In 2018, with the leadership of Dr. Garry Merkel from the Tahltan Nation, UBC Forestry began the development of the Bachelor of Indigenous Land Stewardship (BILS) program, the first four-year degree program of its kind. Building on earlier discussions for a dedicated Indigenous resource stewardship degree program, a national workshop was hosted by Westbank First Nation in November 2018. More than 40 Indigenous leaders and representatives from professional associations, industry, government, universities, and others, discussed whether such a program would be feasible, and if so, what should be its priorities. There was overwhelming agreement that it was worthwhile and feasible. A steering committee was appointed during the workshop to work on the development of the program.
The Indigenous Land Stewardship Steering Committee included Professor John Innes and Dr. Garry Merkel (co-chairs), Gordon Prest, Ellen Simmons, Chief Christopher Derickson, David Gill, Mick Werstuick, Matt Wealick, and was advised by William Nikolakis and Robert Kozak. This team led the initial development of the BILS program and its innovative curriculum.
Over the next year and a half, more than 70 consultations to learn from diverse groups about how they would view the BILS program and how it related to their priorities, and convened focus groups with Indigenous undergraduate and graduate students from across BC. In these sessions, students described what they would want to see in the BILS curriculum. There were also consultations with the Okanagan Nation Alliance, Nicola Valley Institute of Technology, Native Education College, Assembly of First Nations BC, and the First Nations Forestry Council (amongst many others). Strong support was again voiced for the program, and there was an emphasis on continued First Nations involvement, integrating Indigenous and western knowledge systems, and having a land-based and highly practical curriculum. Information from these discussions were integrated into the curriculum.
Following these consultations, the steering committee developed an initial curriculum model that was both land-based and applied, reflecting Indigenous and western knowledge systems and implemented through a co-teaching model. This curriculum was tested among students and community groups, resulting in the refinement of the courses. For example, from these consultations, a need for business courses that would teach project management, accounting and management information systems to students was identified. Various options for locations were also considered; for practical reasons, it was decided to base the program at UBC’s Point Grey campus, while also being accessible online (adopting a multi-access and distributed program delivery model) and providing flexibility to learners.
Moving forward, the BILS program will continue to work alongside First Nations to inform, update and evolve the curriculum so that it can effectively and appropriately support the Nation-building of Indigenous governments across Canada and, potentially, around the world.