INDIGST 2IR3 teaches Indigenous resurgence to both McMaster and incarcerated students

Edwin Thomas
November 17, 2022
Est. Reading Time: 3 minutes

The new course is the first phase of the McMaster Indigenous Research Institute’s Prison Education Project

The Silhouette sat down with Savage Bear, Director of the McMaster Indigenous Research Institute, to discuss her new course set to start in January 2023 taught at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener.  

The new course is part of the Walls to Bridges National Program where Bear sits as co-director. The program aims to implement post-secondary education in prisons and jails nationwide, offering classes that both incarcerated and non-incarcerated students can attend. The program values dismantling stigmas and creating collaborative spaces for incarcerated students.  

“There are a lot of stereotypes, and we carry misconceptions about what happens in a prison and  what incarcerated folks are like. At the same time, incarcerated folks also have ideas about university and the students who attend. So we bring these two groups together to break down those boundaries,” said Bear. 

“There are a lot of stereotypes, and we carry misconceptions  about what happens in a prison and  what incarcerated folks are like. At the same time,  incarcerated folks also have ideas about university and the students who attend. So we bring these two groups together to break down those boundaries,”

Savage Bear, Director of the McMaster Indigenous Research Institute

Working with the Edmonton Institution for Women, Bear and her team implemented the Walls to Bridges program during her time as an assistant professor at the Faculty of Native Studies and Department of Women and Gender Studies at the University of Alberta. She made continuing her work of implementing post-secondary education in prisons a priority when appointed as the director of McMaster’s Indigenous Research Institute in July 2021.  

“You have 10 students from the university and 10 students in the [prison]. We hold a classroom in the prison, it’s a three-credit course like a regular semester. It's a normal university course in every other way, except it's in a prison and half your classmates are incarcerated folks,” said Bear. 

“You have 10 students from the university and 10 students in the [prison]. We hold a classroom in the prison, it’s a three-credit course like a regular semester. It's a normal university course in every other way, except it's in a prison and half your classmates are incarcerated folks,”

Savage Bear, Director of the McMaster Indigenous Research Institute

Bear described the course as covering historical Indigenous tragedies and how communities preserved their cultures and traditions. 

“We are looking at Indigenous peoples who have resisted and subverted colonial policies, and legislation like the Indian Act — all those types of oppressive structures that pushed back against them historically... We have to recognize that Indigenous people were never passive participants in these colonial structures. They fought back in brilliant and courageous ways,” said Bear. 

Bear and co-facilitator, Sara Howdle will facilitate the course with group discussions and group projects between incarcerated and non-incarcerated students. She characterized incarcerated students that register for courses as eager with an appetite to learn. 

“I've rarely come across a university class where all the students do all the readings all the time. My incarcerated students have an incredible thirst for knowledge. They make notes of what they liked and didn't like about the articles.  Hands down they're some of the most critical thinkers I've ever come across in my entire teaching career. It is such a pleasure to have such engaged and thoughtful minds in the class,” said Bear. 

The Walls to Bridges Program is the first of a three-tier plan for the McMaster Indigenous Research Institute’s Prison Education Project. The second tier involves support for post-incarceration students living in transition houses to attend courses on campus for either a credit or an audit. Tier three is a mentorship program that provides supports to formerly incarcerated people to apply for university. Bear described the project as a pipeline for incarcerated people, from prison to transition housing to post-secondary education. 

Bear highlighted the value of this unique course setting and structure as life-changing for university students. 

“It is a life-changing course. It is something you rarely come across in your life. Walls to Bridges has been like that for students since its inception 11 years ago. If you want a dynamic course that's going to challenge you, make you uncomfortable, but be incredibly rewarding, then this is the course for you,” said Bear. 

Applications for McMaster students to register for the class are due Nov 15th. 

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