Grease (1971). I get that teachers are in a delicate position of having to do what kids want and push them.”

Avant garde theatre is one alternative to musicals because “avant garde theatre artists are often trying to avoid stereotypes or trouble the tropes. Then you get really controversial theatre because opinion is divided—with some hating and some loving it,” says Schroeter. Likewise, “when you make original theatre and stories told by students and their points of views, sometimes parents don’t like the stories that kids have to tell and sometimes the stories are experimental and people don’t get it.”

Through interviews with local drama teachers, Schroeter is finding some teachers “that just won’t do the musical because they are going to create plays that involve music and singing, but not musicals—once you open that door, you can’t close it because that is what people will want and expect.” With student-created theatre, Schroeter says, “you can cast more diversely, and the tools you are giving students are much bigger because you are training them as story tellers.” Other teachers in her study, she says, “are aware of the issues, and are trying to address stereotyping and problematic representational practices by having conversations with their students about it and by not letting the problems disappear.”

So far, Schroeter says, “my research is reinforcing what I already know about the value of arts education—giving students the tools to come together and make and create original art.”

The importance of indigenous research methodology

Elder Alma Poitras speaking about her research with her daughter Evelyn assisting at the computer

A crowd gathered for the second annual Indigenous Research event, hosted by the Faculty of Education’s Research & Graduate Programs office and First Nations University, Thursday, September 26, as part of the University of Regina’s Indigenous Research Showcase Week. Elder and Master’s student Alma Poitrois shared about her research, taking the audience through several layers of circles, offering a deeper understanding of her Indigenous worldview and a natural curriculum.

Following a break of bannock and tea, a panel moderated by Dr. Kathleen O’Reilly discussed “What is an indigenous research methodology? and Why is it important?” To begin the panel discussion, Dr. Angelina Weenie offered naskwahamākēwin, accompanying the women with song, to honour their courage and process. Dr. Angelina Weenie, Dr. Anna-Leah King, Mary Sasakamoose, and Ida Swan shared their thoughts about indigenous research methodology and its importance from their own experiences and research.  The panel discussion highlighted the importance of ceremony as part of the research,  of language, of engaging with the heart, of mother, of story, and of song and drum.

Standing room only at the 2nd Annual Indigenous Research Event
Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Programs, Dr. Twyla Salm
Elder Alma Poitras
Dr. Kathleen O’Reilly moderated the panel
Dr. Angelina Weenie
PhD candidate, Mary Sasakamoose
PhD candidate, Ida Swan
Dr. Anna-Leah King
Tania Gates, Research & Graduate Program Facilitator, at the book display

Critical relationality key to international collaboration

Fatima Pirbhai-Illich and Fran Martin in 2013 at the beginning of their collaboration
Fran Martin and Fatima Pirbhai-Iliich in Fatima’s home in April, 2019.

Dr. Fatima Pirbhai-Illich (University of Regina) and Dr. Fran Martin (University of Exeter) speak candidly about how working collaboratively across multiple differences, including interculturality, spirituality, disciplinary, and personality differences, though difficult at times, has

informed their research into decolonizing approaches to pedagogy, extended their network of research collaborators, and broadened their vision and impact as well as establishing a lifelong friendship.

Shuana: How would each of you describe yourself personally, academically, and professionally?

Fatima: At a personal level, I describe myself as a human being in relation with the world, and with people around me and nature and so forth. But more so, a very spiritual being; I’m very connected spiritually to both esoteric and to the materiality that we have around us. Academically I categorize myself as being transnational, and professionally as an educator, and a learner. I’m a learner at each stage of everything I do. As a researcher, my focus is to work with marginalized and minoritized communities, to understand what harms and injustices have been done and that continue to be done, and I try to figure out a way to ameliorate the harms and injustices. …to do something that is going to be more sustainable, but also to try to understand issues of power around those injustices and to address the power imbalance so that it’s not just about fixing something, it’s more structural change, systemic. How can we work within an ethical framework that includes my spiritual ways of being and to work ethically with and across difference.

Fran: When I describe myself personally, I start with my family; I’m very connected to my family. I’m a twin. I come from a farming background. I’m gay. Academically and professionally, there is a blending between my personal self and my professional self in terms of who I am: one blends into the other. So, why do I say that? My professional self is an educator even from when I first trained to become a teacher and went into early years education, and then from there went into being a teacher advisor, and then from there into higher education working with preservice teachers and so on. I always have had a desire to make a difference and focused more on student voice, and trying to support those whom I perceived to have less of a voice in their education to have more of a voice in their education. In those early days, I was far less aware of how I acted systematically and institutionally; it was more on an individual basis. I’ve come to know more, far more, about that working with Fatima. …My brothers and sisters and myself are all boarding school survivors. I think it was hugely damaging to us in some ways. It gave us lots of advantages from the type of education we received. But emotionally it was probably quite damaging. So we have all grown up to be people who care about fairness, and obviously a particular view of what fairness means, and justice in different ways. I’m sure that’s from where, partly, the need to support student voice came, because in the boarding school I didn’t have any voice at all.

I went into geography education initially, and that has to do with the farming background and living on and in the land. All of our family ways of being, our family funds of knowledge, revolved around the seasonal and daily patterns of farm life, my dad being a farmer. A lot of that has moved into my interests in being a educator as well.

Fatima: And just as your life revolved around farming, our life was determined by the spiritual aspect. Even while you’re here, Fran, I have to look at a calendar and see what special prayers we have today before I can make a decision about what we can do. The spiritual dimension comes first before anything else.

Shuana: Is it because you’ve had to move a lot, that spirituality is more important than place? Fatima: I come from Tanzania, East Africa, a country that was colonized by the Portuguese, the Germans, the Omanis, and the last ones were the British, and so we’ve had to learn how to adapt with each colonizer. During the time leading to independence and soon after there was a lot of civil unrest, people that could afford it, or even if they couldn’t, would borrow money to send their kids abroad to study. That was the start for me. I went to Kenya to study, and then to Canada to do my bachelor’s degree, and Surrey, UK to do my master’s degree, but I couldn’t get a job. I think in those days (1985-88) Canadians were pretty racist, overtly racist. That’s when the moving from here to there started: life circumstances that forced me to move or to leave and try something different.

Shuana: How, where, and when did the two of you meet?

Fatima: We met in Australia. I was on sabbatical in 2013, and Fran was, too. We met through a mutual friend I was staying with while teaching at the Australian Catholic University at that time.

Fran: And, I was in Newcastle, doing some work with a teacher educator there, and I let our mutual friend know that I was in the area because Newcastle is only a train ride away from Sydney. She said, ‘You must come down. I’ve got this other friend staying at the moment and you’d get on.’ So I went.

Fatima: The interesting thing was, we were having a drink, enjoying olive tapenade with pita bread, and we were sitting at the table and as we started to talk, we realized how similar our work was, although in different areas, but so similar and yet here we were, I was from Canada, Fran from the UK, and we were working in silos. And we thought, you know, we should pool our knowledges together and see what we can do with our combined knowledge. Literally that is when we started collaborating.

Shuana: What was the similarity you recognized?

Fatima: The intercultural part was the similarity. Learning to understand difference, it’s an intercultural exchange and Fran’s work also does that. Fran: At that point I was just coming to the end of a research project that looked at the intercultural dimension of study visits for teachers and preservice teachers from the UK to West Africa, in one instance, and southern India in the other instance. The research took a postcolonial lens on the nature of the relationship between the countries and the context that provided for the ways in which individuals interacted with each other and learned from each other, and the ways in which people positioned each other because of that colonial history. We got talking about interculturality and criticality and that’s where it started.

Fatima: I had incorporated critical service learning with the ERDG 425 course where students learn how to work with difference and still having issues around the colonial mentality and colonial educational paradigm that we’re engaged in and Fran was looking at it from the international perspective—Fran: global north, global south—Fatima: The whole point was that if we’re going to try to dismantle colonial ways of thinking, being, viewing, and doing, then doing it in Regina alone is not going to take it far. But if you can do it at a global level, and take it to the seat of colonialism, England, then that would possibly make it more effective, not even effective, more consciousness raising, and— Fran: far-reaching.

Shuana: How did you develop and grow this collaboration? What were your next steps?

Fran: Two things really: first was that we were invited by the academic who I had been staying with in Newcastle to consider putting a chapter together as part of a book that she was editing. We agreed to do that. Fatima was involved in a project in Sydney that presented some possibilities for working together, as well. We also thought if there were opportunities for us to act as visiting scholars at each other’s universities that maybe some other opportunities might present themselves. So we did that. We both sought ways in which we could spend some time in each other’s contexts. Fatima: We sought funding from the University of Exeter, SIDRU [a research unit in the Faculty of Education], and the University of Regina President’s SSHRC grant. Fran: At Exeter, as part of the internationalization of the University, we have two associated visiting academic funding schemes: One for inviting an academic to come and work with you and the other to support you to go and work in another university.

Shuana: What were your initial expectations of this relationship? Did you see how this would unfold?

Fatima: We jointly worked out what we would need to do in order to get to where we are now. That included working with people at the University of Exeter, and working with other partners outside of the Faculty of Education. …Exeter provided that environment to be able to engage in discussions with other colleagues, to build our own thinking, and to move to a different space and place theoretically and at a practical level. I had support from the University of Exeter and the continued support is that I’m considered an important part of their research group, an associate member of the new—Fran: It’s now called the Creativity and Emergent Education Network. This collaboration has developed into a network— we have contacts in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, other members in Canada, some in Brazil, and Europe—which was partly facilitated by our both being invited by Vanessa to—Fatima: the Ethical Internationalization in Higher Education research project. Vanessa Andreotti from UBC had a massive grant. We were about 30-40 collaborators in about 20 universities worldwide. We became part of a fabulous network and we still have this network.

Shuana: The network is a really important aspect, then? Fatima: I think so. I think we have to move out of our comfort zone and be able to reach out to others. But we have to be comfortable in our own skin, and in who we are. Because I think when you are working with other educators from around the world—we all have different talents and strengths and weaknesses—we’ve got to be able to learn how to complement each other rather than compete with each other. The whole concept of competition, which is what the academy, the neo-liberal agenda is pushing, we’ve got to disrupt it… If we understand that we can be successful,…we can be cooperative, but ethically cooperative. We have to let go of a lot of pride and arrogance. It’s all about being humble, about having humility. Fran: Our professional relationship, however, is the core of what we do. Most of the empirical research takes place here. That’s, for us, the focal point of a much larger network.

Shuana: You are both researchers in difference and intercultural relationships, and you also have this dynamic in your relationship. How are differences resolved in your working relationship, and how has this relationship informed your work?

Fatima: Just to foreground, I have spent 55 years of my life learning about the other and learning to live with the other and I still don’t make it. It’s taken me 55 years to be where I am today, to be able to somewhat integrate and to be able to play the game, to navigate who I am outside of my home and who I am inside my home.

Fran: It’s been both the most rewarding and the most uncomfortable of relationships because to be true to the work that we are interested in, we have to really be prepared to look—I had to be prepared to look deep inside myself and become much more aware of the background I come from: the fact that I am British, White, middle to upper class, I’ve had loads of privileges in life. I was completely unaware of how many doors those opened to me that would have been closed to people like Fatima. At the beginning, and not wanting to own some of that stuff, it’s been uncomfortable. It’s been a really, really steep learning curve. But I would say that the way that we learn from our dynamic and theorize around our dynamic—and there have been times that I thought I don’t want to theorize around Fatima’s dynamic anymore; it has felt a bit like that, but obviously that is just in the moment—but if we can’t do it as researchers ourselves, then how can we possibly do it as part of the research we are focussing on or the hope that teachers work with students in particular ways… We have to do the work ourselves, as well, is what I’m saying.

One of the things I’ve learned that is hardest about the critical interculturality is to focus or stick with the differences and try to really start to understand what is behind those differences rather than just staying at the superficial level—it’s not about resolving them, it’s about understanding them as deeply as you possibly can, how differences relate to a whole set of socio-cultural historical complexities. Even in the most apparently innocuous type of conversation, a misunderstanding can arise because of those differences. It’s enriched, I feel, what we’ve done together and what’s been possible and been uncomfortable and—Fatima: difficult.

Fatima: What Fran has been working on over the past 6 years, I’ve had to do since I was five or six. It’s difficult for somebody who hasn’t had that lens before, to start looking from a different lens. I’ve seen Fran struggle and I’ve seen her get frustrated…but I know she’s got to figure it out. I won’t say anything and then she’ll come back, and she’ll say, ‘Oh, I understand.’ At times, I find it frustrating as well, but what I end up doing is I say, ‘Let’s just carry on.’ So it’s a personality difference, but it’s also that the spiritual part of my way is to let it go.

Fran: I sometimes think that if I was not gay, if I had not in the 1970s and 80s struggled with my sexuality, and then subsequently had a lot of counselling and support to be comfortable in my own skin, I’m not sure that we could have worked together in this way. So, although I haven’t had the 50 – 60 years of learning the game and all the rest of it that Fatima has had to learn, there have been elements of difference in me that I’ve had to learn about and be comfortable with. Fatima: She was positioned or categorized as being different, and also as not being acceptable, really. And that understanding of her own identity has kept her open to learn about difference and trying to work with difference.

Shuana: Do you have an intentional strategy for your friendship when differences arise?

Fran: Personally it’s a strategy I’ve developed through counselling: When something feels most uncomfortable, that is the very thing you should look at. Go away and think about, then come back when the heat has died down a little bit.

Fatima: It’s one of my conditions that truthfulness and honesty is in the relationship: honesty has to be on the table all the time or I would walk away.

Shuana: Would you say your working relationship has translated into a lifelong friendship?

Fatima: (laughing) Oh dear! I’m going to have a party on Monday [when Fran leaves for the UK]. I think yes, we’re very close. Fran: You’re one of my best friends. Fatima: I feel very safe with Fran. I feel very safe to tell her what I’m thinking, how I’m thinking. And, trust—it isn’t just about feeling safe, it’s also about trust. Trust has developed over time, over the 6 years that we’ve been working together.

Shuana: What does that future vision look like?

Fatima: This part of the research is complete now. We are moving onto a different level of work, which is informed by the last 10 years of work. It’s not that we are finished working with each other; we are finished with what we’ve been working on. Fran: We are moving into the impact and influence phase. Fatima: We have developed an imaginary of what a decolonial relationship in education would look like, so we’re writing a book for preservice teachers and for educators to see the possibilities of working with difference. And our next phase, now, is to move into professional development for educators in higher education, at the university level. How does someone work in a decolonial way to educate students?… we want to look at it from a decolonial lens, from more pluralistic and more cosmopolitan ways of being and doing.

Fran: A few years ago, at a joint U of Regina/U of Exeter event, we made some contacts with some people in the UK. One contact in particular runs a community interest company, which is working with both in-service teachers and teacher educators. He calls it cooperative values-based education and he has become very interested in what we are doing, and likewise we are interested in what he is doing. He’s trying to work in ways that bring values and ethics back into what counts as education because in the UK we are so driven by the neo-liberal commodified version of education where everything is about assessment, targets, pupils are clients, input/output, everything is value for money…He’s trying to work with teachers who want to work otherwise than colonial. But there is also a decolonizing movement that has started in England, and we’re in at ground zero. Universities are coming to understand that they are not going to be able to do what they have been doing. All the others are focusing on the curriculum. Our focus is on the relationship and then the curriculum will follow.

Shuana: What would you say was the most significant, most exciting moment in your work thus far?

Fatima: When we discovered that we’d actually developed this imaginary that was working, that we could see how this could work in education. We weren’t even sure if it was going to be a heuristic, a framework, or an approach, and then we decided it had to be called an imaginary, because its so many possibilities. Fran: The work is all about trying to re-imagine what educational relationships are all about. Fatima: Within that educational relationship, it’s about relationship to people, to the space, so we’re taking in posthumanism—I don’t like to use the word posthumanism because this concept has existed for thousands of years in other communities…, —Fran: Human and more than human? Fatima: Yes, [the imaginary] encapsulates all that. I’m enthralled with it. We’ve seen how what we’ve been doing each year, how we’ve grown from our own understanding for how we can do it, and we can see the possibilities for our others to take this on.

Fran: I would say that equally my own personal shifts and growth, as a result of this relationship, opening my eyes and understanding to things that I was completely ignorant or unconscious of before. Ignorant in the sense of you don’t know what you don’t know. Fatima: I love working with Fran. Fran: Fatima’s generosity—as we’ve gotten to know each other, we’ve opened up our families to each other, as well, and Fatima has opened up her faith and given me insights that I would never have got otherwise, and that has been immensely rewarding.

Shuana: Key message to other researchers?

Fran: I would always recommend that researchers collaborate but in order to successfully collaborate, first of all you need to be in it for the long term, and secondly, you need to be prepared to stick through all the really, really tricky stuff.

Fatima: Critical relationality is the key to a long-term collaboration.

Opening a doorway to culture through equine assisted learning

Mishkwiingwese (She Blushes), Kelsey Moore, Zhiishigwan (Shaker/Rattle), and Angela McGinnis stand at the entrance sign, which commemorates the four grandmother mares from which the Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies at The Red Pony Stands® Ojibwe Horse Sanctuary descend. The seven ponies who reside at the Sanctuary, which is located near the Qu’Appelle valley, contain the two original bloodlines, the Keokuk and Nimkii lines. Their lineages date back to the four Original Mares from Lac La Croix First Nation and Bois Forte Band of Chippewa that were the last remaining in the world (Lilian, Biizhiki, Diamond, and Dark Face) who were strategically bred to a Spanish Mustang Stallion (Smokey) in 1977 in order to save the breed from extinction. (Source: www.theredponystands.com) Photo credit: Shuana Niessen

What is the connection between horses, educational psychology, and Indigenous youth and culture?

Reconnecting with cultural and traditional ways of knowing and being is increasingly seen as a significant part of the healing and learning process for First Nations peoples, whose culture has been historically and systemically oppressed by the colonization process. Language revitalization has been a key focus of cultural preservation and reclamation, but Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) is a relatively new and less understood approach to learning and healing, at least among the scientific community. For Indigenous peoples, however, horses have long been viewed as carriers of knowledge and healers. The preservation of the critically endangered Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies, then, is part of the process of cultural reclamation and preservation, and thereby healing and learning, as relations between Indigenous horses and peoples are (re)established.

Dr. Angela McGinnis, an Assistant Professor of educational psychology in the Faculty of Education and an Indigenous Health Researcher, and her graduate student, Kelsey Moore, are conducting SIDRU-funded research to better understand how and why Indigenous youth benefit from working with Indigenous horses, specifically the seven Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies being cared for by Angela and her partner Cullan McGinnis at The Red Pony Stands® Ojibwe Horse Sanctuary. Founded by Angela and Cullan, the Sanctuary “is an Indigenous owned and operated not-for-profit.” The Sanctuary receives some financial support by private and corporate sponsors and donors; however, these supports do not cover all of the costs: Angela says, “The majority of the work and expenses fall on my partner (Cullan) and I to keep the ponies happy and healthy, both physically and spiritually. Our mission is to protect, promote, and preserve the critically endangered Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony breed.”

Angela, Cullan, and the Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies all originate from Treaty 3 territory in Northwestern Ontario. Horses have been part of Angela’s life from her earliest memories at her home in Fort Frances. “I have a picture of me on a horse before I could even walk,” says Angela. Her parents were caretakers of Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies and Nez Perce horses. Angela credits her father as a mentor who has taught her a great deal from his knowledge of working with horses.

Reconnecting with her Métis/Ojibwe cultural identities has been a focus of Angela’s education and healing. Cultural connectedness was a central concept in her research at Western University, where she received a PhD in clinical psychology in 2015. As part of her doctoral research, Angela developed a measure to assist in determining the extent to which cultural connectedness is associated with health and well-being, specifically among First Nations youth. Angela’s findings indicate that cultural connectedness is a positive predictor of mental health. This is critical knowledge because, as Angela says, “the mental health and well-being of youth is one of the most urgent concerns affecting many First Nations communities across Canada.” Angela views her work in educational psychology as “a perfect fit” for the research in which she is engaged. She says healing and learning are inseparable: “You can’t have healing without learning, or learning without healing.”

Doodem (Clan), who is standing, is a 5-year-old sorrel stallion from Kichi Noodin off Ishkote. His genetically matched breeding partner, seen in the foreground, is Aazadi (Cottonwood Tree). Because the ponies are critically endangered, careful DNA testing must be done before the ponies can be bred to ensure their preservation. Photo credit: Shuana Niessen

Since completing her doctoral research, Angela has been seeking to understand how cultural connectedness can be developed through, what she calls, “real-world experiences,” which include strengthened relationships with the land and all its “more-than-human” creatures, particularly the Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony. Broadening health research to include the more-than-human world is important to Angela because, she says, “We need to situate well-being within a larger network of social relations, with both the human and more-than-human worlds. We need to focus beyond the individual and extend our understandings about health and well-being to living in relation to all else, not just for the present but for future generations as well.”

With her expertise in psychology and her passion for the preservation of the Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony breed, Angela is perfectly situated to bridge, in her words, “often seemingly conflicting world views… I understand Western mental health perspectives, but this work requires an understanding of Indigenous perspectives of holistic wellness to fully understand the role of the ponies in the resilience process.” Angela likens the loss of contact with Indigenous horses experienced by Indigenous communities to the loss of family members: “Part of their family has been ripped away,” she says. Reconnecting Indigenous youth and adults with Indigenous horses brings about “indescribable moments,” says Angela. These moments spark the ‘I remember when…’ stories told by Elders about the ponies and traditional ways of life and are, Angela believes, charged with healing potential. “These are moments that could potentially change someone’s life. To see that happening in front of you, it’s a privilege.” Angela felt especially privileged to hear of the repatriation of the Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony to Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nation, from which her partner, Cullan, originates. She says, “I was completely moved by the return of three black geldings to this community.” During a recent visit to see the community’s ponies, Cullan had opportunity to meet the geldings for the first time. Angela says, “The reunion of these family members was so powerful—an emotional reuniting. The bond between the geldings and Cullan was instant. It’s a culturally specific relationship that dates back to pre-Colonial contact. This type of relationship can’t be replicated with any other breed of horse.”

Family Reunion. The three Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies from Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nation gather around Cullan (Waabinaanikwad) McGinnis at first meeting. Photo credit: Angela McGinnis

Reunions such as these lead to the beginning of relationships with the more-than-human world, and are what Angela calls a “doorway to the culture,” which can help youth make other cultural connections, such as ceremony. For instance, Angela and Cullan’s relationship with the Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies at the Sanctuary has meant that they have sought guidance from local traditional Elders and engaged in horse-specific traditional ceremonies held in communities, such as the Horse Dance. Angela would like to share the doorway experience with her Educational Psychology students: “I want to help students step through that doorway. That’s how we understand how to help others, by experiencing it ourselves. And in return we help the ponies. That’s the whole mutual helping process, helping the horses in their fight against extinction. We need the Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies as much as they need us,” says Angela. She plans to start bringing her students out to the Sanctuary for classes in Spring. A 20-foot tipi will be raised as Angela prepares to bring her students in contact with the ponies and the land.

Master’s student Kelsey Moore, who received a B.Ed. in Indigenous Education from First Nations University of Canada, is now undertaking her M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Regina under the supervision of Dr. McGinnis and the mentorship of Life Speaker Noel Starblanket. Kelsey is Métis and grew up in Yorkton. Her lifelong passion for horses began with several summers spent working with youth at horse camps and riding stables and continued with her experience of getting to know the Curly Horse breed at her inlaws’ farm. Her thesis research question perfectly intersects with Angela’s interest in understanding and offering evidence-based research to explain how and why Indigenous youth benefit in both educational outcomes and mental health, through establishing relationships with horses and how Equine Assisted Learning programs can be successfully culturally adapted.

Angela, Mishkwiingwese (She Blushes), and Kelsey demonstrate a teamwork exercise, learned at the EAL certification course. Photo credit: Shuana Niessen

Kelsey and Angela are amazed to have found each other. Angela says, “What are the chances of me finding a student who wants to work with Indigenous horses?” The two researchers are working toward the same ends as those involved in language revitalization: “We are all tackling a shared goal: Cultural preservation,” Angela says. The actual preservation of the critically endangered Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony extends as a metaphor for cultural and identity preservation: “Their mere presence is a counternarrative to the colonial narrative of the extinction of Indigenous horses to the Americas,” says Angela. Indeed, the Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony’s survival itself inspires hope. But beyond that, Angela feels that interaction with Indigenous horses gives “Indigenous youth opportunities to connect with horses who have resilience and strength, like their own, that they can identify with, a culturally specific story,” she says.

What exactly is Equine Assisted Learning (EAL)?

Snowshoe and Starblanket (2016) state that EAL “is a relatively new approach to knowledge acquisition that draws primarily on the tenets of experiential learning, that is, learning through hands-on experience with the horse (Dell, Chalmers, Dell, Sauve, & MacKinnon, 2008).”

To deepen her understanding of EAL, Kelsey received EAL certification in August at Cartier Farms, near Prince Albert. Cartier Farms teaches that establishing an experiential hands-on working relationship with horses, with their sensitivity, non-verbal communications, resilience, and forgiving ways, can be an effective approach to learning, to self-knowledge, and to self-evaluation.

Angela, who has been guided by the traditional Elders, Knowledge Keepers, and communities with whom she has worked, sees the potential for healing and learning in culturally adapted EAL. Angela views horses as “more-than-human co-constructors of knowledge.” Horses have much to teach us about the land and living on the land, she says. Elders and Knowledge Keepers have taught Angela that, with their four feet always on the ground, horses have a greater connection with Mother Earth, and through this connection, the Creator. Thus, traditionally, horses have been considered a source of maintaining and recovering holistic wellness.

Upon the arrival of Angela’s first Pony at the Sanctuary, a beautiful stallion, affectionately named Sagineshkawa (Pleasure with my Arrival), she says, “I realized that I should not rush things. I needed to slow down and have humility, especially around a powerful being like a horse…This was the horse that I had to pay attention to and listen to spiritually.” Angela is grateful to all her ponies for their patience in teaching her. Kelsey’s experiences with horses have similarly given her the understanding that she must “slow down and be present in the moment,” she says. “Helping humans slow down is a way that the horses care for us,” says Angela. She views the horse-human relationship as one of mutual caring: “We are caretakers of them and the land, but the ponies also take care of us.”

Yet, there is an urgency that requires speed in this research due to the need for Indigenous youth to be able to access culturally adapted healing and learning programs. As a mother of a toddler, Kelsey had intended to move a bit slower with her research, but she says everything is moving much quicker than she planned or expected. Kelsey’s research, using what Angela describes as “a pure Indigenous research method,” seeks to understand the spiritual and cultural connections between Indigenous youth and Indigenous horses. Incorporating ceremony as research, Kelsey is documenting her interactions and deep listening experiences with the ponies, along with the conversations she has with Elders and Knowledge Keepers to make sense of what she observes.

The two researchers are already envisioning and talking about future plans. Angela says, “We hope to apply for an operating grant to help Kelsey set up her own Indigenous-centered Equine-Assisted Learning and healing program in the community, following the completion of her academic work.”

The Sanctuary has recently gained international attention. It will be featured in a short documentary film currently being produced by National Geographic as part of the Natural Connections Project. The film will document how EAL contributes to the well-being of First Nations youth. Through the film, Angela hopes to showcase “how Indigenous communities are using horses to connect with culture, strengthen positive relationships, and learn through activities with horses and nature.”

By Shuana Niessen

Credits for photos below: Shuana Niessen 2018