‘The weight of not being like the others’: Indigenous students on the challenges of university

Many schools now talk a good game on decolonization, but the reality on the ground doesn’t always match those words
Photo: JasonParis

“We were rez kids. Our classmates had heard we were 'crazy' Mohawks, we were something to be feared. I can’t tell you how many times we’d set up a playdate with someone from school only to have it cancelled when their parents realized we lived in Kanehsatake.”

— Kailey Karahkwinétah Nicholas

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Kailey Nicholas was nine years old when she started feeling it. The way things changed when people found out who she was. It was as though the white school children had been told to keep their guard up around Nicholas and the other Mohawks.

It hadn’t always been that way.

Nicholas began her schooling on reserve, in a round building nestled under the pines that overlook Oka. The children sat in a circle, no more than a handful to a classroom, learning Mohawk words and playing tag in the forest.

“You felt the weight of it all, the weight of not being like the others.”

When she transferred to an elementary school in Deux Montagnes, it was a “total culture shock” for Nicholas and the few other Mohawks who joined her.

“There were metal lockers, the desks were lined up in perfect rows, there was just so much structure,” says Nicholas. “The kids even played differently than we did. So we learned to tone down our 'rezness' so we could fit in. We made friends, we adapted, but you felt the weight of it all, the weight of not being like the others.

“You heard things about cigarette shacks and ‘Mohawks living off our taxes,’ you had to start understanding what prejudice was before the other kids because it was something you faced. Even as a child.”

Nicholas is a first-year biology student at Bishop’s University. People don’t assume she’s a “wild rez kid” anymore. Times have changed and attitudes are evolving, but Nicholas still carries a weight that most students don’t have to.

“I can’t just be a student and go to class,” she says. “There’s this added responsibility of educating your peers, your profs about what’s appropriate and inappropriate. When some Indigenous subject comes up, I can feel the professor’s eyes on me, almost asking permission to talk about it. “It’s good-natured, it’s a sign that things are improving, but it shouldn’t be up to the few Indigenous students on campus to carry that load.”

After she enrolled last fall, Nicholas joined a working group to help usher in an Indigenous resource centre at Bishop’s.

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It seemed like a good idea at first. But Nicholas resigned from the Task Force on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion on Tuesday, after a series of clashes with the administration.

Hers was the latest in a string of defections among her Indigenous peers. There are no longer any Indigenous students included in the process meant to decolonize Bishop’s University.

They say they were misled about how many Indigenous staff work at Bishop’s, and felt used by the university to get grant money without actually having any input in changes on campus.

This isn’t unique to Bishop’s. Across Canada, schools are trying to decolonize but often find themselves making a mess of it. Universities are hiring Indigenous advisers and promoting and actively recruiting Indigenous professors while adding celebrations of First Nations culture on campus.

But critics say that’s mostly window dressing.

‘No one is demanding censorship’

Elizabeth Fast was on a roll.

Just months after she landed a professor job at Concordia University, the school promoted her into a special advisor to the provost position. Her new job would be to help usher in a new era at Concordia, one that bridged the gap between Indigenous and settler students, faculty and staff. She resigned less than a year later.

“The very fact that I shared an office with upper management but was not invited to staff meetings speaks volumes.”

“The day in and day out ‘please give this person the Indigenous 101’ that one is asked to do in this role is, of course, frustrating and infuriating for many who find themselves in these positions, who are awarded with these ‘promotions,’” Fast wrote in a blog post published Wednesday.

She explained that, while it’s essential for Concordia and other universities to put Indigenous people in positions of power, her job didn’t feel terribly influential.

“The very fact that I shared an office with upper management but was not invited to staff meetings speaks volumes,” Fast wrote.

There were also the “harassing” and “threatening” emails she received from a senior colleague just days into her advisory role. One of Fast’s superiors told her to simply disregard the colleague, but they became relentless, pushing her so hard she would break down and cry at work.

Ultimately, she filed a psychological harassment complaint, resigned from her advisor post and took a short sick leave.

Five years later, Fast brought herself to write about the ordeal, but she says little has changed. Merely getting settler students to engage with Indigenous content can be a struggle, she says. About half of the Concordia University students who go through Fast’s graduate-level course in applied human sciences will go on to work in youth protection — a system where Indigenous children are way overrepresented.

But in her course evaluations, she routinely hears that students are “fed up with hearing about Indigenous perspectives.”

“In one course, there were four classes I taught on Indigenous approaches to youth work and I had complaints that it was too much,” said Fast, who is Métis. “We’re on Indigenous land, people have had almost no exposure to Indigenous subject matter, there’s an overrepresentation of Indigenous youth in the system these students are going to work in.

“And the fact that white students think it’s too much, to me, that’s contributing to a much larger problem. Even in grad school, I’ll have students who have never had a course that focuses on the history of colonization and still think four of 15 classes on the subject is too much.”

With that said, Fast maintains it’s possible to create a safe, respectful environment in our classrooms without stifling free speech.

“No one is demanding censorship,” said Fast. “At the beginning of each semester, we have a discussion as a class about how we can have respectful discussions without censoring each other. It’s not about having a strict rule book.”

“You see some extreme examples that make it in the paper but that’s just not day-to-day reality. There’s not some huge conspiracy where people of colour are taking over the university and radicalizing it. We have to fight for what little space is given to Indigenous perspectives.”

‘Emails to try and silence me’

If McGill University is Canada’s answer to the Ivy League in an urban setting, Bishop’s has the feel of a bucolic Jesuit college removed from the chaos of downtown Montreal.

Its lush campus is a 90-minute drive south of the city, taking travellers through farming hamlets in the Eastern Townships and into the Appalachians just north of Vermont.

Of course, there are keggers, rowdy football games and dust-ups just like at any Canadian university. But the school has a tradition of producing what you might call respectable members of society. Its alumni include newspaper publishers, federal politicians and one of the first men to have his name on the Stanley Cup — Frederick Edmund Meredith of the Montreal Victorias.

Lately, a small group of Indigenous students have been fighting to carve out their own space at Bishop’s.

“What do I gain by making my way in the world if I lose those traces of who I am in the process?”

Two years back, the school announced a $5.9-million grant from Quebec to convert one of its 19th-century buildings into a resource centre for First Nations, Inuit and Métis students. It enlisted a committee of Indigenous students to help create a culturally appropriate space.

Things have not gone smoothly.

Last December, amid claims she was bullied and disrespected by the university’s administration, Nikki Baribeau resigned as vice-chair of the Task Force on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

“There was lots of eye-rolling (from administrators) and there was a lot of negative tones when we would ask questions,” said Baribeau, a Cree student from Mistissini. “We’ve had a lot of comments about how we should be grateful we’re even getting a space. … When I asked to have other BIPOC on the task force, I was met with hostility.

“I was told the names I’d suggested were not well liked by upper administration. I got emails to try to silence me.”

Baribeau says students and administrators can’t agree on how the building’s space will be doled out and who gets a say in the process. She held a press conference last month where she and other Indigenous students spoke to a larger cultural problem at Bishop’s.

Namely, there are only two Indigenous staff on a campus that employs 400 people, and students say there’s not enough space given to Indigenous voices in classes that teach about First Nations history.

“There are multiple teachers that, since they’re white people teaching about Indigenous history, when we tried to help we are looked down upon,” said Cassey Perley, a Mi’kmaw student. “I had a teacher who was mispronouncing a lot of Indigenous words and when I emailed ... to offer help, I was singled out in class, I was not given homework back.”

Given that hiring Indigenous teachers can take time, Mi’kmaw student Shawna Jerome says one of her Mohawk classmates offered to bring in a speaker from Kahnawake to give a guest lecture.

“We were told there’s no budget for that, that if the person drove out here to speak it would be for free,” said Jerome. “It’s always out of our own pocket, our own time.”

Last month, Bishop’s vice-chancellor, Michael Goldbloom, said the school is committed to fighting systemic racism and “advancing equity.” Goldbloom added that he is recruiting a special advisor to ensure Bishop’s becomes the “inclusive institution we aspire to be.”

He did not address the Indigenous student resignations other than to say there have been “difficult conversations.”

‘For the benefit of my people’

Nicholas has been torn lately.

On the one hand, she loves learning and the opportunities that will come with a university degree in the sciences. On the other, she fears she might lose some part of herself in the largely non-Indigenous world of academia.

“Right now, it’s like we have to choose between our ways, our languages and the ways of the colonial state,” says Nicholas. “I don’t speak my language. My grandfather did but I don’t. So what do I gain by making my way in the world if I lose those traces of who I am in the process?”

These are tough questions for anyone to grapple with, let alone a 22-year-old learning the ropes at university. Nicholas is starting to make peace with her decisions.

“I don’t think I’ll ever have kids but if I do, I want to be able to pass our language and our knowledge on to them. It’s hard to tell exactly how that will happen but, for now, I know that I’m at school to learn something that I will bring home for the benefit of my people.

“It’s a lot to have on our shoulders, there are times I wish I could just go to school without that kind of pressure. But here we are.”

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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