Peacebuilding, Justice, and Security: Taking Stock of the Past 25 Years

Title: Peacebuilding, Justice, and Security: Taking Stock of the Past 25 Years

Writer: Norma Roumie


Photo taken by Norma Roumie on March 1st 2018

The Conflict Research Center of Saint Paul University and the Peace and Conflict Studies Association of Canada hosted a conference on peacebuilding – taking stock of the past 25 years. The panels brought together top experts in the field to discuss the interlinking aspects of memory and justice issues; power struggles and cooperation between locals and international actors; as well as security sector reform and state-building. The panelists identified best practices in these critical areas and left the audience with many thought-provoking questions on the future of peacebuilding.

Professor Neil Sargent, John Packer, and Philippe Dufort discussed the need for national dialogue and the importance of memory, as well as the intersection between justice issues and conflict resolution as indicative of the relationship between peace and justice. The notion of national dialogue is a new mechanism in the toolbox for international actors, and it is instrumental for the creation of a visioning process that incorporates diversity and overcomes the ‘us versus them’ dichotomy that is highly politicized in post-conflict settings. A national dialogue is a series of structured and political space that allows the recognition and exchange of different voices and does not necessarily have to lead to decision making. This has proved instrumental when it has occurred in both Yemen and Colombia. Part of this process of reconciliation is moving from the politics of violence to the politics of dialogue; identifying the moral and critical claims arising from the past and how we can solve them for the future. Judicial mechanisms are necessary for rewriting a moral balance and addressing past war crimes and reparation claims. When this is ignored, it undermines the future regime and the indispensable reconciliation efforts. Despite the importance of this, there is an inclination towards the politics of forgetting, in which many countries have instituted a very intentional model of legislated amnesty from past crimes to prevent the past from disrupting the future. The practical reality though is that negative peace proceeds positive peace because it is tough to build a society when there is violence. On the other hand, sustainable peace requires society to be able to manage conflict that’s naturally occurring – through arrangements, constitutions, and judicial mechanisms.

Andy Tamas and Ruby Dagher discussed the importance of examining local dynamics and engaging locals in the process of peacebuilding. Andy Tamas’s presentation on local management and regulation surrounding water and irrigation systems in Afghanistan illustrated the value of examining traditional systems. When conflict emerged between upstream and downstream farms in a rural area in Afghanistan, communities worked on an equitable way of managing the water and irrigation systems. A dialogue between communities led to the election of mediators, who would become known as Mirabs, elected to operate the water systems, without state interference. In its development efforts, donors like the USAID attempted to change this and put in a sophisticated western irrigation system that failed and would later be recognized as undoing an advanced traditional system. The USAID overlooked the fact that provincial councils conducted 80% of conflict resolution and that the Mirabs system was a completely decentralized and efficient traditional system. Exporting western structures to these societies does not always work, and it ignores local dynamics and the value of local knowledge. Instead, the challenge is to look at the context and engage the locals in understanding the benefits of the traditional system to reform them into better performing hybrid traditional-modern systems.

The importance of examining local dynamics was also reiterated through Ruby Dagher’s presentation in which she discussed the role that perceptions play in how citizens assign process and performance legitimacy to either their leaders or the state and the implications this has on post-conflict institution building. In many cases of conflict, where the state is absent or weakened, leaders take care of the population and capture legitimacy. This, in turn, leads to states emerging out of conflict with low-performance legitimacy. Case studies of Lebanon, Senegal, and Sudan reveal that performance legitimacy is more valuable than process legitimacy. A significant challenge for post-conflict states is building state capacity to provide for their citizens, which is essential for linking performance legitimacy to the state.

Gaelle Rivard Piche and Professor Stephen Baranyi discussed security provisions as a necessary pre-condition for the implementation of peacebuilding programs. They bring attention to the fact that security sector reforms are a top priority for external actors but that in many cases they have ignored context and have led to a vicious cycle of violence. Host governments and international actors must work together on security sector reforms and not dismiss local actors and their realities. El-Salvador, and Haiti were referenced throughout the discussion, both of which showcase complicated cases where it has been difficult to consolidate security and peace. In El Salvador 80% of security sector reform investment goes to law enforcement and ignores other areas. However, for there to be progress there must be more investments into social and economic development, because no amount of policing and law enforcement training will lead to sustainable security. Where state institutions are usually weak, and civil society is marginalized, these issues are amplified. Although, there is a move away from large military stabilization missions to civilian-led justice missions today, where donor security interests take precedence, where state institutions are usually weak, and civil society is marginalized these issues are amplified.

Despite a mixed record of peacebuilding, discussions such as this, between practitioners and academics are essential for taking stock of lessons, challenges, and opportunities that will continue to mark the next 25 years. Locals are at the heart of what peacebuilding is meant to do, in the end, security and peace are not possible without the main beneficiaries taking the lead role while western development actors facilitate and provide expertise. The lessons of the past have taught us that peacebuilding should focus more on local dynamics, social and economic development, state capacity, national dialogue and reconciliation efforts.  Complex intra-state conflicts, the emergence of different development actors, and the increased inclusion of local actors in peacebuilding brings a set of challenges and opportunities. So, what does this mean for the future of peacebuilding? Peacebuilding is one of the central innovations in conflict resolution, and professor Vern Neufeld Redekop’s presentation on integrative peacebuilding captures the need to develop heuristic skills to deal with complex and multiple challenges. This means taking the best of approaches that can then be integrated into one.

Kaandossiwin: How We Come To Know

Book Title: Kaandossiwin: How We Come To Know

Author: Kathleen E. Absolon

Review by: Athavarn Srikantharajah 


This document was produced by a non-white settler on Turtle Island. CMIC operates on stolen unceded Algonquin Territory, and attempts to be cognisant of the role of colonization in this work. I would like to make clear that I am a first-generation Tamil person on this land, whose family was forced here from Sri Lanka because of forms of colonization that affected my people, but through a refugee program established through colonial laws and governance. I have only received formalized education through colonial institutions. These experiences shape my worldview, and how I interpret Indigenous ways of knowing.


Cover page of the book Kaandossiwin: How we Come to Know, by Kathleen E.Absolon

This document serves as a summary of Kathleen E. Absolon’s Kaandossiwin: How We Come to Know, and the key teachings that may help folks involved with CMIC or taking the certification program. With Western scientific methodologies dominating academia and many other spaces, it is important to consider other pathways to knowledge and understanding when administering a certification program for community mobilization. One such pathway is through Indigenous pedagogical approaches. Though it is difficult for non-indigenous, specifically non-Annishanaabe folks to adopt these approaches in research, there are key learnings that can guide the way in which we conduct research from the context of our worldviews and perspectives. Absolon’s book is an examination of Indigenous methodologies told through her specific Anishanaabe worldview. This book explores broader ways of knowing by exploring 11 graduate theses by Indigenous scholars. Absolon explores the petal flower as a metaphor for how we acquire knowledge.


Indigenous methodology centres the knowledge found from within. We must acknowledge that how we come to know is living and fluid, and that these processes include the spirit, the heart, and the mind. Before beginning the search for knowledge, one must consider the spiritual, cultural, political, and social effects that are present within their life and worldview.

According to Lester Rigney, an Indigenous Australian Scholar (1999), “[lived experiences] speak on the basis of these experiences and are powerful instruments by which to measure the equality and social justice of society.” With this in mind, Absolon discusses repeatedly throughout the text that it is important to acknowledge that within Indigenous epistemologies, one does not attempt to interpret lived experiences through another’s worldview. Absolon frequently cites the phrase “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

Decolonizing and Indigenizing (Re)Search

In the book, Absolon recognizes that colonized knowledge is meant to dominate, within it ignorance prevails, and that through it colonization and superiority are internalized. Thus, decolonization and Indigenizing is “about both knowing, and having critical consciousness about our cultural history.”


Within this framework of (re)search, the following must be taken into consideration:

  • Community: community should be respected, and each community’s ownership of the research is honoured.
  • Respect: Absolon warns to avoid voyeurism, outsider interpretation, objectification of culture, and reductionist analysis. “Within Aboriginal culture, one does not inquire or tell about matters that do not directly concern one.”
  • Take accountability: claim and openly state who you are before you begin your search for knowledge.
  • Non-neutrality: understand that our voices are not neutral. How we come to know is linked to our historical, political, legal, economic, geographical, cultural, spiritual, environmental, and experiential contexts.
  • Knowledge is relational: knowledge is derived through our mind, body, and spirit, in connection with all of Creation.
  • Solution-focused: Absolon states that “the seeking of knowledge has been solution focused and often has an underlying purpose of survival.”
  • Unstructured: within Indigenous epistemologies there are no prescriptions or formulas, models are always multi-dimensional, layered, and wholistic.

The Petal Flower Model

In the book, Absolon uses the Petal Flower as a model for how we come to know. This for several reasons. First, the flower’s survival is dependant on several internal and external factors. The components of the flower are interrelated and interdependent. Furthermore, it is earth centred and exists within a relationship with all of Creation. The flower is also cyclical, as it changes constantly. Finally, it has a spirit and life that is impacted by the environment within which it exists. The following are taken from Absolon’s summary of the model.

Indigenous Flowers of the Hawaiian Islands by Mrs. Frances Sinclair, Plate 17 (Argemone glauca), 1885. Image produced in the context of colonial dominance in Hawaii.


  • The roots are the grounding for Indigenous methods.
  • The life and presence of the flower depends on its roots.
  • Prioritize Indigenous knowledge, worldviews and principles in the research.
  • Position Indigenous ways at the centre and refuse to see them in relation to western/dominant ways of knowing.

Flower Centre: Self

  • The centre of the flower represents self and self in relation to the re-search.
  • Place yourself at the central presence in the research.
  • Know your location: who you are, what you know and where you are from.
  • Commit to re-searching relationships, Indigenous peoples and communities.
  • Dedicate to recovering humanity and rehumanizing knowledge production.
  • Remember you motives and re-member your relations.

Leaves: The Journey

  • The leaves enable the photosynthesis of knowledge: transformative journeys.
  • The leaves embody the journey of the self through the research process.
  • Embark on processes and travel on search journeys that are emergent, transformative, learning and healing.
  • Attune to process.

Stem: Critical Consciousness and Supports.

  • The stem represents the methodological backbone and connecter between all parts of the whole.
  • Have a strong backbone: a confrontation of colonial history with socio-political honesty.
  • Integrate Indigenous knowledge and decolonizing ideologies, thoughts, feelings, frameworks, and models of practice.
  • Acknowledge the supports of ancestors, family, community, Elders, and Creation.
  • Capitalize on our strengths and supports throughout.

Petals: Diversity in Methods

  • The petals represent the diversity of Indigenous re-search methodologies.
  • Accept diverse, eclectic and varied Indigenous approaches as essential and useful for Indigenous scholars’ research.
  • Use a wholistic and cyclical approach that attends to Spirit, heart, mind and body.
  • Use methods that are culturally relative and rooted in doing and being. Methodologies rooted in oral traditions involve ceremony, song, stories, teaching and knowledge that are creative, diverse, visual, oral, experiential, and sensory based.

Environmental Contexts

  • The environmental context of the petal flower influences the life of Indigenous methodologies in the academy and affects Indigenous re-searchers who are trying to advance their theories and methods.
  • Make strategic decisions related to coping with obstacles and gatekeepers, the committee and writing oral traditions.
  • Negotiate and deal with the clash of academic and Indigenous theories, methods, and expectations to create change.


As a student of social sciences at the University of Ottawa, and having only ever learned to learn through colonial methodologies, Kaandossowin: How We Come to Know has been a revolutionary process of dismembering a poisonous attempt to re-member my body, mind, and spirit into a way of knowing that is relational. I was able to apply to some of the core principles in an anti-colonial context as well as broader Tamil/Desi ways of knowing. As Absolon states in her book, the active process of her writing this book on Indigenous methodologies is in and of itself apart of the process of decolonization and an act of defiance against colonial education.

Kathleen E. Abolon (Minogiizhigokwe). (2011). Kaandossiwin: How We Come to Know.

Halifax, NS: Fernwood Publishing.

 To maintain personal accountability, please feel free to reach out to me at to discuss my summary of the text further.


Traditional Foreign Aid

Title: Traditional Foreign Aid

Writer: Sebastian Tansil


Aid usually comes in the form of Official Development Assistance (ODA) which is defined as “flows of financing administered with the promotion of the economic development and welfare of development countries as the main objective and which are concessional in character with a grant element of at least 25 percent.” (OECD 2003)

ODA has been criticized for a variety of reasons. Some of them include: the potential mal-intent of traditional donor countries who inscribe their foreign aid within a broader foreign policy agenda based  more on their national self-interest rather than on the genuine welfare of recipient countries, the risk of the aid being “captured” by corrupt bureaucracy instead of it actually going to the poorest, the “waste of aid” because of a lack of institutional capacity in distributing the money to the poor, and maybe sometimes the burdensome series of conditions attached to aid by Northern countries which are bureaucratically challenging alongside it being ideologically imposing to reflect more the neoliberal market-based political economies of Northern donors.

This “top-down” approach to foreign aid has been criticized for its lack of equal “partnership” between donors and recipient states, leading to a lack of effectiveness in policy coherence between the aid and non-aid policies of donor countries in actually bringing about long-term development. This stubborn power relationship between donor and recipient countries has made it difficult for developing countries to achieve genuine “country ownership” – the ability of recipient states to effectively take ownership over its own long-term development needs and processes (Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness 2005). The necessity of country ownership is important for truly effective aid and long-term development. This requires recipient states to have the needed capacity in its institutions and governance to manage the humanitarian, capital investing, development needs of its own country.

Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed addresses a discussion on the Sustainable Development Goals, entitled, “SDGs in Action: Country-led, Country-owned”. 21 September 2017, United Nations, New York

Unfortunately, the principle of country ownership is very hard to achieve in crisis zones where “fragile states” do not have the institutional or governance capacities to steer their own policies and implement/apply mechanisms of foreign aid onto their local populace. In crisis zones, foreign aid becomes difficult to manage by the recipient state and harder to manage in assuring it trickles down from state bureaucracy and into the most poor and marginalized individuals and communities of society.

The Fragile States Principles (2007) drafted by the DAC Fragile States Group gave a nuanced analysis on states with limited institutional capacity – evaluating the “deterioration of state-society relations, at the exclusion of constituencies such as women, the poor and ethnic minorities.” Northern donors in response have sought to assure more “effective” management of its own aid to recipient societies by “bypassing the state” altogether through non-governmental channels where arguably “compliant” NGOs faithfully execute the services and aid in a manner which reflects Northern interests. This bypassing of the recipient states arguably further exacerbates the capacity of states in crisis situations to build its own governance capacities.

Knowledge Sharing, Discourse Change and Empowering Social Change Leaders

Phronesis is “the practical wisdom born of an intimate familiarity with a practice that could help people act effectively in particular situations”. (Schram 2013, pg. 369) This technique “features a problem-driven approach that mixes methods to address issues of power involved in specific public problems people are struggling to address” (Schram 2013, pg. 360), and aims to identify tension points within social and political relations that admit of possibilities for change (Schram 2013, pg. 371). Phronesis seeks to directly meet the needs of communities and “prioritizes working alongside marginalized and ordinary people and communities to build knowledge, working from the assumption that “ordinary people, provided with tools and opportunities, are capable of critical reflection and analysis” (Maguire 2014, pg. 421).

Although the development community has a lot of expertise and wisdom on advancing social change, that knowledge often resides in silos, either locked in individual heads or buried within organizations. This limited access to learning, insights, evidence and best practices constrains what a lot of local actors can achieve–both individually and collectively as a community sector seeking to create impact and bring about change.

I’ve found while researching for CMIC that there is a large wealth of organizations which tackle this exact development need/area. A lot of grassroots knowledge sharing organizations have the objective of surfacing these ideas, experiences and practices, so that they can be equipped to tackle the real-world reality of social change and community development. As a grassroots organization, they have the unique ability in highlighting voices on various relevant issues facing all kinds of local leaders.  In other words, there is a substantial portion of independent grassroots knowledge-sharing organizations which seek to bring about best practices in community development and social change tailored to empower social change local actors in their particular context.

One such example is the India’s Development Review (IDR). The IDR is “India’s first independent online media platform for leaders in the development community. [Their] mission is to advance knowledge on social impact in India by publishing ideas, opinion, analysis and lessons from real-world practice. [Their] job is to make things simple and relevant so [Indian community development leaders] can do more of what they do, better.” (

Their founding team is composed of four women who have a combined experience of more than 50 years in nonprofit, private sector, CSR, consulting and journalism. They bring to light narratives of social exclusion and marginalization in different aid programs, provide practical tips and share experiences on how various nonprofits and companies can partner with the government from the grassroots level to achieve sustainable development goals and long term social change.

Their articles and content have assisted many local Indian community leaders running nonprofits, CSR, and consulting firms in mobilizing local actors to participatory social change. Their content has also affected mainstream western academia as their articles are featured in The Economist, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Times of India, The Economic Times, Mint, the Guardian and Next Billion, among other publications.

Similarly, the Community Development Resource Association (CDRA) “is a non-governmental African organizational advancing conscious and continuous learning about development processes and art of intervention. They do this through organizational interventions, training, accompanied learning and collaborative explorations. Out of active reflection on different experiences, and through writing and disseminating, they share insights and lessons gained, seeking to impact on wider development thinking and processes. They strive to bring to birth new consciousness, creativity and strength in those with whom they work (on the grassroots), thus facilitating a more collective development” (

With founding members with different professional experience and from different parts of Africa, the CDRA researches extensive policy analyses on sustainable development strategies alongside planning, monitoring and reporting mechanisms for various community development actors. It provides training material for change agents to be equipped with policy and reporting tools from the various articles and tutorials they provide. It wouldn’t be until 2007 when the Barefoot Guide launched an alliance among the major knowledge sharing grassroots development policy organization.

Barefoot guide, originally stemming from CDRA, would amalgamate the wider community of community development practitioners to bring about extremely accessible resources for social change actors. They publish Barefoot Guides through collaborative Writeshops focusing on different spheres of social change practice with the participation of over 240 practitioners from all continents. Each Barefoot Guide describes on the ground experiences, deep analyses and helpful frameworks, written in straightforward language and artistically illustrated with images and poetry. For them, “accessible practice description is key to enabling the full and joint participation of a wider variety of stakeholders, particularly to include leaders at local or community level in practice dialogue with government officials, donors and NGO practitioners. Academic texts, while helpful for some, often serve to exclude and undermine the participation of community stakeholders in their own processes of change” (

If we take a constructivist/de-constructivist lens, emphasis is placed on the expression of pervading ideas and norms which focus on aid practices as discourse and ways of exerting power. The aid industry continues to struggle with the question of how research influences policymaking, while it is equally possible that policy influences research, particularly when much of the development research is traditionally directly funded by the Northern aid industry itself.

“For many European countries the aid industry had its origins in the colonial period, and early development projects were set up by colonial administrations. Academic research informed the colonial administration and western anthropologists were the ones who educated administrations about local populations.” (Haan 2009, pg. 65)

Photo taken in Jan 2007, In Ramallah/Al-bireh, on the main street heading to Jerusalem/Qalandia Checkpoint of a poster on advertisement space, printed as an advertisement for the USAID

Thus, it is interesting to see how research and articles from non-Western sources originating from grassroots offers a form of “resistance” to traditionally dominant Western conceptions of aid and effective development (who have also dominated the discourse and terminology of the aid regime). Knowledge sharing grassroots community development organizations have the potential of decolonizing knowledge practices and subverting the hierarchies of global power that are at work in how research is structured.

Scholars have emphasized the importance of developing and articulating new ontologies and epistemologies that better reflect non-western viewpoints. The global political economy of scholarly knowledge demands that work be produced in English for an audience in the Global North (Hanafi 2011), just as the global aid system demands that NGOs and groups working for change in the Global South spend a disproportionate amount of their time translating their work into English, and into frameworks most relevant to their Northern funders, in order to continue to exist.

Organizations like CDRA, Barefoot and IDR contribute to a growing resistant literature who seek to publish research and resources grounded in the experiences of conflict and displacement, supporting local community development actors with the grassroots connected work they are already doing. They provide new narratives and discourse of engagement that arguably “reflects the reality of the ground as barefoot as possible” ( This counter-narrative can change the way aid is structured and the way aid is perceived by DAC countries that have a narrow-minded view of how they want to administer ODA. This narrow-minded view suits the “West knows Best” dogma that has generated multiple criticisms from the development community and grassroots actors who are radically more connected with the needs of the recipient state and local community.

In other words, Foreign aid doesn’t simply need to look like the form of giving financial transfers but can also be knowledge and information sharing to local grassroots actors to do their own unique development work. This allows them to be locally rooted and internationally connected, providing them with the tools to address more “endogenous” issues of under-development. These tools will help community development actors be leaders. Leadership is approached not as a position, but as a practice, helping the local community accept responsibility for enabling others to achieve solutions under conditions of uncertainty. This sort of practice is a way of allowing more people to join in the work and to take part with their own creative ideas, identities and aesthetics.

A portion of traditional ODA could be used to support these endogenous locally rooted research knowledge-sharing initiatives and scholarship money could be re-directed from Western pre-colonial aid institutions to partnered universities in recipient states. This allows for a change in culture from the bottom-up regarding ownership, equipping local actors to take their own initiative in bringing about social change and advocating as well for their own long-term development needs. It is recognizable, however, that those Western research institutions in recipient states will continue to advocate for their own self-generated material. Higher education institutions and universities in DAC countries can counter this work by leveraging the work and research of grassroots communities, giving it credence and value. A bottom-up change in Western academia from Western-centric models of community development (which has exclusively focused for instance on North American impoverished communities) to the work of local community development actors in these crisis zones could change the culture in how aid is perceived and understood.

It is good to see that many news article agencies (The Economist, Globe and Mail, etc.) and universities like Harvard, University of Toronto and University of Ottawa have started the work of bringing about that perspective change. As community-based approaches become useful to how the international community responds during crises, the scholarly community is coming to realize that we lack the research to understand how these factors matter to organizing and mobilization processes. The North needs to have a clearer comprehensive understanding of how community mobilization can be a key element in bottom-up development which can work in tandem with top-down approaches of the recipient state to achieve overall country ownership.


How Laurentian’s School of Indigenous Social Work Reimagined Distance Education to Reach Students in Remote Communities

Author: Hermona Kuluberhan

Outside of the Indigenous Sharing and Learning Centre at the Sacred Fire pit –  picture taken of the Helping Relationship Class – (Basic Intervention Skills)

The ultimate purpose of a distance education program is to make education accessible to those who cannot be physically present on campus. Whether or not an individual receive an education, as well as the quality of education they receive should not be defined by something as arbitrary as geography. Yet even within these models of education, students are in danger of losing out on something equally as important as the education itself: face-to-face interaction with their instructor. This was the dilemma faced by Arlene Johnson and the team at Laurentian University of Indigenous Social Work – how can students in remote locations be provided with the same quality of education as their counterparts on campus, despite the existing geographic barriers?

The School was already operating a distance education program that met the needs of the majority of the enrolled students, however these students were still missing out on the benefits of having a professor physically present in the classroom. The answer to this dilemma? Another question: why not physically bring the course content to the students instead? Students might not be able to come to campus but there is nothing preventing professors from going to their students. Starting from this idea, the School of Indigenous Social Work embarked on a partnership with the community where they sent a professor to Kenora, Ontario to teach the core courses of the Bachelor of Indigenous Social Work program.

The program brought a live professor to students who were unable to be physically present at the Sudbury campus. Johnson’s role within the project was to act as the Partnership Coordinator for the program as well as a point of access entry for students studying within the School partnership agreement with the Seven Generations Education Institute (SGEI). Within this partnership, SGEI provided the School’s faculty member with the space and administrative support needed to teach and support the students enrolled in the program. It was this partnership between SGEI and Laurentian University that piqued the interest of Professor Emily Wills of the University of Ottawa’s Political Studies department. Wills invited Johnson and the executive director of SGEI Bill Perrault to come to CMIC’s conference. At the conference, Johnson and Perrault shared how the School of Indigenous Relations (SIR) collaborated with SGEI to bring education to students in rural and remote communities.

“Students who may struggle with mainstream service system interface or other problems preventing them from utilizing other university systems provided to the greater university community,” Johnson says are the program’s target population. “Having the program with a person there is much less intimidating, and for those who may be first generation university or higher education students, this is huge,” she continues. “A person to talk to versus over the internet: face to face.”

What can community mobilization initiatives accomplish that other more official channels of political participation fail to? Johnson says it boils down to three things: building trusting relationships with communities, allowing room for self-determination, and including culturally appropriate practices. The distance education program brings into the fold those that have previously been unable to take part in higher education. While the program is open to Indigenous and non-Indigenous students alike, Indigenous communities are implicated in the structure of  the program because of the way Laurentian’s Indigenous Social Work program is guided by Laurentian University Native Education Council (LUNEC). LUNEC provides a direct link to the communities served by this program. Its purpose being to assist Native self-determination by providing the necessary insight in issues concerning Native education at the University (link to site:

“Our program works to empower those who have been oppressed through self-determination and decolonizing theory,” Johnson says. “As well as teaching others to be self-sufficient and providing support to those who may question their own ability or readiness for university,” she adds. “Our students are provided with cultural safety, and wrap-around support that includes traditional supports and Elders . Our graduates continue to be offered employment upon graduation – many before graduating in the field.”

The program did experience its fair share of bumps in the road. When asked where she feels the program may have failed; Johnson admits that while students enrolled in the distance education program received increased levels of support, some were not as successful as they had hoped. However, she is quick to add that lack of success shouldn’t be classified as failure. Students learn at their own pace and the ability to engage with the literature is a capacity that is developed over time. Rather than defining students’ struggles as failure, Johnson says that: “It may not have been the right time for those individuals to be engaged in education, and may require healing, or other academic prep work prior to university.”

While the distance education program is still up and running, the School has put a hold on its partnership with SGEI due to financial constraints. “Students from rural and remote communities would rather our program continue to be offered in their greater community of Kenora,” admits Johnson. Yet the School found that they couldn’t justify sending a professor to Kenora within that capacity while still operating an online distance education program that provided similar services. “It was very expensive to send a professor to offer the courses in person,” she admits. “ “It was very expensive to send aneeding and benefitting from having a live professor. To develop a relationship and a discussion as per traditional ways of teaching and sharing knowledge, which is much harder through an online distance education program.”

While financial limitations led to the end of the partnership, there is still a lesson to be learned in how the School of Indigenous Social Work re-imagined distance education in a way that kept intact the personal, individual relationship between instructor and student. The gramy that kept intac dynamic between communities and the institutions that seek to aid them is a dangerously paternalistic understanding of the actual needs of these communities. Laurentian’s School of Indigenous Social Work engaged in partnership with these communities by including them in the implementation of the educational model and providing them with the tools they needed to become the primary agents of change within their communities.

There’s a general consensus that while there may be certain complexities and nuances that call for a case-by-case analysis, the search for equity is fundamentally one about access. Access creates a bridge between over here and over there, between advantage and disadvantage, privilege and marginalization. Access to education, combined with access to those who can teach, guide and mentor provides individuals with the tools necessary to challenge the limitations that surround them.


Arlene Johnson is a Sessional Professor within the School of Indigenous Relations. She is currently the Access Manager for the SIR where she works in field placement coordination and providing academic advice and support for School of Indigenous Relations.