National Post (National Edition)
THE SAD STORY OF A UBC PROFESSOR SHOWS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN PEOPLE AND TOPICS ARE INSULATED FROM CRITICISM
SHIELDING PEOPLE FROM CRITICISM ONLY DOES THEM HARM.
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.