(Diane Obed (middle) and Sandra Muse Isaacs (right) say they are leaving St. Mary’s University due to the school’s failure to live up to its promises to Indigenize the academy. Photo courtesy Diane Obed.)
Two Indigenous faculty members are leaving Saint Mary’s University over frustrations about the school’s Indigenization efforts.
Sandra Muse Isaacs says she’s quitting her job as an Indigenous literature professor at the Halifax university over the lack of progress on the recommendations outlined in a report by a task force on Aboriginal students struck in the wake of a student’s murder.
Loretta Saunders, a 26-year-old Inuk student from Labrador who was researching missing and murdered Indigenous women, was killed in 2014.
Her murder appeared to serve as a catalyst for change at the small university. The task force recommended hiring Indigenous faculty and expanding the Indigenous curriculum to “enhance the indigenization of the academy.”
“It was part of the reason I came here,” said Muse Isaacs, a Cherokee woman originally from the United States. “I read it and I felt like, ‘This institution gets it now.’”
But she said the university has been reluctant to change, and she felt like the “token” Indigenous professor.
Out of the 17 recommendations, Muse Isaacs said Saint Mary’s has only implemented the first two — creating an Aboriginal Student Centre and hiring an Aboriginal student adviser — “only with a lot of pushing.”
“Once I began showing resistance and telling them this needs to be done,” she said, “I was labelled a troublemaker
On Friday Diane Obed, an Inuk from Nunatsiavut and a part-time lecturer of anthropology at Saint Mary’s, announced on social media that she has “opted not to return to work at [Saint Mary’s] given the challenges and lack of progress and adequate supports for Indigenous students there.”
In an interview with APTN News, Obed said that as both a former student and an instructor at Saint Mary’s she faced racism and what she calls an “unwillingness to create safe space for Indigenous students.”
Obed, whose Master’s research focused on decolonizing education, says Saint Mary’s “was a particularly difficult place to study in,” and that when she began her grad studies in 2015 the school lacked a space for Indigenous students, a full-time Indigenous advisor.
“There was absolutely no visibility of Indigenous people,” she said, which amounted to an “environment of toxicity and to the continued invisibility and erasure of our history to the point where it allows for a comfortable space for non-Indigenous students to be openly racist.”
She said as both a student and instructor she routinely faced racist comments from students and faculty members, and that the university’s stated efforts to Indigenize has been met with “active resistance to an Indigenous presence, or Indigenous knowledge” within the university community.
Margaret Murphy, associate vice-president of external affairs at Saint Mary’s, said the university is committed to the recommendations in the task force report.
“We recognize there is still more to be done, so we’re continuing to implement those recommendations and continuing to commit more resources to support both the Indigenous students on campus and to support a greater role — and a greater number — of Indigenous faculty,” she said.
Murphy said the university has made progress in recent years yet acknowledges there’s still “a long way to go.”
In addition to a new space for Indigenous students and a student adviser, Saint Mary’s is creating curriculum on the history and cultures of Indigenous Peoples and incorporating territorial land acknowledgments and First Nations recognition in the school’s ceremonial practices.
The university also has a Mi’kmaw chief on its board of governors, raises the Mi’kmaw flag in partnership with elders and has awarded honorary degrees to members of the Mi’kmaw community.
Muse Isaacs said many of the university’s actions amount to “window dressing” and are “not what Indigenizing the academy is all about.”
“It’s nice but it doesn’t change the education students are getting,” she said.
Murphy admitted that some of the changes have been slow to come about, and said Muse Isaacs is “right to hold us to task, to hold us accountable.”
Other recommendations from the task force, including an Aboriginal Advisory Council and a university chair in Indigenous Studies, are works in progress, she said.
While Saint Mary’s is committed to hiring more Indigenous faculty, Murphy was unable to provide a specific commitment about when or how many new Indigenous professors would be hired.
In its report, the task force admitted that “implementing these changes will take time.”
But it said that “Saint Mary’s is woefully behind other post-secondary institutions in the region and nationally when it comes to meeting the needs of Aboriginal students.”
The report added: “There is, simply, a need for immediate and effective action, even in a climate of restraint.”
Tyler Sack, a Saint Mary’s alumnus and former Aboriginal student adviser, said while some progress has been achieved the university has not made Aboriginal students a priority as promised.
“Other universities in the region have done more in less time and not in response to a student murder,” he said, pointing to Cape Breton University’s Unama’ki College.
Another Halifax university recently found itself embroiled in controversy after assigning a course about Canada’s residential schools to a non-Indigenous professor.
Mount Saint Vincent University called a meeting with history department leaders, faculty, school administration and the senior adviser to the president on Aboriginal affairs.
After the meeting, the university said Professor Martha Walls had the support of Indigenous and non-Indigenous faculty and administration to teach the course.
In March Angelique EagleWoman, dean of Lakehead University’s Bora Laskin Law School in Thunder Bay, resigned amid allegations of racism and systemic discrimination.
Last month Zoe Todd, an assistant professor in Carleton University’s department of sociology and anthropology, told APTN Canadian universities must do more than make promises to Indigenize.
She said it’s important that universities “talk about the difference between Indigenizing the academy…and the broader question of decolonizing, which is about addressing the underlying structures of the university that have historically and contemporarily excluded Indigenous people.”
Obed said that as an Inuit student — the only Indigenous student in many of her classes — and then as a lecturer with three Indigenous students in her class, no educational space was safe from anti-Indigenous attitudes and racism.
Obed said Muse Isaacs “was my one Indigenous support on campus,” and that after hearing about Muse Isaacs’ decision to leave, she decided to follow suit.
“I think the lack of visibility of Indigenous Peoples [on campus] really contributes to the toxic racist work environment, and that needs to change,” she said.
“There needs to be more desire to hire and retain Indigenous faculty, there needs to be more culturally safe spaces for us to be able to study and work in. There needs to be more awareness building. And [St. Mary’s] needs to implement their task force recommendations.”
Muse Isaacs has been hired by the University of Windsor in Ontario, which has committed to hiring five new full-time, tenure-track Indigenous professors.
Obed said she has accepted a new research job at the IWK Health Centre, the children’s hospital in Halifax.
With files from the Canadian Press.