Dawn Martin-Hill began lobbying for a Native studies program during the final year of her undergraduate degree at McMaster 23 years ago. Her departure as director from the Indigenous Studies Program (ISP) in July was bittersweet; she leaves her post just as the program turns 20, and now takes on the new role of the Paul R. MacPherson Chair in Indigenous Studies.

But the future is uncertain for the program she once headed.

The position of director has been vacant for four months, with McMaster’s Associate Vice-President (Academic) Peter Smith stepping in as acting director.

In October, the McMaster First Nations Student Association hosted a send-off for retired elder-in-residence Bertha Skye, as well as professor Hayden King, who has accepted a position at Ryerson.

Martin-Hill’s role as Chair in Indigenous Studies is an exciting development for her, but it means her new office is in the Department of Anthropology in Social Sciences.

The ISP does not reside under any faculty, nor does it offer a degree to its students – only a combined honours option.

“There are many discussions underway on how the Indigenous Studies Program could evolve, including the possibility of a four-year degree,” said Smith.

The program is expected to get some new space in the Wilson Building, to open in 2014. Its current department office is in the basement of Hamilton Hall.

The early years

Since its infancy, the Indigenous Studies Program has stood on shaky legs.

Martin-Hill began the paperwork to set up a Native studies program shortly after former McMaster president Peter George set up a committee on Native issues.

“The program didn’t go anywhere for three years,” said Martin-Hill, who said she wanted to start a program, not simply a wellness or student services centre for Native students.

Things were also difficult for Martin-Hill at the time on a personal level.

When she was writing her dissertation, Martin-Hill was homeless and lived in a friend’s basement. After getting her PhD in anthropology, Martin-Hill was teaching 18 units, developing the program and raising two daughters.

Upon returning from maternity leave, Martin-Hill found that her contractually limited appointment no longer existed, and the position of ‘academic director’ was widely posted.

“I didn’t know if I was going to have a job,” she said.

“I look back on [that time] and I was struggling with poverty. I don’t know how I did it,” she said.

Martin-Hill applied and ended up getting the job, but the hardships didn’t stop there.

Funding troubles

It’s an elaborate process to apply to the provincial government for Aboriginal funding. There’s more paperwork than other faculties are required to complete, said Martin-Hill. And although ISP has been successful in receiving funding, she says it has been a bittersweet triumph.

ISP currently runs on Aboriginal Post-Secondary Education and Training (PSET) funding.

“PSET tripled our budget, and it was so exciting because we were going to be able to have our own recruitment officer, elders-in-residence and everything we’d dreamed of over the years,” she said. “But we pretty much lost control over where the funding was going at that time.”

“The funding is for student services – not exactly what we wanted, which was someone to promote indigenous studies. You see it all the time; no one knows we’re here,” said Martin-Hill.

“The President’s Committee wanted us to open the doors to health sciences because there were no Native doctors [at McMaster],” she said.

Martin-Hill wrote a proposal to start the Aboriginal Student Health Sciences (ASHS) office, and ISP received funds to pay a salary for someone to have an Aboriginal office in the Faculty of Health Sciences.

“It was a lot of work and it didn’t benefit ISP financially. But it was something the community [component of the President’s Committee] wanted,” said Martin-Hill.

The ASHS team works to help promote the success of current and incoming Aboriginal students in the health sciences.

What will the future hold?

In her new position, Martin-Hill no longer has the same administrative responsibilities.

“As senior faculty, I’m still here to assist in key decisions,” said Martin-Hill, who has been doing work on a stand-alone degree for the program.

“Research shows that the students want to complete a degree, and the President’s Committee has agreed. We have the application pretty much ready to go, but it needs to go through budget approval,” she said.

“We really need faculty. We’ve been asking for a very long time and it’s been a dream of ours for 20 years,” she said.

She expressed concern and hesitation about where things will go with provincial funding geared toward student services.

Still, Martin-Hill says she has faith in the Program and the views McMaster’s president Patrick Deane has expressed.

“There’s also discussion going on for a graduate program, which would be thrilling. I do think we have an excellent program and I hope we can build on that. That’s my goal.”

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