By Nick Ward and Laura McCaffrey
Ryan Shackleton, Carleton graduate and the founder and director of renowned research firm Know History, says it is time to decolonize Canadian history.
A recent endowed gift from Know History will contribute to this objective by offering an annual scholarship to an Indigenous student entering a master's degree program in either the Department of History or the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies.
"The decolonization of how we understand the past has to happen, and I think that is what our organization is working toward in very small ways. I believe that decolonized accounts of our history have to be mandated in universities as well," says Shackleton.
Historians throughout Canada need to participate in this decolonization, says Shackleton, by looking at history through other lenses. Further, more Indigenous historians need to be engaged and empowered to share their own history in their own ways.
“As a society, we’re still relying on non-Indigenous historians to teach history,” he says.
Together with Carleton, Shackleton and Know History hope to change this.
Over the past year, Shackleton and his Know History team have challenged themselves to think critically about how their operations participate within contemporary colonialism and how they could adapt to better obstruct and dismantle racist systems.
"With seventy employees, Know History is the largest historical research firm in North America, and we are predominantly white," explains Shackleton.
"I'm proud of the fact that 80% of our staff, including our leadership, are women. But we are still a very white organization and we had to ask ourselves: Why is that? How has this happened?"
Thinking back to his days as a student, Shackleton recalled that the university, too, was a very white place—a potential contributing factor to the limited cultural diversity within his organization.
Recognizing the gap within his own organization and within the postsecondary environment, Shackleton and his team set out to make a difference and create equal opportunities for individuals of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds who want to further their studies. Following a thoughtful introspective process, they arrived at the idea of a scholarship in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Carleton University.
Shackleton has partnered with his former unit, the Department of History, as well as the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies to establish the Know History Graduate Scholarship for Indigenous Students, which will support one exceptional Indigenous master's student each year.
“We were so thrilled to work with Mr. Shackleton to establish this important award,” says Anna Hoefnagels, director of Carleton’s School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies. “Supporting Indigenous students and investing in their education and personal and professional growth are major priorities within our School and at Carleton.”
“We hope that this scholarship will encourage Indigenous students to pursue their interests in history at the graduate level, and to consider a career as an historian. We need more Indigenous voices in our classrooms and in our profession,” adds James Miller, chair of Carleton’s Department of History.
The scholarship will be offered through the Department of History or the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies in alternating years.
"I'm hoping to diversify my team at Know History and use this as a recruitment tool to find more Indigenous students and professionals to help our organization and, more importantly, to ensure Indigenous history is being carried out by Indigenous people."
Shackleton clarifies that the scholarship is not about the socio-economic position of Indigenous people or about coming to their rescue. "They don't need our help; we need their help if we are going to learn history properly," he says.
Recognizing that the university is the predominant training ground for historians, Shackleton believes we must fundamentally change who attends university in Canada. In the long-term, he hopes this scholarship will create opportunities for more Indigenous students to study history and participate in historical research and knowledge mobilization.
As Know History approaches its 10th anniversary this October, Shackleton – who now lives in Ottawa with his partner, their two young children, and a puppy – has taken time to reflect on his academic and professional journeys.
He arrived in Canada as a three-year-old immigrant from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). He grew up in various small towns in Northern Ontario, but eventually, his family found a home in Sturgeon Falls.
He originally came to Carleton to play football, but wholly immersed himself in his coursework when the football program was abruptly cut. His grades quickly began to climb, but it was not until he took a course with History professor Norman Hillmer that he began to understand what was required to achieve his goal of becoming a working historian.
"Norman was an incredible mentor and teacher. He has won all types of awards and they all are so well deserved."
Among many other distinctions, Hillmer was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2017, and inducted into the Royal Society of Canada in 2019.
"Norman took me under his wing and showed me how to be an historian. He would take me down to the archives, I would work up in his attic on newspapers, and he just gave me a lot of hands-on opportunities."
"I went from being enrolled in a three-year program, to a four-year degree and then did my master's with Norman as well."
While he was completing his master's under Hillmer, Shackleton was a bouncer at the iconic, but now defunct, downtown Ottawa bar, Minglewoods, and he was also working as a researcher for Hillmer.
"The first research project we did was for Maclean's magazine; it was a cover story on the most influential Canadians in history."
"From there, I went on to help him with books. Then he recommended me for a contract for Parks Canada. After that, I worked with another History professor named Paul Litt on his John Turner book. So I just started doing all this historical research, meanwhile gaining all those skills, but mostly through professors at Carleton."
"Norman changed my life, and the lives of so many others."
These projects got Shackleton started in the professional field of researching history instead of pursuing the more traditional avenue for history graduates: teaching.
Although Shackleton's experience at Carleton was instrumental in shaping him as the distinguished historian he is today, much of his holistic apprehension of history derives from his twenty years spent learning from Métis, Inuit, and First Nations Elders. These teachings have had a metamorphic impact on how he sees the world.
"I began to perceive and appreciate things students never, ever learn in universities because it is not the way universities work," he says.
"And I thought, maybe I can repay these communities and individuals who have been so generous to me, by funding an Indigenous grad student who, hopefully, will take over influential roles at universities and firms like Know History. Then they can teach their history through their methodology."
"With Indigenous people in these positions and sharing their intergenerational knowledge and history, the university will progress," says Shackleton.
With this gift, Know History has made a long-term commitment to supporting Indigenous students and helping to decolonize Canadian history. With the hopes of continuously giving back and growing the scholarship, as well as funding other similar projects, Shackleton and Know History plan to fundraise internally and leverage Carleton's Giving Tuesday campaign.
Learn more about Know History and Know Indigenous History.
At the Hub for Good, read more partnership stories, explore opportunities to get involved and learn how Carleton University makes an impact around the world.
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