A mother from Kingsclear First Nation in New Brunswick has filed a human rights complaint against St. Thomas University for discrimination after the school told her not to bring her infant to class.
Keyaira Gruben was pregnant when she started the Mi’kmaq Maliseet Bachelor of Social Work Program (MMBSW) – a program designed for Indigenous students.
Her daughter was born in October 2017.
She did not think bringing her newborn to class would be a problem but administrators of the social work program started receiving complaints from the students.
“My daughter is not a distraction and I have every right to bring my baby to class,” said Gruben.
Gruben first heard about the complaints last January.
She was asked to put her child in day care, but her daughter would not be old enough until October and she said she had no choice but to bring her to class.
“The university website says, ‘a culturally-relevant curriculum that reflects First Nation holistic experiences,’ so I thought babies would be welcomed.
“I mean there were two pregnant women and a new mom in the class in the first year, they knew we would be breastfeeding,” said Gruben.
Jeffrey Carleton, the associate vice-president of communications told APTN News in a telephone interview that the complaints were investigated by the program’s Steering Committee.
“It was determined that is was not a proper working environment and the other students were concerned about the learning environment, it was proving to be a distraction due to noise and activity,” said Carleton.
Gruben said she received an email from the department’s steering committee last January.
It said the program needed to develop a policy to determine how much time infants can be in the classroom, child care outside the classroom, and accommodation for nursing mothers in and outside the classroom.
Gruben is not the only one who has had this problem.
Tracey Morrison’s son was six weeks old when she started the same class in September 2017.
Morrisson lives in Listuguj First Nation and had to leave her family at home to attend the program.
“I had to bring my baby, I was breastfeeding, and he was too young to be away from me,” she told APTN News.
The university said tried to make accommodations, but the issue has not been resolved
Early this month, Gruben received an email from Marilyn Dupre, the director of social work:
“… you will not be able to bring your child into classes next week during periods of instruction or small group exercises. If you choose not to comply with this direction, the MMBSW Steering Committee may recommend that you be withdrawn from the MMBSW Program.”
The program’s website says among other things “…an opportunity to receive social work education within a flexible and culturally relevant framework.”
The department started receiving complaints from students and instructors that the three infants in the classroom were a distraction within the first fall term of classes.
“At the beginning it was no problem at all to bring the baby. We were all so excited to be in the program. It took a lot of preparation to get accepted into the program. It is a good program,” said Morrison.
Sandra Germain has been the program coordinator for the last 14 years.
“The majority of the people on the steering committee are First Nations. We do everything we can to accommodate all the students, they come to listen and learn.
There was a lot of distraction for an intense week. We have gone above and beyond accommodating others in the class.”
St. Thomas University had no policy in place. Complaints in the past were resolved within the classroom between the instructors and the students.
Student Christina Taylor of Esgenoopetipj First Nation was also pregnant when she started the program. Her daughter was born in the middle of September 2017.
“I got permission from my instructor to bring my baby to the classroom, but then I was asked about childcare. I was breastfeeding, it caught me off guard. I felt like I was a bother,” said Taylor.
The mothers were given until April 13, 2018 to find child care.
The committee also asked that moms take their babies outside the classroom as soon as the babies start to fuss, need changing or any other care.
“We created an additional space where it would allow a place for the mothers to breastfeed, care for their children and comfort them outside the classroom. And we encouraged the mothers to bring child care providers to stay in the room while the mothers were able to attend the class,” said Carleton.
The three moms felt segregated.
“It was unsettling. I felt coerced into this room, out of sight, out of mind, not inclusive, I felt bullied,” said Gruben.
Taylor said the whole situation was mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting and trying to obtain good grades and prepare for our profession.
“In the room, we were not able to properly engage. We didn’t think it was fair and it didn’t match with teachings of decolonization and we couldn’t implement decolonization within our own classroom. It could have been handled better,” said Taylor.
Fellow student, Chris Wysote of Listuguj First Nation wrote a letter supporting the mothers. He said as an Indigenous man and father he could not stand by while the mothers were intimidated.
“My wife went through this program with our daughter always there. At the beginning of our class, the babies were welcomed, so we didn’t understand why this all changed,” said Wysote.
He believed that Indigenous values would be part of and respected in the program. He realized that was not the case.
“The situation should have been solved by culturally based conflict resolution. We asked for a talking circle, with Elders. We were refused. We felt hopeless and lost,” said Wysote.
Germain said previous talking circles were not helpful and the decision was made by the steering committee.
Gruben said the program was teaching Indigenous values but not putting them into practice.
“They were not listening to Indigenous voices, they dehumanized my identity and shut out my voice. We are learning Indigenous ways, but it is colonialized.”
Gruben reached out to her community for support.
Chief Gabriel Atwin of Kingsclear First Nation wrote in a letter to the president of St. Thomas University, dated May 7, 2018.
“By excluding Keyaira and her daughter, not only does this contravene the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but this makes the program complacent and accepting of colonial mandates and patriarchal ideologies.”
The Indigenous Women’s Association of the Maliseet and Mi’kmaq Territories also wrote, on November 8, 2018,
“The resurgence of our culture and ceremonial way of life is paramount in educational institutions, given all the truth and reconciliation efforts made to date. This issue speaks to the lack of reconciliation efforts made by STU.”
Elder in residence at the University of New Brunswick, Imelda Perley said traditions supports mothers and children are medicine.
“We should be concerned about the well-being of mothers, respect culture, values and encouraging traditional customs. Academia should not have a public mask and a private mask.”
Gruben said the baby policy is to oppress.
“Emotionally crushed my spirit many times. I want the baby policy changed so babies are accepted, and I am meeting with other Indigenous groups to raise awareness,” she said.