Indigenous students disrupt executive meeting in call for solidarity and support
On Feb. 26, the University of Regina held an executive meeting in the board room of the Administration Humanities building from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. One of the objects on the agenda of that meeting was a letter, signed by 30 U of R faculty, criticizing the administration’s lack of engagement with the Indigenous community of this campus surrounding the events of the Woodrow Lloyd lecture. In words that echoed those spoken at the “We Speak” event at First Nations University several weeks ago, the letter read that there had been a “breakdown of trust and reciprocity” between the university and the communities it is meant to serve. Notably, the letter also read at the bottom that there were at least four faculty members who wanted to sign but could not do so publicly because they feared repercussions that would affect their career.
While this meeting went on, another event was taking place five floors directly below it, in the Ad Hum pit where students gather each day. A public round dance was organized by several students. This included honorary First Nations Student Association member Karlene Pruden from Little Saskatchewan First Nation, and social work third-year Tracie Leost, a Métis woman from Treaty 1, who is also a recipient of the Youth Métis Indspire Award. Indigenous students and their allies were invited to come to the pit for the dance at 2:30 via posters put up around campus that week. The purpose of the gathering was to “support the students, faculty members and larger campus community excluded from [the invitation of George Elliott Clarke to the lecture].” There was also a second purpose: to let Indigenous students know that they are not alone while facing systemic racism in post-secondary education, on their own territories.
“Throughout this entire situation [with George Elliott Clarke],” said Leost, “the Indigenous voices on campus have been silenced, ignored, [and] pushed out.” The invitation of George Elliott Clarke should have involved more consultation, her speech argued, as G.E.C. was “not known to the community” on Treaty 4. She added her disappointment at Faculty of Arts dean Dr. Richard Kleer’s apology to G.E.C. (as first reported by CBC), without an apology to the Indigenous community, and said that to speak of a battle between academic freedom and Indigenization is “a slap in the face.”
“We are not playing victims in this situation,” she said, “but if we were, G.E.C. would not be [the victim]. He does not need an apology.”
However, the frustration and momentum behind this event was not by any means only about one incident. There was a clear continuation of an age-old conversation about Indigenous people in settler post-secondary institutions, which Leost said her people “were never meant to enter.” Colonial education was a tool for the killing of Indigenous people and their cultures.
“You walk in these halls, there is no representation of Indigenous people … you’re forced to defend your existence in the classroom, you’re tokenized, you’re alone … and at the same time, you’re trying to get an education and hold on to your Indigeneity.”
According to research Leost undertook which earned her the Indpride Award, 45 per cent of Indigenous students experienced racism on their university campuses and 51 per cent said that the classroom was the least safe place for them and their identity. Describing the Indigenous student’s experience as one of a “less romantic knight in armour,” she said “you have to be bulletproof in these halls.”
Karlene Pruden also spoke, on behalf of the First Nations Student Association, about the realities of anti-Indigenous violence that are brought to light when people such as Pamela George’s killer, who worked with G.E.C., are centered. “Me being here [on Treaty 4 territory] makes me known as a statistic. I get told to be careful … I get told to aim high, but not too high. I get told to follow my dreams, but not too far from home.” The focus shifted away from administration, the lecture, and its media circus, and toward the Indigenous students’ concerns and their right to be safe and supported on campus. “We’re occupying space that is rightfully ours,” Leost said. “We deserve better.”
In an online interview with the Carillon, Leost spoke further, encouraging those who spoke about “academic freedom to imagine Indigenous students’ perspective. “Imagine struggling to walk in two worlds … being away from your family community and culture in attempt to receive an education only to be degraded by the school you ‘belong in.’ Imagine opening social media to find people threatening to shoot you for speaking the truth. Imagine sitting in a lecture after Colten Boushie was murdered, and having a student look you in the eye and openly tell you “my daddy would’ve shot you too” … and having no one defend you. Imagine what is like to be 12 times more likely to be murdered simply because you are an Indigenous woman. Imagine having to defend your existence while being tokenized in the classroom regularly. That is vilifying.”
Leost also thanked the faculty once more for their support, as well as those on campus who spoke out and came to events like “We Speak” at FNU.
“It has been eye-opening and disappointing to watch this university fail to do the right thing … however, I am extremely appreciative of the larger campus community who have come together to hold the university accountable and continue to show support towards Indigenous students, faculty members and the larger campus community. We have some pretty incredible allies on this campus who we will forever be grateful for. I am proud of the Indigenous students and faculty members who have courageously chosen to stand up and speak up regardless of how difficult it may be.”
When asked what students and the larger campus could do to support Indigenous people throughout their education, Leost said, “Being an ally to me means always supporting but never leading. We could use a lot more of that on campus … when students see and hear racist and problematic comments made in class or on campus, students have a responsibility to have a conversation with those peers and remind them that kind of behaviour is not okay. It is not up to Indigenous students to do this work alone,” she emphasized, having spoken at the round dance about the intense work Indigenous people do to support their communities, “putting out fire after fire…. Administration, staff and students can always show up at events to support students…. It is really difficult for us to be on guard 24/7, and it helps knowing others are checking in on us.”
As for whether or not Leost and other organizers felt their message was heard by administration that day, Leost said that she “was told … the drums were so loud that those in the meeting had to shout to be heard, so they definitely heard us.” She also referred to a comment from Jérôme Melançon, a faculty member: “The drums from the round dance happening below were heard in the meeting room, and Melançon noted it was a good reminder that the university needs to acknowledge the Treaty 4 territory it sits on. [The drum is] the heartbeat, and so if we’re going to talk about reconciliation and Indigenization, we have to continue hearing those voices, he said. But, if we’re referring to whether or not the administration is hearing and listening to our concerns, I think the answer is no … considering there has been no statement, apology or accountability on behalf of the University, it only further amplifies our message.”
At the end of the round dance, Leost led the students and others gathered in the pit to repeat a prepared affirmation loudly, so it could be heard by the executive meeting. The words were these: “We will not make ourselves smaller to make others more comfortable. We will take up space, we will stand up, we will speak up, and we will fight back. Always.” She also thanked settler allies for coming to the event, and having “the very uncomfortable conversations” associated with accountability.