A report released late last week states Indigenous University of Winnipeg students "experience some of the highest degrees of racism recorded in North America."
The University of Winnipeg’s chair of Indigenous studies, Jacqueline Romanow, was inspired to pursue the research after a January 2015 Maclean’s story "Welcome to Winnipeg: Where Canada’s Racism Problem is at Its Worst" by former Winnipegger Nancy Macdonald.
"There was a lot of debate going back and forth. And people said, ‘Yes, it is.’ ‘No, it isn’t,’" she said. "It was basically people just writing based on their feelings or their own experiences or lack of those experiences. Right? So I thought it would be a good idea to actually have some quantitative data — then we would argue about whether there is or isn’t."
Knowing the problem could lead to working on how to deal with it, added Romanow, who also teaches the mandatory Indigenous credit requirement the university instituted, with leadership from Indigenous students.
The study involved surveying 111 Indigenous students via an "Experiences of Discrimination Instrument," which Romanow then compared with data from a similar study out of the University of Alberta, as well as with data about the African American and Latino American experience of racism used in the Alberta study. These questions had to do with students’ experiences at school and outside school.
The study also asked questions about worrying about race, day-to-day unfairness and recent experiences of racism.
"I was expecting it to be high," Romanow said. I was surprised that it was as high. ... In particular, though, the most surprising thing was the amount of stories that students told me."
Romanow had included space to share stories if the students wanted to.
"And whereas not every one answered every numbered question, every one of them, 111, wrote me some story about their experiences of racism. And those were shocking," she said. "The first time I read through them all it was a lot to take. I was really emotionally overwhelmed and I felt bad."
From the moment they leave the house, an Indigenous student can experience malicious and harmful racism.
"Whether they walk or take the bus, at school and at work, in malls and restaurants, Indigenous students suffer threats, insults, ignorance, bad treatment and sometimes even violence. It is considered to be a common occurrence by far too many," Romanow stated in the report.
Brandon University and Assiniboine Community College, like the University of Winnipeg, are signatories to the December 2015 agreement: Manitoba Collaborative Indigenous Education Blueprint for Universities, Colleges and Public School Boards: Making Excellence in Indigenous Education a Priority.
Chris Lagimodiere, director of the Indigenous Peoples’ Centre at Brandon University, said the university is making progress on the 10-commitment agreement, whose points centre on improving Indigenous student outcomes and cultural teachings. Since the signing, those commitments have been expanded. A university Senate sub-committee came up with 110 recommendations based on them.
The centre itself provides Indigenous students with holistic support — cultural programming and academic and social support — and it strives to make them feel like they belong. The centre is involved in partnerships with university departments and community organizations.
Lagimodiere’s job is also about Indigenous initiatives at the university — work related to the 10 commitments.
While Lagimodiere would not directly divulge Indigenous students’ experiences, he did acknowledge that he has heard similar anecdotes of racism to those Romanow outlines.
Recently, the university received a sizable donation from an alumna and her family so that it can create a transition program for Indigenous students, as well as a staff position.
"We know that, as a western, colonial institution, we do not always present a welcoming or familiar face to students with Indigenous backgrounds. I am so grateful to Daphne (Wagner) and David (Green) for their vision and their benevolence in helping us adapt to better serve these students," university president David Docherty stated in a mid-January news release.
In her interview with The Brandon Sun, Romanow spoke of that sort of thing.
"With all this talk about Indigenization in universities and colleges, some extra effort has to be put into providing supports and resources for Indigenous students and recognition for the unique struggles that they have just getting into the classroom, and that extra burden they bear," she said.
As for Brandon itself, Lagimodiere said that from what he hears, the city can be a pretty racist place.
Assiniboine Community College is a somewhat different institution. Students often stay for a shorter period of time, and the college offers community-based programs, such as at Sioux Valley Dakota Nation and Long Plain, Sandy Bay and Ebb and Flow First Nations, for which they work directly with communities. Like the university, it organizes events, such as the fall feast, and has a long list of cultural programming.
"It would be pretty naïve to think that Brandon is an island onto itself and racism isn’t alive and well in various forms in the community. Even in our institutions and organizations," said Kris Desjarlais, director of Indigenous education at Assiniboine Community College.
"It’s there — day-to-day racism. But during the time I’ve been at the college (two years), the times that blatant racism has been brought to my attention is minimal."
Desjarlais, who said racism does need to be called out, believes in fighting the stigma, discrimination and racism with positive messaging.
Romanow has a similar take on it.
"I do think that education is the answer," she said. "But, you know, just showing general respect for Indigenous people and Indigenous knowledge as a way of being is pretty important."
To see Romanow’s full report, visit policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/Manitoba%20Office/2020/02/IndigenousStudentExpwithRacismWpg.pdf
» Michele LeTourneau covers Indigenous matters for The Brandon Sun under the Local Journalism Initiative, a federally funded program that supports the creation of original civic journalism.
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