A Life Less Ordinary

Saint Mary’s first-ever Arts PhD graduate bridges disciplines to help find new ways of learning for Indigenous youth

When Shane Theunissen was 17 years old, his family emigrated to Canada from Apartheid-era South Africa using an unlikely vehicle: a homemade, 36-foot sailboat. “You don’t usually imagine sailing across the Atlantic Ocean in a small boat,” says Theunissen. “But when you do something like that, you quickly realize, ‘why not’? It’s liberating when you realize the freedoms that you really have, and how big the world really is.”

That adventurous spirit has informed much of Shane’s subsequent life. This March, he achieved a number of new firsts, becoming both the first graduate of Saint Mary’s interdisciplinary International Development Studies (IDS) PhD program, and in the process, the first-ever PhD graduate from the Faculty of Arts.

IDS professor and former long-time Coordinator of IDS, Dr. Anthony O’Malley, who supervised Shane’s PhD dissertation,  says that the program was perfect for someone like Shane, whose research called for an interdisciplinary approach to complex problems of Indigenous people living, and surviving, in a modern world that had little appreciation for their cultures or ways of life. 

“The problems we research in IDS are those that individual disciplines have a poor track record in solving,” says Dr. O’Malley. “Global inequality, climate change, Indigenous issues,  among many others. Responding to these issues means creating a collaborative environment among a broad spectrum of faculty.”

Shane’s thesis confronted two major groups of issues in particular: Indigenous education and the survival of Indigenous ways of life. He looked at how Indigenous groups in colonial societies, including the Maori in New Zealand, the Aymara of Bolivia, and the Karretjiemense in South Africa have asserted their cultural viability through education, and preserved elements of their ways of life that are central to their cultural identity. And, at the same time, how they’ve incorporated elements of the broader society which they find complementary—and rejected those that they find destructive. 

Shane, who has been a sailing instructor in the Carribbean, a part-time instructor in Saint Mary’s IDS program (in 2012 winning an Excellence in Teaching Award), and an elementary-school teacher, explored many of these issues in Attawpiskat, a Cree community in northern Ontario, where he was a teacher. His experiences there formed much of the basis for his PhD work.

“In Southern Ontario or most of Nova Scotia,” says Shane, “most students’ life experiences and cultural capital are beneficial within the standard curriculum, and the topics of discussion in class. But a Cree student in Northern Ontario, for example, may not have that same luxury, especially if they’re looking at a curriculum imposed from the south.”

In response to that challenge, Shane helped create an environmental education program in Attawapiskat, which in some cases involved fairly simple changes that produced major effects. “Instead of playing basketball during Phys. Ed.,” he says, “we might go out on the land and hunt, or perform a small-engine repair course, utilizing some of the cultural capital that students already had in their lives. Hopefully that levels the playing field to a degree.”

Shane’s love of sailing figures in his work as well, via partnerships with Nova Scotia schools and institutions—including the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, with which he’s partnering on a program to create boat-building programs for at-risk youth in Halifax. “The idea is to build a safe space,” says Shane. “You build the boat, you build the space.” Next year, he’ll be taking a similar initiative to Pictou Landing First Nation School, where boat building will become part of the math curriculum for students in grades five and six, with students building 12-foot skiffs.
These kinds of approaches help preserve “cultural capital”—meaning that rather diverse ways of thinking about and approaching the world are preserved throughout Canadian society.

“When we look at assimilative education, it basically means everyone is getting into the same box, thinking similarly about the world,” says Shane. “But to solve problems in the future, we’ll need novel approaches, diversity and different perspectives…not just for the students, but for the wellbeing of humanity.”