Guidelines for the Involvement of Indigenous Knowledge Keepers at Final Oral Exams


First Nations House and the School of Graduate Studies have collaborated to prepare these guidelines to assist doctoral candidates[1] who wish to have an Indigenous Knowledge Keeper participate in the Final Oral Examination.

1. Background

1.1 The Final Oral Examination is the defense of the written thesis before an examination committee consisting of members of the supervisory committee, faculty external to the thesis and an external appraiser. At the University of Toronto, the Final Oral Examination is not a public event. The School of Graduate Studies (SGS) recognizes that some of its doctoral candidates, including Indigenous student and students whose research involves Indigenous populations, may wish to include a Knowledge Keeper at the Final Oral Examination. This document outlines the processes by which an Knowledge Keepers may be included at the Final Oral Examination as either a qualified observer or as a voting member the Examination Committee. 

1.2 Doctoral degrees at the University of Toronto are offered in a diverse range of programs in humanities, social sciences, physical sciences and engineering, and life sciences.   It may be beneficial and applicable to a doctoral candidate’s research to have a Knowledge keeper participate in the Final Oral Examination.  A doctoral candidate who wishes to have a Knowledge Keeper participate in the Final Oral Examination should do so in consultation with the Supervisory Committee.  The doctoral candidate should begin preparations for the presence of a Knowledge Keeper at the Final Oral Examination well in advance of the suggested eight-week time period for scheduling the examination.

1.3 Knowledge keepers (sometimes called Elders) play vital roles in Indigenous communities as leaders, teachers and mentors. Information about Elder Protocols is available at

2. Knowledge Keeper as Qualified Observer at the Final Oral Examination

2.1 With the permission of the Vice Dean, Students, of the School of Graduate Studies, an Knowledge Keeper may attend the Final Oral Examination as a qualified observer.  A qualified observer is someone associated with the research but not a member of the graduate faculty of the University of Toronto.  Both the doctoral candidate and the supervisor must agree to the presence of the qualified observer.  A qualified observer may attend the Final Oral Examination, and with the permission of the Chair of the Examination and within the allocated timeframe, may ask questions of the candidate but must withdraw before the Examination Committee’s deliberations.  The graduate unit must receive approval for the attendance of a qualified observer in writing from the SGS Vice-Dean, Students, in advance of the Final Oral Examination.  Additional details are available at

3. Knowledge Keeper as Voting Member of the Examination Committee

3.1 In order for an Knowledge Keeper to act as a voting member of the Examination Committee, the individual must hold both a faculty appointment at the University of Toronto (tenured, tenure-stream, status-only, visiting, adjunct) and a Graduate Faculty Membership. University appointments are made in conjunction with the Office of the Dean of the appropriate faculty. Guidelines on University appointments are detailed in the Provost’s Guidelines for the Appointment of Status-only, Adjunct or Visiting Professors (PDAD&C #8, 2010-11).

A Faculty Dean may appoint a Knowledge Keeper as a status-only faculty member.   Status-only appointments are held by individuals who are employed outside of the University of Toronto.  According to University of Toronto guidelines, these are non-salaried and non-continuing academic appointments which may be given to qualified individuals whose expertise can advance the academic mission of the examination committee.   Status-only appointments must follow the established divisional procedures and requires the written approval of the Faculty Dean.

Once an Knowledge Keeper has been approved by the Faculty Dean as a status-only faculty member, a Graduate Faculty Membership must be initiated by the Chair or Director of the graduate unit.  Membership in the Graduate Faculty is granted by the Graduate Chair with the approval of the Dean of the School of Graduate Studies.  In most cases, a Knowledge Keeper would be appointed as an Associate Member with Restricted Duties.  Associate Members with Restricted Duties are permitted to undertake the duties explicitly assigned in the letter of offer by the Graduate Chair or Director. For Associate Members with Restricted Duties, the term of the Graduate Faculty Membership is limited to the term of the duties assigned in the letter of offer and is co-terminal with the individual’s university appointment.  Additional details are available at

[1]The School of Graduate Studies (SGS) general regulations govern the final oral examination for doctoral students.  A master’s student defense is subject to departmental guidelines. Thus, these guidelines only refer to SGS doctoral final examinations but may be referenced by departments in establishing a similar protocol for a master’s defense.