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Decolonization, social innovation and rigidity in higher education

Katharine McGowan (Department of Marketing, Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation, Mount Royal University, Calgary, Canada)
Andrea Kennedy (School of Nursing and Midwifery, Faculty of Health, Community and Education, Mount Royal University, Calgary, Canada)
Mohamed El-Hussein (School of Nursing and Midwifery, Mount Royal University, Calgary, Canada; Faculty of Nursing, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada and Cardiology CCU Alberta Health Services, Rockyview Hospital, Calgary, Canada)
Roy Bear Chief (Department of Health, Community and Education, Mount Royal University, Calgary, Canada)

Social Enterprise Journal

ISSN: 1750-8614

Article publication date: 5 June 2020

Issue publication date: 19 August 2020




Reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian plurality has stalled. While the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action could be a focusing event, creating a window of opportunity for transformative social innovations; we see coalescing of interest, social capital and investment in decolonization and indigenization in the proliferation of professorships, programs, installations and statements. However, Blackfoot (Siksika) Elder Roy Bear Chief raised significant concerns that Indigenous knowledge, experiences and people are not yet seen as relevant and useful in higher education; such marginalization must be addressed at a systems level for authentic reconciliation at any colonial university. The purpose of this paper was to explore this dual goal of exploring barriers to and opportunities for Indigenous knowledges and knowledge holders to be valued as relevant and useful in the Canadian academy, using a complexity- and systems-informed lens.


Local Indigenous Elders provided guidance to reflect study purpose and target audience of academics, with an approach that respectfully weaved Westernized research methods and co-learning through indigenous knowledge mobilization strategies. This analysis extends results from a qualitative grounded theory study to explain social processes of professors and administrative leadership in a Canadian mid-sized university regarding barriers and facilitators of implementing TRC Calls to Action. This further interpretation of applied systems and panarchy heuristics broadens understanding to how such micro-social processes are positioned and influence larger scale institutional change.


This paper discusses how the social process of dominionization intentionally minimizes meaningful system disruption by othering indigenous knowledge and knowledge holders; this form of system-reinforcing boundary work contributes to rigidity and inhibits potentially transformative innovations from scaling beyond individual niches and moments in time. Elders’ consultation throughout the research process, including co-learning the meaning of findings, led to the gifting of traditional teachings and emerging systems and multi-scale framework on the relevance of indigenous knowledges and peoples in higher education.

Research limitations/implications

This study was performed in one faculty of one Canadian institution; an important and potentially widely-present social process was identified. Further research is needed for greater generalizability. Conditions that led to this study are increasingly common across Canada, where at least one third of higher education organizations have explicit indigenization strategies and internationally where the rights and self-determination of indigenous peoples are growing.

Social implications

Insights from this study can inform conversations about social innovation in institutional settings, and the current systems’ resistance to change, particularly when exploring place-based solutions to national/international questions. These initiatives have yet to transform institutions, and while transformation is rarely rapid (Moore et al., 2018), for these potential innovations to grow, they need to be sustainable beyond a brief window of opportunity. Scaling up or deep within the academy seems to remain stubbornly elusive despite attention to the TRC.


This study contributes to a growing literature that explores the possibilities and opportunities between Indigenous epistemologies and social innovation study and practice (McGowan, 2019; Peredo, McLean and Tremblay, 2019; Conrad, 2015), as well as scholarship around Indigenization and decolonization in Canada and internationally.



This work is dedicated with humble respect to all those who attended residential schools and their families. The authors are are grateful for the guidance of Elder Roy Bear Chief (Siksika Nation) and Elder Grandmother Doreen Spence (Saddle Lake Cree Nation). Funding for this research project was generously provided by Mount Royal University, Office of Research and Community Engagement.


McGowan, K., Kennedy, A., El-Hussein, M. and Bear Chief, R. (2020), "Decolonization, social innovation and rigidity in higher education", Social Enterprise Journal, Vol. 16 No. 3, pp. 299-316.



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