As she considers the future of Western’s First Nations Studies program, Janice Forsyth is most excited by the momentum and institutional support generated by the university’s Indigenous Strategic Plan.
“The program has been around for more than a decade and is undergoing review. We’re taking a look at its strengths and trying to figure out how to build on those so we can move forward, alongside the Indigenous Strategic Plan, toward department status,” said Forsyth, who took on the role of Director of First Nations Studies (FNS) in July.
“We have to figure out what we are going to do, and what we are going to become, in this new era. The plan is exciting because it means we will be able to create change so that (the program) is better for all of the students at Western, including Indigenous students.”
As Western moves forward in implementing its Indigenous Strategic Plan, following thorough consultations with members of the campus community, as well as local and regional First Nations communities, the timing of the program review for FNS is serendipitous. While the university continues to work towards creating an inclusive and supportive campus community for Indigenous students, staff and faculty, FNS is well-positioned to re-evaluate its agenda and its offerings, Forsyth noted. Up until now, the program was often under pressure to be “everything to everybody.”
“The university and the Provost’s office are doing a really good job, with broader community consultations and with the outside community, and that allows us at the program to focus internally on what we can do,” Forsyth said.
Prior to the consultations and the implementation of the Indigenous Strategic Plan, academic, as well as non-academic, offerings and supports were heavily dependent on FNS, she explained. Connecting with the community and looking for ways to support Indigenous students unofficially went alongside the program’s academic mandate.
“For a long time, the program struggled because it was trying to be all of these things at once – and it couldn’t. It is really nice now that Indigenous Services is there – and they are super strong. We have the Provost’s office on board, doing a good job of trying to figure out how to move the agenda along with First Nations communities,” she added.
“And that allows us to ask, what are we as a department, as opposed to what are we to everybody else? We can’t be everything to everybody. This momentum and institutional support allows us to focus on our academic mandate, to be a really strong academic unit. I’m excited about that and being able to do that for the students.”
Forsyth steps into the role of FNS director from a position in the Faculty of Health Sciences, which she joined in January 2010, as Director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies.
Her research focus is the history of Indigenous physical culture and how it can be used to understand the history of Indigenous-settler relations in Canada. She is currently working on a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded project on physical culture in the Indian Residential School system.
“We have a lot of change coming in the next three years. A departmental review is really a reflective process; this is a good time to do this. There’s my vision for the program, but it’s about what other people are saying. My job here is to talk to people who have been around for a really long time, and to the students who are going through the program, to determine what the program can be,” Forsyth said.
“We will be thinking of what we are doing well that other schools aren’t, and how we can be different in this new space where a lot of universities and colleges are jumping on board to do something around reconciliation. We want to do it in a meaningful way, like the university is, by doing a really good job consulting with the local communities and broader communities. Our job is to figure out how to do this internally, to figure out where we fit in terms of other institutions and how we can succeed in doing that,” she continued.
“I can’t imagine trying to move this program along as a department before the plan came along. There would be too much responsibility heaped upon FNS; there’s no way we could do it all. Now that there’s this broader institutional support, we can move forward. We’re really open and interested in collaboration with other programs and faculties on campus, trying to break down silos.”