‘How can we do bet­ter?’

Uni­ver­si­ties urged to fo­cus on Indige­nous stu­dent sup­port, not ‘to­ken’ po­si­tions. El­lie Both­well writes

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - El­lie.both­[email protected]­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

An aca­demic who has be­come the lat­est se­nior Indige­nous staff mem­ber to re­sign from a Cana­dian uni­ver­sity has told in­sti­tu­tions to in­vest more re­sources in sup­port for Abo­rig­i­nal stu­dents as op­posed to “to­kenis­tic” se­nior po­si­tions.

Lynn Laval­lée (pic­tured right) stood down from her role as vi­ce­provost (Indige­nous en­gage­ment) at the Uni­ver­sity of Man­i­toba ear­lier this month, claim­ing that her ef­forts to fight sys­temic racism were met with fre­quent re­sis­tance within the Win­nipeg in­sti­tu­tion. She was the first per­son to fill the role af­ter it was cre­ated last year.

The move is the lat­est in a string of res­ig­na­tions and dis­missals of se­nior Indige­nous staff at Cana­dian uni­ver­si­ties. An­gelique Ea­gleWo­man, for­mer law school dean at Lake­head Uni­ver­sity, left the On­tario in­sti­tu­tion in June and last month filed a law­suit for con­struc­tive dis­missal and racial dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Mean­while, San­dra Muse Isaacs quit her job as Indige­nous lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor at Saint Mary’s Uni­ver­sity in Nova Sco­tia in June over the in­sti­tu­tion’s fail­ure to “Indi­genise the acad­emy”, while Mar­i­lyn Buf­falo, for­mer se­nior ad­viser on Indige­nous ini­tia­tives at the Uni­ver­sity of Al­berta, was dis­missed from the in­sti­tu­tion in Fe­bru­ary.

Dr Laval­lée told Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion that she was op­ti­mistic when she started work­ing at Man­i­toba be­cause the in­sti­tu­tion’s strate­gic plan had “em­bed­ded through­out it [work on] Indige­nous achieve­ment”.

But she said that she had to con­stantly “pro­vide a ra­tio­nale for why an Indige­nous pro­gramme might be im­por­tant” and why it would not dis­crim­i­nate against other stu­dents on cam­pus, par­tic­u­larly in de­part­ments that had a higher share of Indige­nous stu­dents than the gen­eral stu­dent pop­u­la­tion.

“I’ve been do­ing this work a long time and I wanted to hit the road run­ning. I don’t want to have to ar­gue why we need it. I wanted to say how we’re go­ing to do it,” she said.

Dr Laval­lée added that she felt “em­bar­rassed” that she could not set up a meet­ing be­tween the uni­ver­sity’s Indige­nous Stu­dents’ As­so­ci­a­tion and the pres­i­dent’s ex­ec­u­tive team. The meet­ing even­tu­ally took place fol­low­ing me­dia re­ports, she said.

“That’s what I saw as my role as vice-provost of Indige­nous en­gage­ment – recog­nis­ing where Indige­nous rep­re­sen­ta­tion is not and try­ing to en­sure that rep­re­sen­ta­tion gets there,” she said.

“I started to feel in­ef­fec­tive. And if some­one is in this role and they are feel­ing in­ef­fec­tive with re­spect to re­spond­ing to com­mu­nity needs, not ad­min­is­tra­tion needs, then that can be a to­ken po­si­tion.”

Dr Laval­lée said that the model of hav­ing “Indige­nous peo­ple sit at the se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tive ta­ble” would only work if they sat along­side “al­lies who are try­ing to ad­vance the same sort of things”.

“If a sit­u­a­tion arose and it be­came dif­fi­cult or chal­leng­ing for a par­tic­u­lar unit at the in­sti­tu­tion, only when it be­came un­man­age­able was I in­vited to the ta­ble – al­most to con­trol the In­dian pop­u­la­tion,” she said. “We can­not do that. That can’t be what these po­si­tions are… We can’t be com­ing in and try­ing to fix dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions for the in­sti­tu­tion.”

Dr Laval­lée added that uni­ver­si­ties “need to put more re­sources not into se­nior­level po­si­tions that may have a cer­tain op­tic na­ture but… into peo­ple who are work­ing di­rectly with Indige­nous stu­dents”.

Next month, Dr Laval­lée will start a new po­si­tion as strate­gic lead for Indige­nous resur­gence in Ry­er­son Uni­ver­sity’s fac­ulty of com­mu­nity ser­vices.

“I feel that I’ll be more ef­fec­tive in a fac­ulty role, not a se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tive role,” she said, adding that the term “resur­gence” recog­nises that uni­ver­si­ties are colo­nial in­sti­tu­tions and asks “how can we do bet­ter”.

De­spite the chal­lenges that re­main, she said that she was “hope­ful for the next gen­er­a­tion” of Indige­nous peo­ple.

“I’m op­ti­mistic in that I want my next gen­er­a­tion to get a Western colo­nial de­gree…I want my niece to get her un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree,” she said.

“I see value in that for so­ci­ety. But I also want her to get her de­gree and not ex­pe­ri­ence anti-Indige­nous racism and not come out of the acad­emy more harmed than when she came in.” David Barnard, Man­i­toba’s pres­i­dent, said that the uni­ver­sity has long been “en­gaged with teach­ing about Indige­nous peo­ple” and that Indi­geni­sa­tion was an “area of great im­por­tance” for the in­sti­tu­tion. He added that the uni­ver­sity had es­tab­lished “a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent mod­els” in re­cent years to en­sure that there is Indige­nous rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion, and that Dr Laval­lée “made sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions” while she was at the in­sti­tu­tion. Her de­par­ture pro­vided an “un­avoid­able op­por­tu­nity to think through” how a se­nior Indige­nous role “should be con­fig­ured”, he said.

Tak­ing a stand Lynn Laval­lée wants Cana­dian in­sti­tu­tions to in­vest more re­sources in sup­port­ing Abo­rig­i­nal stu­dents

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