2020 Great Trekker Recipient

Dr. Jo-Ann Archibald had a journey of more than 30 years at UBC. She made an incredible impact in the field of Indigenous education through curriculum development, teaching and research. This year, students chose her as the winner of the 2020 Great Trekker Award. We had a chat with her to talk about her career, Indigenous students and new grads.

AMS: Hello Dr. Archibald and congratulations on winning the 2020 Great Trekker Award.

Dr. Archibald: I certainly want to acknowledge the AMS for this award. When I learned about it I thought “Oh, wow! Why? I mean, really me.” I value this award very highly because it is from students and it’s students that I’ve dedicated my career to. I feel just humbled. When I think of the meaning of the Great Trekker Award and the kind of protest that got the UBC campus built, it was students standing up for what they believed in.

I think this award is so important for standing up, to make this world better, to stand up to injustice and to make a good place, especially for the students yet to come. So I want to thank the AMS and I raised my hands in Coast Salish tradition and in respect – thanks for bestowing this award on me.

How do you feel UBC has changed from when you first started until now?

Well, I’d like to first acknowledge that we are situated today on the unceded traditional lands of the Musqueam , the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. When I’m at UBC, then certainly we acknowledge the unceded lands of the Musqueam people.

The very first time I experienced UBC was in my undergrad degree. I completed my bachelor of education degree and that was the late sixties, early seventies. I recall at that time I was the only Indigenous person in the Faculty of Education in the Elementary teacher Preparation Program. And, the curriculum had nothing in it that related to Indigenous peoples.

Later when I started teaching at UBC, there were still very, very few Indigenous people working at the university. The director at that time, the first Indigenous director, Verna J Kirkeness, began to make big changes at UBC. And one of them was that we had to hire Indigenous people to teach these Indigenous courses.

I felt this was important and I was part of helping to establish some of those academic initiatives when I was the director of the First Nations House of Learning in 1993. Our approach was to work with Indigenous communities, ask them what they needed as far as the professionals that they’d like to see working in their community or to see what professions their community members undertook. From those community discussions, we shaped the work and priorities.

Today, when I look at all that has been done at UBC, the strategic plans have indigeneity as one of the key priorities. Whereas, you know, when I started in the 1980s it was a struggle. There was the idea that Indigenous people probably should assimilate, but there wasn’t attention paid to them or recognition as to why we should have programs for Indigenous people, or we should have Indigenous courses for all students. Today, we have faculties where that’s very important and I think we certainly have had an increase in Indigenous faculty numbers.

Currently, the BC Ministry of Education requires Indigenous topics to be included at all levels of education, do you think this is enough?

I think that was a bold move for the Ministry of Education to do that because in my experience over the years finding space to include Indigenous topics wasn’t easy.

But what’s needed now is that the ministry should also ensure that teachers feel comfortable. Teachers know that they need to address indigeneity but some of them say they’re afraid to make a mistake. They do not want to offend, they don’t know how, they don’t have time, etc.

I feel the ministry and even our universities can do more. I think providing and ensuring that the teachers get the professional development support that’s needed, ensuring that we have more Indigenous teachers hired. So all learners can get a better sense of the impact of colonization and know about it, and also to address, especially today, issues of racism.

What can institutions, like a student union or the university, do to get more Indigenous students into teaching and how was your own experience? Why did you choose a career in education?

My own choice to become an educator started in high school. No one really encouraged me to think about teaching. And in fact, when I was in high school, I went to public school.

Back then the graduation rate of Indigenous children was only 4%, so 96% of the Indigenous kids who started elementary school did not graduate. I had a good family, upbringing and community. And I became interested in volunteering with kids with special needs so I thought, well, maybe I could become a teacher, and when I did I loved it.

Programs like the NITEP, the Indigenous Teacher Education Program, have been very important because here we have Indigenous people who have become teachers over all these years, who are out in the schools, making a difference, being role models, being mentors to all students, but especially to Indigenous students.

So I think the more we see Indigenous people in different capacities like classroom teaching, being a school district resource, being a principal, being a superintendent, the more they can inspire Indigenous students to think about a career in teaching.

How was it like to work with Indigenous issues in New Zealand? What differences and similarities did you find with Indigenous people in Canada?

I’ve been to New Zealand a number of times as a visiting scholar, and we’ve had Maori scholars come visit us and teach at UBC.

I think that the similarities are that we all share the impact of colonization, of having a language denied, taken away, experiencing racism, having our Indigenous knowledge marginalized and then thinking of the inter-generational impact of colonization and the resistance that Indigenous people have had to colonization.

But there are differences. If you look at BC, we have many different Indigenous languages, whereas in New Zealand it is basically one language. So we’re very diverse in the Indigenous languages which makes it more of a challenge when we’re trying to introduce Indigenous languages into educational systems. And some of our communities have very few fluent Indigenous language speakers remaining. Whereas in New Zealand, when they realized their language was in danger they were able to revitalize it.

How did it feel to be appointed an officer to the Order of Canada?

It was hard to believe. I mean, I felt like being in shock, it’s like, Oh, really? What did I do to be appointed an officer of the Order of Canada? I didn’t know if they got it wrong or what, but I’m quite humbled and honoured.

Canada can now acknowledge the contributions of Indigenous people such as myself and provide this type of award onto somebody. When we look back so many years ago our Indigenous cultures, our languages were suppressed through colonial policies. And I think, “Wow what a big change that’s occurred.”
The recognition of indigeneity is very important but we still have lots to do. Indigenous peoples still experience racism and discrimination today. I think we have to change these various systems that have oppressed and continue to oppress Indigenous people and people of colour.

What advice would you give to students graduating this year?

I think that despite living in a difficult time, we learn to find our inner strengths. To new graduates I say it’s important to think about how you can contribute to making a better world for people, for our environment, for all our animals and birds, and recognize that we have a troubled world. Think about where you might end up working and living too, find time to learn about the people, especially Indigenous people, whose lands you may be working on. Find out about the history of the people and also their strengths to understand what has helped individuals to be resilient. I think we can learn a lot from Indigenous people in particular.

University students really are privileged, even though it may not feel like it when you’re studying hard and everything else, but really being able to go to university to have a good education, especially from UBC, it’s a privilege. And I think we have to know how to honour that, to use that privilege to ensure that we can make this world a better place for everybody. That’s a difficult challenge, but to me it’s also very exciting.


The Great Trekker Award is presented each year to an alumnus or alumnae who have made unique contributions to the UBC and wider community. It was first established in 1950 to commemorate the Great Trek of October 28, 1922, when UBC students marched to pressure the government to complete work on the Point Grey campus.

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