Humans of McMaster: Dr. Robert Innes
The Silhouette: Please introduce yourself.
Robert Innes: My name is Rob Innes. I'm a member of Cowessess First Nation located in Treaty Four territory. I am currently the Chair of the Indigenous Studies Department and I'm an associate professor.
Was there anything you had to adjust to when moving from one university to another?
I'm from Saskatchewan and there's a different dynamic in terms of Indigenous people. Indigenous people have a much bigger presence at the University of Saskatchewan. Here in Hamilton and the [Greater Toronto Area], in general, Indigenous people are erased and may be an afterthought. At McMaster [University], there are fewer Indigenous professors than at the University of Saskatchewan. People reach out to Indigenous faculty, to our department, for all kinds of requests. It is a little bit more pressure but at the same time, we're the Indigenous Studies Department. This is part of what we do. We educate and provide skills for students to better the sense of Indigenous community. For the faculty itself, however, it is extra labour and it often happens at a very early time in their career. Junior faculty usually get some time to develop their research and get their horses up and running before they have to do more administrative work. Indigenous faculty get burdened with administrative work right from the get-go. First-year tenure track faculty are already asked to do a lot more administrative work than the average faculty at the university. For McMaster's new Indigenous Studies Department, I tell people that we got this brand new kitchen, we got nice new cupboards, but the cupboards are empty. What we're doing this year is stocking those cupboards. It's an opportunity to build on the foundation of what's being done here and set an exciting direction for Indigenous Studies on campus.
How do you see this department and its growth benefiting students?
The department has 11 faculty, all Indigenous, and currently, there is no other department in Indigenous Studies in Canada with that many Indigenous faculty—that in itself is sending a message to Indigenous students in the region that this is something they can pursue here. There's a lot of opportunity here. Even for non-Indigenous students, they can benefit from taking courses in Indigenous Studies. Many of our faculty are cross-listed in different departments so students can still take classes with an Indigenous focus. So, we're also looking at working collaboratively with other departments for courses and looking at ways that we can tap into students in other departments. It's a precedent that definitely leads an example for other institutions across Ontario. It's so necessary and we're just really excited to see those cross-faculty linkages. One other thing is we've talked to a number of the faculty at Laurier, Guelph and other institutions and the ideas are germinating. In particular, we've been in discussions with folks at Mohawk College talking about collaborations too. We'll be looking at working with different nations to create pathways for Indigenous students to come to McMaster.
What’s next for the department?
We are really looking at solidifying our undergraduate program. We have some really dynamic instructors in our department and they do amazing things in research and in their teaching. We're pushing for more land-based spiritual learning, service-learning kinds of lab classes, courses that take students outside of the classroom. We want to push students to get on the land and work with communities.
Something about Indigenous Studies has been, since its inception, pushing students to become critical thinkers, to go beyond critiquing policies and to then have skills that are useful to community. We want them to be conscious [and] not just about: 'Okay, how do I get a job?' Yes, we all want jobs, but how are you going to give back to the community? No matter what students pursue, we want to impart skills of critical thinking, problem-solving, coming up with new ideas and being creative in ways that will benefit communities. We want students to bring together the applied and the theoretical. It's not good enough to critique and tear something down, we have to think: 'What's an alternative? How do we solve this?'