Unwelcoming by design: Universities struggle to overcome anti-Indigenous roots

‘The challenge now is to change a culture that was designed to erase us. It’s a lot of work.’
Photo: Mathieu Thouvenin
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“If I saw an Indian right now, I’d break both their legs.”

The words sent chills down Prudence Hannis’ spine. It was 1992, she was in a common room at the University of Ottawa and some news report about the Oka Crisis had just come onto the television.

It had been two years since the standoff between Mohawks and the Canadian Forces ended, but Hannis says the hostility towards Indigenous people was simmering, even in a liberal university.

She says she’ll never forget the moment she felt such raw hatred from a classmate.

“Because of my complexion, a lot of people didn’t know I was Indigenous back then, so it gave me a front row seat to their prejudice,” said Hannis, an Abenaki from the Odanak reserve between Montreal and Quebec City.

If it sounds like universities are an unwelcoming place for Indigenous people, it’s because, historically, they were designed to be.

“I remember thinking, ‘If only he knew who I was, if only he knew he was rubbing elbows with one of these people he wants to hurt.’ Looking back, I made compromises in ways that make me ashamed today. Looking back, I had to hide who I was to protect my physical safety.”

Fast forward 29 years and Hannis is one of the driving forces behind making college campuses more welcoming to Indigenous students in Quebec. For the past decade, she’s been at the helm of Kiuna Institution, a junior college that welcomes dozens of Indigenous students from across the province each semester.

The gap between what students are getting, and what they need

There were only four graduates of the school when its first cohort passed through the system in 2013. By the end of this term, the Odanak-based school will have seen 125 people earn a post-secondary degree.

“We launched this school because there was such a gap between what Indigenous students needed from their college experience and what they were getting,” said Hannis. “Our first students had tried college off-reserve and it was such a profound culture shock for them. Many were the only Indigenous students in class. Some had teachers say and teach racist things about First Nations.

“They couldn’t just be students. There was all this extra weight they had to carry. They had to be trailblazers, they had to be stronger than their peers, more resilient. That’s a lot for an 18-year-old to deal with.”

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Kiuna was a response to the failure of Quebec’s college and university system to create a nurturing environment for Indigenous students.

Its success provided a blueprint for post-secondary institutions, one that proved it was possible to provide a culturally appropriate education that also meets requirements outlined by the provincial authorities.

Kiuna teaches course material from Indigenous authors, and it has Indigenous faculty and staff, but — most importantly — Hannis says it’s a place where students feel heard.

“We get young parents who enrol because they know we can offer them flexibility they might not get elsewhere,” said Hannis. “We have a daycare on site, we have psychosocial educators for the children, but there’s also scenarios where mom might be in a classroom studying and the little one is next to her drawing a picture.”

Gains under threat

But Kiuna’s success hides a darker truth.

Universities have been slow to adapt and sensitize their campuses to First Nations, Inuit and Métis students. The few Indigenous professors teaching in Quebec also describe being met with hostility and instances of outright racism from their peers.

Ricochet spoke to a dozen Indigenous students, professors and former profs who say they fear whatever gains made in universities are under threat.

Last month the provincial government announced it may impose legislation that would safeguard a university professor’s right to present controversial material in class. Premier François Legault wrote that “activists” are trying to erase seminal texts because they contain the n-word and other slurs.

His statement, published on Facebook, was praised by the FQPPU, a union that represents some 8,000 professors across Quebec. It came as newspaper columns and television panels depict Quebec’s campuses as a sort of failed social experiment, one where rabble-rousing “woke” students get to dictate what can and can’t be taught.

That conversation hasn’t taken into account how hard Indigenous people have fought to have a place in post-secondary institutions.

Seven Indigenous women agreed to share some of that struggle with us. This is the first of a two-part series on being Indigenous in college.

Designed to exclude

If it sounds like universities are an unwelcoming place for Indigenous people, it’s because, historically, they were designed to be.

From the time the Indian Act was adopted in 1876 until 1961, it dictated that any member of a First Nation who earned a university degree automatically lost their Indian status. Just as it was with residential schools, university was a tool of cultural genocide.

Perhaps then, it’s not surprising that racist social science taught in Canada’s colleges guided the creation of residential schools, the Sixties Scoop and, to a lesser extent, the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in state care.

“So many researchers, sociologists, professors came to our territories to take our knowledge, take our stories, take our children and leave,” said Michèle Audette, an Innu leader and senior adviser to the vice rector at Université Laval. “The challenge now is to change a culture that was designed to erase us. It’s a lot of work.”

Audette’s job at the university is to be a mentor for Laval’s nearly 400 Indigenous students and act as an intermediary when problems arise. She says there are still students who hide their Indigenous identity for fear of being mocked or treated like they don’t belong.

‘I didn’t get it out of a Cracker Jack box’

Arlene Laliberté says she was floored by a colleague’s racism on her first day as a professor at Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (UQAT).

“You’re First Nation? But you speak French so well,” her colleague said.

Laliberté tried to brush it off.

“My dad is Québécois,” Laliberté answered, hoping it would put an end to the awkward conversation.

“That explains it,” the colleague replied.

“That I speak French well?”

“No, that you have a PhD and that you’re a prof.”

Her colleague’s implication wasn’t terribly cryptic: Indigenous folk aren’t skilled enough to be university professors.

“I have a PhD from Université du Québec à Montréal, I studied suicide in First Nations. No one gave me my diploma. I didn’t get it out of a Cracker Jack box,” said Laliberté. “I received the jeunes enseignants chercheurs grant, which is highly competitive, and a federal grant for my research as well. I wasn’t handed anything.”

“We can decolonize our campus if the will is there.”

She says things really began to sour about six years ago, when she presented her proposal to supervisors. There was a disagreement about whether she could use her grant money to hire someone from Timiskaming First Nation, the Anishinaabe community where she’d be doing her project.

“I pride myself in doing research with First Nations, research that involves the community as much as possible,” said Laliberté. “So by partnering with someone in the community, you’ll build more trust, get better data.

“Both my grants were written in terms of empowerment, to get a community researcher and a community advisory committee. The university wanted to block it because I wasn’t hiring a (UQAT) student.

“How can I hire a non-Indigenous student to recruit First Nations youth they don’t know, in an environment where you need to build relationships over years? I wanted the community to gain something from our research.

“Even with these grants, I had to defend it in front of a room full of middle-aged white men who don’t really get where I’m coming from or what I’m trying to do. So I couldn’t take it anymore, to have to constantly fight that battle.”

A former colleague of Laliberté’s spoke to Ricochet about the university’s culture, saying he was disappointed with how her experience at UQAT turned out.

“It’s unfortunate because I know the clinician that she is and she was really struggling at the time, she became a shell of herself,” he said. “It can be a lot. I think the university is trying to adapt.

There are diversity committees in place, First Nations committees in place and a real effort to hear people out.

“The problem is, it’s often the same few Indigenous people who have to give their time on these committees. So you end up having to be much more than a professor or a student, you’re kind of an ambassador too. It’s a lot.”

The heart of the establishment

Wanda Gabriel jokes that she’s made her way into the “ivoriest of ivory towers.”

“It’s McGill University, it’s what people think about when you say ‘the establishment,’” said Gabriel, a Mohawk assistant professor in the school of social work. “It occupies this space in your imagination and, truthfully, it hasn’t always been welcoming.”

Whether it’s the university’s slave-owning namesake James McGill, its history of imposing quotas on the number of Jewish students it would accept or its use of headdress-wearing mascots at “Redmen” football games, McGill’s legacy is tainted.

But over the past few years, McGill has been more responsive to calls for change.

There was the university’s decision to drop the “Redmen” name for their men’s sports teams in 2019, after a series of student protests in 2018. Since 2016, McGill has had a working group in place to implement the 52 calls to action that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended for Canada’s universities. The school holds an annual powwow on the southern edge of campus and students looking for guidance can drop in at the First Peoples’ House. Administrators are also recruiting more Indigenous professors and faculty.

And while Gabriel says these are all good steps, she also understands the sense of urgency that Indigenous students have to see change.

“When you’re a student and you’re getting your degree, that change feels slow moving,” said Gabriel, who comes from Kanehsatake, north of Montreal. “They want to see big change in the time they’re there, but McGill is a big machine. It moves slowly. But we can decolonize our campus if the will is there.

“For me, one of the weaknesses in social work is that we haven’t made space for Indigenous knowledge. I’ve worked all my life in Indigenous communities. And while that masters in social work gives me a license to practice the job, it didn’t give me the tools to work in Indigenous communities.

“In order to have my toolbox filled with the proper tools, I needed to go out and work with Indigenous helpers and Indigenous healers. The school doesn’t provide that. Our approach to child welfare — which is an issue that disproportionately affects First Nations — is very Eurocentric.

“We can’t continue applying a European model to try to help Indigenous communities. It has failed them and if we don’t adapt, we’ll keep seeing the same results.”

‘Like her life turned around’

There is a hopeful ending to this story.

At least, that’s how Prudence Hannis chooses to see the situation. She remembers a student coming to Kiuna after having struck out in the mainstream college system.

“When she came here, she was a young mother who had survived the foster care system, she’d had it rough, she’d been to prison, she’d never really been given a chance before,” said Hannis. “When she got here, she was surprised — and I’ll never forget this — she said, ‘Hey I got 80 per cent on my final!’

“She lit up. This is someone who hated history, but now that she was learning about First Nations, it clicked. But once she got that first 80 per cent — and her grades weren’t all 80 — it was like her life turned around.

“She has a master's degree, and just yesterday she got her teacher’s certificate.

Like any other college, Kiuna has seen its share of setbacks. Some students can’t adapt quickly enough, others get homesick and they all live with a form of pressure that, according to Hannis, is specific to being Indigenous.

“It can feel like, when you fail, you’re letting your community down,” said Hannis. “So as much as we have to encourage the students, as much as we like to give them positive reinforcement, we’ve learned to scale that back a bit.

“It’s important they feel safe enough to get a bad grade, to fail a quiz and not let that experience destroy their confidence. They carry a lot of hopes and dreams on their shoulders.”

This article was produced through The Rover, Christopher Curtis’s investigative journalism project with Ricochet. Sign up below for weekly newsletters from the front lines of journalism.
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