Report on the 31st RPL Conference presented jointly by the Indigenous RPL Collective and Loyalist College in Belleville, Ontario

By: Dr. Gary McNeely
June 28, 2023

The 31st Recognition of Prior Learning Conference was a long-awaited return to Belleville, and a welcome reprieve after the Covid-19 pandemic. While many participants were new to the field of Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) or Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL), the in-person gathering was a chance to broaden our perspectives on RPL and to reconnect with colleagues. For the six-person delegation from Chile, the conference closed an invitation to participate offered four years ago but opened new opportunities to share experiences and perhaps collaborate on new RPL projects.

The conference included two workshops. The International Indigenous RPL Practitioner Workshop, facilitated by Janice Brant, Janet Sinclair, Sherry Mattson, and Paul Zakos, focused on the design and implementation of a RPL portfolio process to acknowledge and respect Indigenous teachings and shared obstacles and challenges. The workshop sessions focused on several modules included in the International Indigenous RPL Practitioner Manual (2021, Epic Press) co-edited by Karihwakeron (Tim) Thompson and Paul Zakos and drew inspiration from the workshop participants and facilitators’ experiences.

The Mainstream RPL Practitioner Workshop, facilitated by Mark Gallupe, Rose Marie Reid, and Neil Kurby, examined the roles of the RPL Advisor and RPL Assessor, and explored how the Portfolio-Assisted RPL process can be beneficial in various settings, including educational institution, employment agencies, immigration services, professional bodies, and military members and family programs, to name a few. In both workshops, the limited number of seats aided in the personable engagement among the participants in the days’ sessions and carried into hospitality breaks and evening meals.

I was deliberate in wanting to participate in the International Indigenous RPL Workshop. For this, I wish to extend my appreciation for the financial support provided by the Myera Group as well as the support from the Rural Development Institute and Registrar’s Office at Brandon University. The workshop enabled me to gain insights from RPL practitioners who have included Indigenous land-based learning in their organizations or institutions. I hope to apply their experiences in the RPL services and academic programing offered at Brandon University as a step forward towards reconciliation and as a means of instilling a holistic vision of personal and community well-being. I was also very pleased to connect with the many participants involved in recognizing the value of traditional foods and medicines, as a counter point to a Western, scientific view of clinical health. This broader understanding of well-being is a key theme of the Myera project which embraces land-based learning to restore and strengthen Indigenous knowledge and skills and integrates RPL principles through the sharing of Indigenous knowledge by Elders and community leaders with their youth. I am encouraged by the prospect of developing new collaborations with many of those attending.

(Photo by Gary McNeely, 2023)

The conference commenced with a gathering outside with blessings offered by singers from the Mohawk and Haudenosaunee communities as well as by the Mapuche delegation from Chile. A reminder of this ceremony was acknowledged each day by the Chemamelle – the 4-piece Mapuche spiritual totem – and the Haudenosaunee food offerings.

(Photo by Sebastián Oyarzo, 2023)

Paul Zakos, a retired educator from Loyalist College and RPL mentor, opened the Day 1 sessions with introductions from the workshop facilitators before asking participants to identify themselves, their affiliations, and interests in the Indigenous RPL Workshop. Curiously, attendees came to realize that their introductions were actually exercises in RPL. Participants were earnest in identifying the limits of their prior learning and experience with RPL principles and methods. Many came with questions on implementing RPL in their institution or organization.

Everyone was eager to meet the six Chilean delegates who represented two Indigenous nations, the Diaguita and Mapuche peoples. Ema Álvarez and Carmen Julio came as Traditional Educators [we would say – Knowledge Keepers] from the Diaguita region of Coquimbo, while Ana Álvarez represented the Indigenous Peoples’ Health program in the region of Atacama. The Mapuche included María Hueichaqueo, an Indigenous Women’s Leader in Chile and Latin America, Pedro Hueichaqueo who is involved in an Indigenous Peoples’ Health program based in Santiago, and Sebastián Oyarzo who works at the Academy of Mapuche Language and Culture in Urban Centres. Their collective attention to health and well-being, which was echoed by the workshop facilitators, helped participants recognize that Indigenous RPL is perhaps foremost a voice for social justice and political change rather than only an instrument for gaining credit in academic institutions.

The day focused modules from the International Indigenous RPL Practitioner Manual. Paul Zakos and Janice Brant reviewed the principles of acknowledging and addressing the needs of adult learning, the guidelines for RPL practitioners, including advisors and assessors, and the details for organizing and documenting, and assessment of learning presented in a RPL portfolio. The day closed with participants completing a “Reflective Strategies Worksheet” to identify aspect of RPL practices and implementation strategies to acquire during the conference.

Day 2 was particularly illuminating. Its sessions explored how RPL is adaptable to fit the context of differing Indigenous cultures. Janet Sinclair, an Aboriginal Student Transition Advisor at Vancouver Island University, described the RPL Portfolio process she uses alongside with community Elders to enable indigenous student to transition from high school to university. She used the model of “The Canoe of Life” from the west-coast Salish peoples to help students to chart their own direction in life: each student comes into the world as a canoe, which is crafted from a cedar tree; they chart their life guided as an eagle but give back to the land through the renewal of the forest. The model is intended to show how each individual is not isolated but is born into a tradition and community that shares a language and culture of learning.

Janice Brant, a community leader and educator, offered a complementary perspective using a model of the Haudenosaunee Longhouse to illustrates the community, its traditions, and values. In her view the RPL portfolio can help to guide one’s life journey and serve as a source of learning and healing. In this way, the portfolio can address the four central questions in the Haudenosaunee “Wheel of Life”: Who am I?, Where am I from?, Where am I going?, and What are my responsibilities? She stressed that these questions always point to the relationships and responsibilities that change through each stage of life within an Indigenous community such as when Elders interact with youths, grandparents with children, and parents with infants.

During the evening’s Plenary Address, Janice drew attention to this broader sense of community responsibility when discussing her involvement in establishing the Kenhte:ke Seed Sanctuary and Learning Centre. The facility is a place for land-based learning to revitalize Indigenous culture, language, and healing, a place to recognize the long tradition of Haudenosaunee agriculture. Following Janice, two from Chile voiced how RPL can inspire and enable community resilience. Maria Hueichaqueo emphasized that RPL can be used to empower women and women’s organization in the Mapuche nation. Ema Pereira added that RPL can impact the local needs of women advocating for and trying to protect traditional foods and medicines, in the wake of industrial farms encroaching on traditional lands.

(Photo by Gary McNeely, 2023)
Above is a photo of the Plenary’s exchange of gifts between the Chilean delegation and the Loyalist College President

Day 3 addressed how RPL can play a key role in recognizing learning and building capacity within organizations. One example explored was presented by Sherry Mattson,Director of Education and Training, for the National Aboriginal Lands Managers Association (NALMA). Sherry outlined how RPL is implemented in the Professional Land Management Certification Program. The certificate includes Level 1 coursework in environmental, legal, and economic aspects of land management. The Level 2 Technical Training offered as online modules focuses on interpreting policies and procedures, recognizing appropriate authorities, and understanding legal rules governing land management decisions. Both Level 1 & 2 are open for RPL assessments. The RPL opportunity is a distinct advantage when individuals can utilize their community- and land-based knowledge and skills to accelerate their Certificate’s completion. RPL acknowledges their individual capacities and strengths, which in turn enhances their community’s.

In the closing session participants offered their reflections and insights arising from the conference. Based on their comments, I must say everyone was uniformly inspired. My takeaways from the conference are four-fold:

  • Indigenous RPL recognizes the contexts and circumstances within a community,
  • Indigenous RPL is a process of engagement, connection, adaption, and struggle,
  • Learning within an Indigenous community remains lifelong, intergenerational, and land-based, and
  • Learning within an Indigenous community is holistic by encompassing four dimensions of life, the physical body, the rational mind, our emotional states, and a spiritual presence.

I encourage others interested in RPL to consider traveling to Belleville when the next conference has been set. Please contact me at if you are