UBC school adopts First Nations curriculum
Sauder School of Business ahead of curve following Truth and Reconciliation report
A major culture shift is afoot at the University of B.C.’s Sauder School of Business.
Amie Wolf, an aboriginal woman from Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., is one of the most recent hires at Sauder, brought on to help develop an ambitious and far-reaching First Nations curriculum that will be embedded into the learning of every student accepted into the business school.
Wolf’s task is straightforward — sensitize students to the legacy of residential schools in B.C., the economic barriers facing some First Nations, and the way to do business with them, practically and respectfully.
Speak to Wolf about her work and its importance and complexity soon becomes evident.
“It’s one thing on National Aboriginal Day to celebrate the grass dance and the hoop dance and the dress and the bannock. No one would disagree that we welcome that,” said Wolf in a recent interview.
But business is “where the rubber hits the road,” said Wolf, who sees inspiring her students to care as a step toward taking down the systemic and persistent economic marginalization of Aboriginal people.
“To actually take a step forward, as a business student, to address those wrongs, that is awesome. And that means business. That’s putting your money where your mouth is.”
Wolf’s work on a First Nations curriculum is part of a recent refocus on values, ethics and social responsibility at Sauder, said Darren Dahl, a senior associate dean at the school.
He said not only is there a “moral obligation” for Sauder to help build bridges between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and cultures, “it just makes good business sense.”
“If students are graduating with no awareness of these issues and business concepts that surround First Nations, that’s a fail,” Dahl said.
“It’s come to a time point that this has become a salient issue and part of that is the evolution of how First Nations are being acknowledged in the broader society,” he said. “Were our students well-versed in these issues 10 years ago? Probably not at all.”
Given that joint ventures with First Nations are increasingly appearing across the provincial landscape, the school has a better sense than it did even a decade ago of what has worked and what has failed, making it easier to develop a useful curriculum, Dahl said.
Should Sauder eventually see some of its graduates working with First Nations as a career focus, that would be a big victory, he said. So, too, would be seeing more Aboriginal students and faculty attracted to the business school, he added.
Wolf’s arrival at Sauder was somewhat fortuitous. When her job teaching adult basic education in Vancouver was axed as a result of provincial funding cuts, she approached the school with a portfolio. Dahl invited her to teach a guest lecture on First Nations business relations last fall, then invited her to design a course on First Nation/private sector joint-venture partnerships. The first round of eight students finished taking that course this spring.
The work is deeply personal for Wolf. When speaking of it she drew on her own past to give insight into part of the reason why the economic marginalization of First Nations has persisted.
“I was adopted into a white family and I was given just one (warning) and that was my adopted dad saying to me: ‘This is your cultural background — you’re First Nations. But you don’t tell anyone about it, you don’t talk about it and … if you do mention it, no one is going to want to hire you for a job and no one is going to want to be your friend.’ To me, that was the extent of my education.”
Later, Wolf learned members of her family had hidden from her the fact she had a Cree sister.
That kind of social segregation and stigma doesn’t just go away in a day, Wolf said.
“I’m deeply committed to desegregation,” she said. “Until we’re equal, we will always be at the mercy of people who have compassion or understanding or who are willing to do it differently. But (it is not) until we have our own economic base that we’ll be free.”
Wolf relies on longhouse protocols during class and facilitates in a sharing circle format. Instead of receiving a lecture and information in a top-down fashion, students read up on topics before class and take turns speaking about them.
It’s about “thawing the colonial experience of education,” she said.
Wolf’s curriculum and the school’s approach has put Sauder out in front of a recent call by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for educators to integrate teachings about First Nations perspectives and experiences into broader curricula.
While Dahl said the changes being made at Sauder are unlikely to be drastic, the fact that a business school is teaching this subject at all may come as a surprise. First Nations curricula have been taught in law and arts faculties for years, but it’s something fairly new to business school, Dahl said.
Katriona MacDonald, a senior adviser to the dean and CAO at Sauder, said she has heard from students that they have been wanting more education in this area.
“If you do not emerge from a business program with some ability to engage comfortably in some way with these topics, then we have failed as a business school. That’s just how we see it,” she said.