Lens of empowerment

The impact of a feminist arts curriculum on Indigenous women and Canadian education policy

Indigenous women in Canada are disproportionately affected by violence, and many live in extreme poverty.

In 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for universities to ‘embrace indigenization’.

Its National Enquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (2019) emphasised the role of the arts and education in empowering these women to become community leaders and challenge the status quo.

Working with the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV), we helped to create an Indigenous feminist art curriculum that told women’s stories of nation and belonging in unceded Stó:lō territory.

This partnership, and its achievements, has influenced national education policy in Canada, and enabled Indigenous women to enhance their personal empowerment and community leadership.

Image: View across Pitt Lake in the Fraser Valley, British Columbia

Our impact

Lens of Empowerment

  • The UFV developed an undergraduate programme, Lens of Empowerment (2011-12 and 2014-15), combining Indigenous learning with feminist arts’ pedagogies.
  • Lens uniquely empowered students to tell their stories of nation and belonging through documentary film and photography.
  • As well as benefitting students and their communities, the project contributed to Canadian higher education ITA policy on Indigenizing the Academy.

Influencing national education policy in Canada

  • In 2015, Universities Canada recognised Indigenous student education as a core priority, encouraging universities to ‘embrace indigenization’ – and acknowledging the central role of the Arts in ‘Indigenizing the Academy’ (ITA).
  • An early champion of ITA, UFV convened the conference S’iwes Toti:It Q’ep (Teaching and Learning Together) in 2012 – showcasing its inaugural Lens programme and attracting over 275 delegates.
  • The second Lens programme (2014-15) focused on Reconciliation – the following year Canadian education policy picked up this theme.
  • In 2015, UVF installed its first Indigenous woman Chancellor and, by 2019, had taken a significant step – incorporating Indigenous ways of knowing across the curriculum.

Lens of Empowerment
Tel i’tsel Kwe’lo (I Am From Here)
Archive of the second cohort of students’ films (2014-15)

Visit the archive

The research

Our work – exploring feminist theory and women’s art practices – has developed a new and consistent approach to women’s creativity. It highlights the potential of feminist art and pedagogies to bridge the personal and the global to affect political change.

In 2009, we founded an international research network – The Lens of Empowerment: Women, Nation, Photographies – which brought together feminist arts scholars from across the globe in Palestine, South Africa, Taiwan and Canada.

Together we facilitated annual meetings; an artists’ residency; exhibition; international conference; and an extended, retrospective publication Home/Land: Women, Citizenship, Photographies. We also developed research projects with local hubs of the network.

At UFV, our research insights were applied through creative curriculum development. Its Lens of Empowerment programme used documentary film and photography to tell the stories of women, citizenship and belonging in unceded Stó:lō territory.

It has had a profound and ongoing impact on individuals, the local community and national educational policy across Canada.

The stories of every woman in Stó:lō territory have an impact. Telling these stories through photography and video strengthens connections and nurtures awareness for coming generations.

Shirley Hardman Senior Advisor, Indigenous Affairs - University of the Fraser Valley

Research funders

  • AHRC
  • Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University
  • Center for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts, National Gallery, Washington
  • Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Development partners

  • University of the Fraser Valley, Canada

Meet the experts

Photograph of Marsha Meskimmon

Professor Marsha Meskimmon

Professor of Transnational Art and Feminisms

Photograph of Marion Arnold

Dr Marion Arnold

Lecturer in Art History and Visual Culture