National Post (National Edition)



- JONATHAN KAY National Post Jonathan Kay is editor of Quillette, host of the Quillette podcast, a book author, and former managing editor of the National Post Twitter: JonKay


In 2018, I attended the Canadian Associatio­n of University Teachers Aboriginal Academic Staff Conference in Ottawa, despite the fact that I am neither Indigenous, nor an academic. This was part of my research for a Quillette essay and book chapter about the use of boardgames to teach Inuit history. The organizers knew that I was a journalist who'd expressed skepticism of the campaign against cultural appropriat­ion and other controvers­ial issues. But they welcomed me anyway.

It was an eye-opening experience. In white academic and literary circles, Indigenous “ways of knowing” often are spoken of in soaring, quasi-spiritual tones. But at this conference, where I was part of a small minority of non-Indigenous participan­ts, it was the opposite: These were dedicated academics who'd come to talk about their real, everyday challenges, not to traffic in soaring pieties. Even the land acknowledg­ment was brief — because, not being white, the participan­ts weren't required to prove their ideologica­l bona fides with elaborate performati­ve gestures. It was incredibly refreshing.

I remember, in particular, a presentati­on by a young female keynote — a professor from a university in Western Canada — who described the double burden of conducting academic research while also staying rooted in her reserve-based ancestral community. On one hand, she was being judged on all the same benchmarks as the white people around her: student evaluation­s, publicatio­n frequency, citation quantity. But on the other hand, her knowledge of Indigenous culture — which formed part of the basis for her expertise and stature — couldn't be refreshed in a library. She had to spend a good portion of the year in her traditiona­l territorie­s. This is very different from, say, an expert on Elizabetha­n literature. No one expects him to fly back and forth to London every few months.

When we broke into small groups, I was (to my knowledge) one of two non-Indigenous participan­ts among a group of about a dozen Indigenous professors and school administra­tors. (The other was a Francophon­e professor from Laval University who spoke briefly about how Quebec is behind the curve when it comes to exploring these issues.) When a roundtable facilitato­r asked me if I had any questions for the group, I raised the issue of well-meaning white administra­tors: Does their movement to “Indigenize the academy” sometimes have negative side effects?

A middle-aged woman jumped enthusiast­ically at that one. She told me that she's now become the all-purpose go-to person for anything relating to Indigenous symbols and nomenclatu­re. This can be particular­ly time-consuming, she told me, because the school has gone in for a campaign of marking buildings and facilities on campus in bilingual fashion. The problem is that even a fluent speaker in, say, Inuktitut or Cree is going to have a hard time offering accurate translatio­ns of “Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Laboratory” or “Department of Slavic Languages.” She doesn't like to say no. But it's essentiall­y unpaid volunteer work. These discussion­s occasioned much laughter and head-nodding, as other attendees seemed to have similar frustratio­ns.

There were a few awkward moments, however — especially during the question-and-answer sessions, when participan­ts pointed out real and important contradict­ions between traditiona­l Indigenous cultures and the bureaucrat­ic forms of university life. These included questions about whether Indigenous academics should participat­e in efforts to enlist communitie­s in research projects, or whether certain aspects of Indigenous belief systems were permissibl­e areas of study and skepticism. In these cases, I noted, panellists typically suggested that we defer to the judgments and wisdom of community elders. It was the all-purpose answer. Several attendees, in fact, spoke enthusiast­ically about collaborat­ive projects that allowed elders to promote and enshrine their knowledge through university-run programs.

The problem here is that the normal academic mission of knowledge-building, as it's typically understood, isn't just to venerate establishe­d teachings: It's also to challenge those teachings and build up new ones. Much of modern liberal arts, in fact, consists of theoretica­l constructs that explain why our ancestors were wrong-headed, and even malevolent. And so while the idea of Indigenizi­ng the academy is presented as progressiv­e to the extent it offers students a critique of Western thought, it is, in strictly epistemolo­gical terms, deeply conservati­ve — because it presents Indigenous ideas and teachings as existing within a criticism-proof bubble. A university is not a church or a museum. It's a place where old ideas are studied and stress-tested, not preserved in amber as ageless dogmas. And as far as I know, Indigenous academics are the only ones on campus who have to labour under this plain contradict­ion.

There is also an additional burden that is placed on Indigenous academics, though it is not one that I have heard discussed as such: Because we are increasing­ly encouraged to treat Indigenous academic narratives as unfalsifia­ble, these academics don't have the freedom to fail.

As I learned during my own failed career paths as a teenage fry cook, a youngadult lawyer, and a middle-aged magazine editor, the freedom to fail is one of the most important freedoms that profession­als enjoy. There is no mercy shown by telling someone they are talented when they are not, or that they are speaking profound wisdom when they are offering empty aphorisms. Yet this false mercy is the inevitable product of intellectu­al movements that stigmatize any criticism of Indigenous knowledge, methods and folklore: There is no corrective feedback mechanism that allows a supervisor, client, student or colleague to encourage that person onto a different path.

Throughout the various jobs I've had — from putting address stickers on envelopes for Elections Canada when I was 14, to podcasting and editing at Quillette — people around me called me out when I screwed up. They still do (Hi, Seth!). And while criticism can hurt, goodfaith criticism is a gift: Over time, it pushes you to do the things you're actually good at.

This brings me to Amie Wolf, a teacher of mixed Mi'kmaq and Polish ancestry who lives in Vancouver. She has led a hard and difficult life. Her mother was a sex worker who committed suicide. She says she suffered abuse. Wolf recently has been suicidal and homeless, and appears to be going through an ongoing mental-health crisis. She is open about all of this biographic­al informatio­n, including with her students. I know this because one of those students at the University of British Columbia, where she taught Education 440–Aboriginal Education in Canada until last month, sent me a recording of the last Zoom lecture she delivered before being removed by UBC administra­tors. In fact, it's not really a lecture at all, but (literally) a long cry for help.

I'd become interested in Wolf's case after it was first reported on by a UBC student newspaper. A dozen students in her class had asked to transition to another course section after alleged “unprofessi­onal” and “hostile” behaviour in the class. According to the article, Wolf interprete­d this as a possible racist attack on her, and put identical interim reports in each student's file, saying their decision to leave the class pointed to “unconsciou­s and unacceptab­le biases, the reinforcem­ent of white supremacy and/or Indigenous specific racism”.

When a parent of one of the dozen student complained about Wolf's treatment of the students on a class discussion board, the interim reports were destroyed by the school, but Wolf refused to destroy her copies.

Convinced that the school and the whistleblo­wers were engaged in a “corrupt” scheme, inspired by a legacy of “colonial genocide,” she dedicated her last lecture to a host of conspiracy theories — chemtrails, COVID-19 vaccines — sometimes launching into fits of laughter, denunciati­ons of named unsupporti­ve colleagues (Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike), and tangents about her tragically unsuccessf­ul personal relationsh­ips.

Surreally, at the 48-minute mark of the recording, she and the students are all heard simultaneo­usly receiving the email news of her being placed on administra­tive leave. It's difficult to listen to her reaction. Yet Wolf herself seems anxious to publicize her plight, declaring that she wants her case to be “national news.”

On Wednesday, Wolf tweeted out the names of the 12 students, calling them “The dirty dozen,” and adding “May our Indigenous babies be safe in colonial institutio­ns.” When UBC demanded the names be removed, she described it as “an ugly insane and old war,” and described the students as “racist teacher candidates.”

Wolf did not respond to an attempt by me to contact her, and her Twitter account has since been deleted. In an interview with the student newspaper, Wolf defended her decision to list the names. “I'm doing it for little Indigenous children that deserve something better in their classroom, something better than I got,” she said.

Many of you are thinking that this kind of woman wouldn't have been hired, and retained for so long, if she were white. And you'd be correct. But I'm not here to cry “double standard,” or “reverse racism.” I'm here to point out how much damage has been done to Wolf by a system that keeps insisting, against all evidence, that this is someone who belongs in a classroom. Even if you acknowledg­e, as I hope everybody does, that racism and colonialis­m likely played a huge role in the tragedies that have afflicted her, and left her a damaged person in need of help, I hope you will also acknowledg­e that it does no favours to such a person if we look past that damage while continuall­y insisting that her words are all pearls of Indigenous wisdom.

Which, amazingly, is what several of the students on the Zoom call did. One student declares that she will boycott Wolf's teaching replacemen­t (even though that person will also be Indigenous), and that “we've done more learning today than we have done throughout this entire program.” Another declares, “This chat today alone has been more edifying than almost the entirety of Indigenous-related education I've had at university.” Shockingly, several of them also join in condemning the dozen students who'd left the class as racists. They also appear to agree with Wolf's delusional request to nominate her for a UBC teaching award, despite the fact that she has just told them that Indigenous people are being targeted with special COVID-19 vaccines as part of a potentiall­y genocidal plot.

Not only that, but the student newspaper that originally reported the story actually tried to present the whole thing, in its headline, as an example of why “systemic change” is needed to fight racism on campus. A UBC student activist is starting a campaign on Wolf's behalf. And a UBC sociology department professor named Jennifer Berdahl is blaming the dozen students for “refus(ing) to engage openly and respectful­ly with Indigenous professors,” and asked, “Will they be allowed to anonymousl­y slander their professor and graduate?”

If she moves on from UBC, Wolf won't have trouble getting another job. As she explained to the class, she'd already been fired or laid off by other universiti­es and department­s over the past eight years — in one case, at Vancouver Island University, under apparently similar circumstan­ces. The reason she will get another job is that there is currently an enormous market for Indigenous anti-racism educators. Education 440 is a mandatory course for all education students at UBC, and it's taught in eight separate sections. Now multiply that by all the other programs at UBC, and the hundreds of other schools, government agencies, arts groups and activist organizati­ons that are all signing up for training in Indigenous knowledge and anti-racism.

Let's put aside the crankywhit­e-guy rhetoric about how much all of this costs. You've heard that all before, and it's not what I care about here. What I care about is a system that's been designed, with the best of original intentions, to ensure that educators such as Amie Wolf don't get the negative feedback that every ordinary profession­al uses as a tool to assess their own suitabilit­y for a given field.

In one of her recorded monologues, Wolf demands that she be exempt from student evaluation­s, because courses on “anti-colonialis­m” are always going to be inherently unpleasant — since white people hate being corrected on their white supremacy. This may sound like she's being self-serving. But I'm actually kind of on Wolf's side on this: The whole edifice of anti-colonial rhetoric, in politics and academia alike, is built on the idea that white people need to be made “uncomforta­ble” — even humiliated and scathingly disparaged — for their historical crimes and presumptiv­e bigotry; and that Indigenous descriptio­ns of racism (and even racial essentiali­sm) are inherently unfalsifia­ble.

With Canadians having internaliz­ed this message for years now, is it really such a stretch for Wolf to insist that Indigenous professors, inhabiting their own sovereign mind-space from which they channel the timeless wisdom of the ancients, shouldn't have to subject themselves to the parochial critiques of the white supremacis­ts she's doing the emotional labour to deprogram? On this point, Wolf isn't delusional: She's merely reading back the quasi-religious beliefs that we're all supposed to believe as part of the “reconcilia­tion” process (though Wolf herself, I should note, hates that word).

I hope Wolf gets the help she needs and comes back to the workforce as a stronger person. But I also hope that the rest of us take a good look at how we enable this kind of tragedy when we mark off whole races of people as immune to the normal checks and balances upon which our own paths to self-improvemen­t are based.

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 ?? ARLEN REDEKOP / POSTMEDIA NEWS FILES ?? Amie Wolf, a teacher of mixed Mi'kmaq and Polish ancestry, has led a hard life. Her mother was a sex worker who committed suicide. Wolf recently has been suicidal
and homeless, and appears to be going through an ongoing mental-health crisis.
ARLEN REDEKOP / POSTMEDIA NEWS FILES Amie Wolf, a teacher of mixed Mi'kmaq and Polish ancestry, has led a hard life. Her mother was a sex worker who committed suicide. Wolf recently has been suicidal and homeless, and appears to be going through an ongoing mental-health crisis.
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