Integrating Indigenous perspectives into early childhood studies (ECS) and responding to the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action are the goals of a landmark $1-million donation provided this month to the University of Guelph-Humber.
New funding from the Calgary-based Flanagan Foundation will support the hiring of an Indigenous faculty member through the University of Guelph as well as an Indigenous curriculum specialist for the ECS program offered at Guelph-Humber in Toronto.
The initiative will make Guelph-Humber one of only a few post-secondary ECS programs in Canada with a dedicated Indigenous faculty member, said Dr. Nikki Martyn, ECS program head.
Along with the new curriculum specialist, the new professor – to be hired through U of G’s Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition (FRAN) – will help ensure that students gain exposure to Indigenous knowledge and experience.
Dr. Kim Anderson, a professor and Indigenous scholar in FRAN, has taught Indigenous units across the curriculum in her department and welcomes the expertise that an Indigenous early childhood education (ECE) professional will bring.
“This is a great opportunity to enhance child studies in FRAN,” she said. “I’m very excited that our students will be able to learn about all the tremendous work that Indigenous communities have done in ECE over the years.”
ESC students to support culturally sensitive approach to educating children
Wider and more inclusive perspectives help early childhood professionals connect and work more effectively with Indigenous families and children, Martyn said.
“When they’re engaging with an Indigenous family, the ECEs can share in the understanding of their history, culture and experiences, supporting a more attuned and culturally sensitive approach to their work in caring for and educating children,” she said.
Referring to families’ potential experience of impacts of trauma from colonization and Canada’s residential school system, Martyn said ECS students exposed to enriched cultural programming “will feel more confident in connecting respectfully and with care, compassion and empathy. They will understand and see the world from a different vantage point, which is important for reconciliation and creating change in the world.”
Martyn said she hopes the new positions will attract more Indigenous students to the program, particularly from Northern communities that mostly lack trained early childhood educators.
“What excites me is the ripple effect. When new ways of understanding are modelled, we provide students with opportunities to see their lived experience in a new way that can positively impact the way in which children understand and engage in relationships and with the world around them.”
The ECS program is the third largest among Guelph-Humber’s seven academic programs.
Nearly 900 students are enrolled in early childhood studies, including about 425 full-time students over the four-year program. More than 450 working professionals enrol in online studies to upgrade skills and knowledge.
Initiative to strengthen ties with U of G experts, child care centre
The program already includes an introductory Indigenous studies course; Martyn said most existing courses also touch upon Indigenous topics. She expects the new hires will help to extend such offerings and strengthen collaborations with colleagues in FRAN within the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences and at U of G’s Child Care and Learning Centre.
“Those U of G units will also benefit from the expertise of the curriculum specialists in their unique programs, integrating and impacting all the child-focused communities at U of G,” said Martyn.
The curriculum specialist will likely be hired by this fall. The new faculty member is expected to be in place by summer 2023.
That professor will teach and conduct research, potentially investigating the effects of early childhood services and supports in Canada. “We hope the new faculty member will be able to explore how to enhance the support and connection with children and families,” said Martyn.
The Flanagan Foundation contacted the university earlier this year after learning of Guelph-Humber’s program and its events to mark Orange Shirt Day, an annual initiative to raise awareness of Indigenous history and the impacts of residential schools. Those events were led by ECS instructor Christine Zupo, who teaches the introductory Indigenous studies course.
“There is strong evidence that early childhood education is a route to a healthier and more equitable society,” said Kathleen Timms, a board member of the foundation.
Noting that the federal government plans to fund the provision of more child-care and preschool places, she said, “We hope that supporting this initiative by the University of Guelph-Humber will enable teachers to be equipped to teach all Canadian preschoolers about our own Indigenous peoples’ ways of knowing and being. We trust this will be a step toward reconciliation of all our Canadian nations.”
The organization’s funding is expected to help in addressing the pertinent “call to action” of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report to develop culturally appropriate early childhood education programs.
“We are grateful for the Flanagan Foundation’s recognition of the work that Guelph-Humber’s early childhood studies program has been leading,” said Dr. Melanie Spence-Ariemma, vice-provost of the University of Guelph-Humber.
“The foundation’s incredible support gives us the opportunity to further strengthen our training of early childhood professionals and, in turn, to improve the lives of Indigenous children and families.”
Dr. Nikki Martyn