Observations on Laurentian and the University of Sudbury from an Academic Aunty’s “Indigenous Perspective”

We found out our Department was being dissolved on our last day of classes. I couldn’t hold back the tears. A few days later, the Indigenous Student Association gifted me the title of “Academic Aunty” presenting me with a ribbon skirt and a hoodie. I was so deeply honoured by the gesture.

I am (or was) an Assistant Professor in the Department of Indigenous Studies at the University of Sudbury. I am of mixed nêhiyaw, Scottish-Metis, and Bajan ancestry from the Treaty 6 territories of Saskatchewan. I have a BA high honours in English and Indigenous Studies from the University of Saskatchewan, an MA with distinction in Indigenous Studies and Canadian Studies from Trent and I am just finishing up my PhD in Indigenous Studies also at Trent after a leave of absence. My training as a Water Walker was done under the guidance of the late Josephine-ba Mandamin, Dr. Shirley Williams, Edna Manitowabi, and Liz Osawamick in addition to other Grandmothers and Aunties from Minweyweywigaan Midewiwin Lodge out of Roseau River First Nations and Wiikwemkoong where my training continues as a second level Mide-Kwe. I live what I teach. I have been in Indigenous education for 30 years, but never in a permanent position with the exception of my time at Fleming College.

I decided on the U of Sudbury because of the rich history it represented within the context of Indigenous Elders, and surrounding Indigenous community members whom I loved and respected. Wiikwemkoong had become a “home away from home;” my Midewiwin Lodge is located there and my partner is from there. If I couldn’t be in my own Cree and Metis territories of Saskatchewan, Northern Ontario was the next best place. I imagined re-energizing and adding to the Department of Indigenous Studies with my scholarship. I thought it was going to be a place where I could continue to build upon, following the footsteps of the Indigenous brilliant minds and hearts and non-Indigenous allies who were seminal in the creation of the discipline: Dr. Edna Manitowabi, Dr. Jim Dumont, Dr. Emily Fairies, Dr. Art-Ba Soloman, ally Dr. Newberry and so many others who had come through the doors.

There has been a great deal of commentary about “wages” and the “sunshine list.” Unlike our fellow faculty at Laurentian, the University of Sudbury faculty received a very low wage, among the lowest in the country, in fact. I took a $30,000 drop in pay when I took the Tenure Track position in Indigenous Studies. If I had been employed at Laurentian for doing exactly the same thing, my wage would have increased quite dramatically. I didn’t come to Sudbury for the money that is for certain. I came for the people and the chance to teach Indigenous students. One of the things Universities do is train people to critically engage with issues through research and reading. I invite people to think about how professors and faculty actually contribute to the wider shared society by reading this letter to the Editor.

When I began at the University of Sudbury, I was excited to find out there was a new President joining at the same time as I was. I was also a bit cautious when I found out he was an active Jesuit minister. Many Elders and family members whom I loved had been horrifically harmed and hurt through the residential school system. There were issues at the campus, for certain. A definitive flavour of anti-Indigenousness was present in pockets; from racism I am sure, but also from simply miseducation and ignorance. None-the-less, we were committed to creating and building a tri-cultural institution so said the new President. He also said he was committed to the TRC Recommendations and Indigenous education, speaking (pre-Covid) about how they were going to create an Elder’s space, a smudging area (we were forced to go outside if any students needed a smudge or if we wanted to), and a new larger Indigenous student’s gathering area.

Fast forward to a month ago and I, along with my peers at the University of Sudbury, were completely blindsided with the news that is a familiar story to many now. Suddenly, my tenure-track was not going to be a permanent position; instead, it was going to be completely de-railed with the dissolution of our Department along with the Federation. What about Indigenous education? What about the massive amount of students we were teaching? What about the TRC? As the days unfolded, each strike was a blow. The sudden death of a colleague who had given so much to the University of Sudbury and to Laurentian by default, and who received literally nothing from them except a termination notice, brought it all into a horrific light. I am still reeling, but I am also continuing to peer through the critical lens of the Indigenous discipline and Indigenous community based knowledge structures I am trained in and actively still learning from.

The most glaring observation I have made in this latest media blitz with the news the University of Sudbury did not win their battle against Laurentian is how both institutions and others completely write Indigenous Studies and Indigenous students out of their current narratives (as colonizers often do unless it’s convenient for them to use us). Their press releases and gatherings focus on Women and Gender Studies and Francophone Education, but not Indigenous education despite the knowledge both universities are situated upon Anishinaabeg traditional lands and the North is home to many, many Indigenous Nations who have people wanting to attend post-secondary institutions close to home.  

The University of Sudbury Board’s public communique dated April 20 reaffirms their commitment to becoming a 100% Francophone institution with no mention of Indigenous education. They are quick to forget that the Department of Indigenous Studies financially carried the university with the increase in students in our program over the last number of years. Laurentian also benefitted from our labour, making Indigenous Studies mandatory without giving actual support to our minimal department.

The University of Sudbury never matched the increase of students with additional assistance for those of us on the front line. We had only 3 faculty members and a handful of sessionals for a student body numbering in the 1000s and no administrative assistant after our long time core person retired. We had the exponential jump in students, in part, because of our popularity and, in part, because of Laurentian’s new requirement. On the surface, it looked like a bid to follow the mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Recommendations. However, this move wasn’t necessarily out of a commitment to Indigenous education as the lack of support for our Department indicated; instead, it enabled them to capitalize on a federal funding source. We can look back in retrospect and see how they were mishandling the finances. Imagine for a second if those were Indigenous people in the positions of Haché and other Laurentian administrators: we would be imprisoned by now and hung by the public.

Currently, Laurentian states they have the capacity to deliver the education students need, citing its ability to “Indigenize” programming. However, again, Indigenization by Laurentian’s own rules is simply making course content 50% “Indigenous” – it doesn’t necessarily matter who teaches it as my colleague Dr. Mary Ann Corbiere points out. This loophole conveniently allows them to access those Indigenous education dollars without ensuring the education is culturally appropriate emerging from an Indigenous disciplinary study with inherent checks and balances because there are actual Indigenous people who have been trained to teach and research inside of it, and who are also from and claimed by Indigenous communities and Nations. Indigenous identity is also a hot ticket item these days, particularly in academia where substantial research grants and jobs are on the market with little proof to show actual Indigenous generational ancestry and community connections. There is a privilege to claiming that identity without actually living it. Dr. Darryl Leroux, amongst others, have researched this new form of theft and appropriation in what is being coined as “Self-Indigenization.”

With the sudden public backlash of leaving 140 students without an Indigenous Studies program in light of an initial restructuring plan without so much of a hint of ensuring those students were cared for, the two institutions made a behind the scenes deal to ensure students could graduate by offering six Department of Indigenous Studies courses at Laurentian. All of us in the Department wanted our students supported, especially those who needed courses to graduate (although we were never told ahead of time or even consulted). What they didn’t advertise was the fact Indigenous Studies sessionals/faculty were not a part of the deal. Some of the students further indicated the courses offered were not even courses they actually needed to graduate.

Laurentian also conveniently left our names up in the roster making it look like we were going to be teaching the courses, enticing students. In reality, they went through a hiring process that left us at the bottom of the barrel even though we were the ones who had designed the courses and taught them for many years. Laurentian first offered the courses to existing Laurentian faculty, then sessionals, then fired faculty, fired sessionals, and, finally, they asked the University of Sudbury faculty after determining NO ONE at LU wanted to teach the courses, nor did anyone who did, have the qualifications.  We encouraged the Indigenous Studies sessionals to take the courses because we recognized their precarious positions without any source of income even in the form of compensation as the faculty will receive. As a Tenure Track, or should I say former Tenure Track, I am actually in the same position, but my wage in the last month is higher than theirs and, in our Indigenous pedagogies, we look after each other first, not ourselves (as the institutional administrators clearly have done).

One of the most brilliant minds in Indigenous country is Onaubinisay aka Dr. Jim Dumont. I called him, upset and in tears, as soon as I found out about the dissolution of the Department he and others had worked so hard to create. He said to me:

“The first thing you have to do is reconcile yourself with the fact that non-Indigenous institutions ‘own’ Indigenous Studies. It isn’t ours – it is actually theirs.”

His words continue to echo in my mind.

As noted earlier, our long time colleague recently passed away. Neither of these non-Indigenous institutions do justice to his commitment, energy, and dedication as an Anishinaabe educator. Onaubinisay’s words, again, come into my consciousness. These institutions are not invested in people, let alone Indigenous people. It is a business – and they deal in transactions – and because they “own” the discipline, they can do whatever they want including tossing us to the wayside. When you critically begin to engage the discourse and the events, ironically one of the methods taught by Indigenous Studies and Indigenous pedagogies (methods that colonial agents actually don’t want us to use), age old patterns in colonization begin to emerge.

The Jesuits, who have a stake in the University of Sudbury, have made no formal statement whatsoever. They are also a part of the denomination who never apologized in relation to the residential schools. They have never been the most ethical of the churches as history has repeatedly shown us. Laurentian is also invested in resource extraction. Two former faculty members, Dr. Celeste Pedri Smith and Dr. Brock Pitawanakwat, comment more about those ties in this podcast by Media Indigena hosted by Rick Harp. The Church and the State once again protecting their own interests. One only needs to go down history lane to see how that collusion has worked out for Indigenous Nations previously: oh wait, you would need Indigenous Studies to take that trip. How convenient that they dismantle the discipline that can provide a balance and a critique of harmful colonial actions.

Indigenous education, Nations, and people have not gone away despite all the concentrated efforts to destroy us and we continue to “stand in the way” of the colonial project. We are not going to go away; we are still invested in the wellbeing of our children, the earth, the waters, and our future generations; thus, another form of colonization has to emerge and it is linked to the attempted colonization of our knowledges and our intellectual legacies and/or the silencing of them.

However, as Mr. Jim O’Chiese, son of the late renowned Anishinaabe teacher, Peter-ba O’Chiese recently shared with me, as Indigenous Nations we have “structures”: educational, political, spiritual, cultural, and more. In every sense of the word, our respective Indigenous structures are still very much sheltering our people as are the Ancestors, our respective Lands and Waters, and the Spirits inside them.  Colonialism is not a thing of the past. It is still an active force that is fast bringing about the collapse of more than just a University.

True non-Indigenous allies have a role to play as well inside this ongoing colonial system: hold your own people and systems accountable; give primacy to Indigenous voices; and sit down instead of taking up the small amount of space that is supposed to be for Indigenous people inside those institutions; promote Indigenous control of Indigenous education; and give our land back and/or insist that corporations/institutions/governments/ give our land back.

As Indigenous Nations, we have nothing to worry about as long as we continue to carry the bundles and the gifts our respective Ancestors have left for us. I encourage Indigenous students to turn to our own Institutes of Higher Learning: our respective Lodges like the Midewiwin, Sundance, Wabano, Raindance, and Longhouses or those educational places that emerge from our own Nations such as those ones who comprise the Indigenous Institutes Consortium. Use your collective power inside those colonial spaces. Support the institutions that support us. Vote for the government that supports us somewhat (I think they all have a particular agenda, but promote the best choice for now). Walk away and don’t give a dime or breath to the ones that do not.

Finally, don’t believe the colonizer who still thinks they know our people, histories, cultures, and spiritualities better than we do and who thinks we are somehow deficient. We aren’t. We are more powerful than they can ever imagine. Our continued existence is proof of this fact. Remember who your Ancestors are and remember the babies and the future generations are counting on you. What kind of Ancestor will you be? I know you are going to be incredible, brilliant, amazing, strong, beautiful, courageous and so much more. I will always believe in you. kinanskomitinawaw/gchi’miigwech/nia:wen for being exactly who you are. No matter what kind of obstacles are thrown in your way, keep moving: you have all of Creation at your back.

Much respect and love,

from your “Academic Aunty.”

Published by Mide iskwêw (Tasha Beeds)

Tasha Beeds is an Indigenous scholar of nêhiyaw, Metis, and mixed Barbadian ancestry from the Treaty 6 territories of Saskatchewan. She is also a creative artist, a poet, a community engaged Water/Land activist, a Water Walker, and a Mide-kwe from Minweyweywigaan Lodge out of Roseau River First Nations and Wiikwemkoong, Manitoulin Island. She is also a mom to a son Dakota, and a kôhkom to two beautiful granddaughters, Harper and Aurora.

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