The experience of an Indigenous student in a colonial institution

News Unsettled Opinions
News Unsettled Native Students Union column
Graphic provided by the Native Students Union.

The university’s administration has been sending out invitations and requests for conversation cafés for a while. Many of them have to do with the university wanting to hear about inclusivity and other challenges faced by undergraduate students.

I want to respond.

Simple conversation cafes are not enough to change the deeply rooted issues that Indigenous undergraduate students face. Colonialism and white supremacy are deeply rooted within the institution.

University can feel like a tremendously unsafe place for Indigenous students. Every Indigenous student I know has at least one story of being made to feel uncomfortable, unhappy, or unsafe because of something a white professor has said. There is also a severe lack of representation of Indigenous people in the academy, both in faculty and curricula.

I cannot speak at length about other’s experiences, I can only speak to my own. I am in my final semester of a history-Indigenous studies degree. On several occasions, I have considered leaving the history program.

There are amazing professors and classes. There are those that teach amazing Indigenous history, even when the focus of the class isn’t Indigenous history.

Unfortunately, there are many bad professors and I have had many bad experiences. Some of which I would like to share in this article.

I remember taking a Canadian history course in my first year. I saw the syllabus, and being Métis, was especially excited about lectures about the Red River and Northwest Resistances, which I assumed would be in the western Canada portion of the class.

Throughout the class, however, my hopes for the lectures were shattered. It became apparent very quickly that this was a class about the colonial history of Canada. In that course, I believe there were three partial lectures in total about Indigenous history. The rest was purely white, with one being on Japanese internment camps, which I learned from a Japanese Canadian classmate was just as bad as this professor’s lectures on Indigenous history. Only one lecture mentioned in passing the Indian Residential School system.

When we got to the western Canada portion of the class, we spent half a lecture talking about the Red River and Northwest Resistances, with no mention of nations other than the Métis that were involved. Half a lecture. In the western Canada portion of the class, we spent two entire lectures discussing a tax system set up by John A. MacDonald. But only about one lecture total even mentioning Indigenous people.

When I brought my concerns about lack of representation to this professor over email, they were very apologetic and assured me they would do better. Weeks later, when I confronted them in person where their words were not permanent, they chuckled in my face and told me that, in fact, they went through the remaining lectures and found that there was ample Indigenous representation.

The only other lecture that mentioned Indigenous people was about Ipperwash, and this professor mentioned it and then spent more time joking about the murder of Dudley George than covering details of what occurred.

In another class, this one about the pacific northwest, we had someone in the department come and give a guest lecture. I remember this person came in to discuss voyageurs in the pacific northwest. For their entire guest lecture, they referred to First Nations people as Indians, not once trying to name the actual nations they were discussing. They also referred to Métis people as half-breeds the entire lecture.

These are only a few of the experiences I have had in my four-year degree. I have had several almost every class, every semester. Conversation cafés are not going to change the deep issues at this school. Indigenous students have to do enough free labour for the institution, stop trying to make them do even more.