Indigenous students question universities’ commitment to Indigenization

Ntawnis Piapot is one of two recipients of the 2018 CJF-CBC Indigenous Journalism Fellowships, established to encourage Indigenous voices and better understanding of Indigenous issues in Canada’s major media and community outlets.


Darian Lonechild, a student at the University of Saskatchewan, says she first joined the Facebook group “USask Confessions” simply for entertainment purposes.

The USask Confessions group encourages people to: “Private message us your most heartfelt, disgusting, hilarious, filthy, embarrassing confessions! It will be posted ANONYMOUSLY on this page.” 

Some posts are humorous, some profess their secret admiration for others. However, Lonechild said certain posts that take aim at Indigenous people are “appalling.”

(USask Confessions/Facebook)

“You really question if true critical thought is flourishing and is the university really doing its job,” she said.

Lonechild, a provincially elected youth representative for the Federation of Saskatchewan Indigenous Nations — and nationally as the female youth representative of the Assembly of First Nations — said social media posts like this shouldn’t be taken lightly.

(USask Confessions/Facebook)

“When stereotypes and racist confessions are made… It really can make a student feel unsafe in an environment where they’re supposed to learn and feel safe,” said Lonechild.

Jacqueline Ottmann, the University of Saskatchewan’s Provost of Indigenous Education, said the USask Confessions page is not connected to the university and the vice-provost of teaching and learning has been exploring what can be done to challenge the website when it comes to racist posts.

The University of Saskatchewan recently unveiled a new strategic plan that outlines its goals for the next seven years and its aim to make the university a leader in Indigenization.

Indigenization is a term universities have adopted to describe efforts to include Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing at their institutions. 

“Indigenization is not a separate commitment on its own,” said University of Saskatchewan President Peter Stoicheff.

“It runs through every commitment that we have, and that’s the university of the future.”

Tensions in the classroom

Erica Violet Lee, a recent graduate of the University of Saskatchewan, sat on many Indigenization committees during her time at the U of S. Lee was also a teacher’s assistant for a mandatory Indigenous Studies course.

Erica Violet Lee is a recent graduate of the University of Saskatchewan. (Erica Violet Lee/Facebook )

Lee said at times non-Indigenous students would roll their eyes or not take her seriously when she would be at the front of the classroom but she said she kept her message the same for each of her students: “You need to understand colonialism to properly serve Indigenous communities.”

“I realized this classroom may be the only interaction that they may have with someone Indigenous before they go and have an impact on our community members’ lives as social workers, as teachers, as health care workers, health care providers,” she told CBC.

Students at the University of Saskatchewan say there was tension after the Gerald Stanley verdict earlier this year.

In response, Lee said they held events to help students talk about the Stanley verdict and how it affected them in order to make students feel safe. That’s something that’s key to Indigenizing the campus, said Ottmann.

“These things are happening in our province and of course we have to talk about them in class. We don’t leave genocide at the door when we walk into a classroom,” Lee said.

“So those tensions — whether they’re talked about or not — are always in [Saskatchewan] classrooms.”

Leigh Thomas at the University of Saskatchewan. (Ntawnis Piapot/CBC)

Leigh Thomas is a U of S student who identifies as a two-spirit, genderqueer man whose first language is Cree.

“I don’t feel safe at all in any space I occupy,” Thomas said.

“There’s homophobia, there’s racism and then there’s also just straight up bigotry within classrooms and it’s because there is a lack of education and communication.”

New mural 

Indigenous artists Christi Belcourt and Isaac Murdoch painted a mural at the University of Saskatchewan this week depicting water protectors.

“I think art helps to open people’s minds and create thought and that’s really important, especially in a place like university,” said Belcourt.

Christi Belcourt and Isaac Murdoch in front of their mural at the University of Saskatchewan. (Ntawnis Piapot/CBC)

But she acknowledged the limitations.  

“I think it’s generally a huge, uphill battle to try and Indigenize spaces that are typically not Indigenous spaces.”

Lonechild said that to Indigenize the universities, there needs to be human-to-human contact between students of all nationalities.

“The divide is real that the non-Indigenous students are sitting far away or completely separate from other students,” said Lonechild.

Universities ‘complicit’ with colonization, says UWinnipeg official

Kevin Lamoureux, the associate vice-president of Indigenous Affairs at the University of Winnipeg, said they are doing their best to fulfil the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.

They intend to help Indigenize the campus by ensuring every student at the university takes a mandatory Indigenous Studies course. They said they still have a long way to go.

“Universities across Canada are absolutely complicit with the exercise of colonization,” said Lamoureux.

“Many of the pseudo-justifications of colonial practices were born out of universities. Much of the hurts and harms that have been caused come from universities.”

Lynn Lavallée, the University of Manitoba’s vice-provost of Indigenous Education, said she measures the success of her Indigenization program by the success and the safety of Indigenous students that attend U of M.

“When a student — a male Indigenous warrior, very apparently Indigenous — can walk into the academy and not have security called on him, then I’ll talk about Indigenizing the academy,” Lavallée said.

Lavallée said U of M has implemented Indigenous content into its nursing and law programs. But she said what works in the arts department might not work in say, the engineering program, so they have to look for solutions.

One would be to incorporate an “infusion” of Indigenous knowledge throughout a four-year degree program. The other would be to offer a full one-semester course. She prefers the latter.

“I’m not a fan of the infusion model for a variety of reasons, and that is because we are asking people without the expertise on a topic to teach about a topic,” she said.

“What we see happening is Indigenizing the academy, even including Indigenizing spaces, falls on the shoulders of Indigenous people already at the institution.”

Students as teachers

Most of the Indigenous students CBC spoke to talked about the “free labour” they provide, often bearing the brunt of the process of Indigenizing academia.

“Native students aren’t just allowed to focus on their own work and on their own success because often we’re too busy working on making classrooms bearable for ourselves and other students to come to, or we’re talking to professors or administrators [about] things that they should know already living in Saskatchewan,” said Lee.

Chance Paupanekis outside Migizii Agamik – Bald Eagle Lodge at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. (Ntawnis Piapot/CBC)

University of Manitoba student and former Indigenous Student Association President Chance Paupanekis has been involved with numerous provincial and national initiatives to help Indigenize education. He helped start the “reconciliACTION” campaign for students to hold academic administration to account when it comes to fulfilling their promises to Indigenize, reconcile relationships with Indigenous people and, most of all, educate.

“We are here to get our degrees firstly,” he said.

“I’ve been in student leadership for four years now and I just received a position that pays me a small honorarium. I don’t do it for the money. I do it because I have the passion and I see the need for these things for our kids and our children’s children.”

Hire elders

Rollin Baldhead, a student in the Indigenous Teacher Education Program at the University of Saskatchewan, said he envisions changes — like paying elders higher wages for their teaching for a start — when it comes to Indigenizing.

Rollin Baldhead in front of the Gordon Oakes Centre at the University of Saskatchewan. (Ntawnis Piapot/CBC)

“If we are able to pay four or 10 elders from all areas of Saskatchewan and have them here for maybe about two years and try not to burn them out… paying them on a PhD level pay grade, then these teachers, these elders could then begin passing on their oral tradition, passing on their stories.”

Lamoureux said it is up to the Indigenous community to tell academic administration when they’ve been successful in Indigenizing campuses. But his personal goal is simple.

“When an Indigenous person can come to the University of Winnipeg and say that ‘I feel like my experience here is meaningful and my identity was honoured — as any other student’s identity should be — and I feel like I am graduating with a degree that in no way comes at the expense of my cultural identity, or my family, or my own sense of responsibility to history,’ that would be success.”

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