‘I didn’t have the heart to tell her’: Lakehead alumni says EagleWoman’s fight with school isn’t new
The first time Peter Rasevych met Angelique EagleWoman was on a plane flying to Thunder Bay in March 2016.
EagleWoman was in fact heading to the city where she was to become the new dean of the Bora Laskin Law School at Lakehead University.
“I didn’t have the heart, I didn’t want to tell her, because she told me what she was doing,” Rasevych told APTN News. “I didn’t want to tell her, oh this was my experience with that place.”
“Now I’m thinking back on it, wow, imagine I did? What if I would’ve said something to her on the plane that day when she was setting up her job and her home here?”
EagleWoman is suing Lakehead University for $2.67 million for constructive dismissal after she resigned last spring, claiming she was the victim of systemic discrimination.
Rasevych says he is speaking out now because what happened to EagleWoman wasn’t a one-off at Lakehead University.
His uncle Fred Nowgesic experienced something similar.
“I could’ve told her everything that happened to Fred and then maybe she would’ve been informed and alert to it but I didn’t,” Rasevych says about his encounter with EagleWoman, whom he described as excited to be setting up her new home in Thunder Bay.
(Fred Nowgesic in an undated photo: Courtesy Peter Rasevych)
In her 24-page statement of claim filed in an Ottawa court on Nov. 20, EagleWoman says tensions with faculty members and staff and micromanaging from senior administration started within the first few months of her appointment.
“The Plaintiff encountered open hostility and resentment from a small segment of the faculty, staff, and students,” the court documents state.
Rasevych says senior administration officials have been pushing back against Indigenous leaders in education for decades, in one case, literally.
The band member from Ginoogaming First Nation about 300 km northeast of Thunder Bay, earned his first degree at McGill University in Montreal in the early 1990s.
Rasevych then ended up at Lakehead where he earned two more degrees.
He said he was amazed to see such a strong Indigenous presence at Lakehead when he first arrived in 1997.
“To see hundreds and hundreds of native students. I was told you would fit in a lot better than you would in an urban-based campus in Montreal because there’s way more of you,” he says.
His Uncle Fred had been the first Indigenous person to sit on the university’s board of governors, senate and executive council in the late 1980’s.
An Ojibway from Gull Bay First Nation, Nowgesic’s obituary says he was the first in his family to attend high school, paving the way for others. He passed away in a car accident in 2008.
Rasevych says he was Nowgesic’s closest confidante and describes him as a traditional, spiritual Anishinaabe Elder who stood up for the Indigenous community in Thunder Bay.
“He was an Elder doing what he was supposed to doing – what they asked for him to do – advocate on behalf of the Aboriginal peoples in TBay,” Rasevych says.
“Fred would tell me over and over, countless times, that was the reason why they got him for the Lakehead University board of governors – because he was so outspoken and because he knew his way around statutes, legislation, legal frameworks.”
It all came to an end when he filed a police report after an alleged assault.
Nowgesic wrote a letter of resignation to the university blasting them for failing the needs of Indigenous students, staff and faculty.
“When I look at universities today, I see the residential schools,” the letter to the school’s chancellor dated July 25, 1996 says. “The concept is the same: pluck Natives out of their element and immerse them in European culture, religion, language and philosophy.”
“We are under-represented in the leadership of the university. As a result, our need for solid, long-term commitments to Native education is lacking,” he said.
Although no charges were laid for the alleged assault, Nowgesic did hire a lawyer and would often mention his “case” to Rasevych.
There was an alleged conflict over copies of a letter regarding Professor Dennis McPherson, the chair of the university’s department of Indigenous learning that had been distributed to board members at meeting prior to Nowgesic’s resignation.
McPherson garnered attention the year before when he set up a protest camp and accused Lakehead of misspending funds meant for Aboriginal education.
He later walked from the university to Ottawa to meet with former prime minister Jean Chretien.
McPherson told APTN in an interview last spring that Lakehead’s response to his protest camp, which included a tent and fire, was to call the fire department that showed up and put it out.
(Professor Dennis McPherson Lakehead University. Photo: Willow Fiddler/APTN)
Despite a “chilling atmosphere in speaking out” Nowgesic remained hopeful for Lakehead and its obligation to accurately address the needs of Indigenous students and communities.
But he also noted that while the university could be proud of their department of Indigenous learning, Native entry programs for nursing and engineering, and a master’s program in Native and Canadian Philosophy, there were problems.
“As good as the programs may be, there is no commitment to them. They are seen as funding sources to subsidize other programs,” Nowgesic wrote.
“My concern is that Lakehead is ignoring the aboriginal community and there is an atmosphere of mistrust and racism.”
Rasevych returned to Lakehead in 2009 to do his PhD.
“I was told it had changed…but the climate is still the same as it ever was.”
He says there’s aesthetic improvements like the syllabics on the campus signage but the institution and structure remains the same.
He left again a few years later and hasn’t been back since.
Rasevych says he is sharing his uncle’s experience in hopes it gives some strength to EagleWoman.
Like Nowgesic before her, Canada’s first Indigenous dean of law has a long list of issues with the university.
She claims in the lawsuit that Lakehead University paid her an annual salary almost $10,000 less than the previous dean, a non-Indigenous male.
EagleWoman says former staff members Amanda Trevisanutto and Annet Maurer alleged she discriminated against them because they were white women.
EagleWoman says she fired Trevisanutto for being unprofessional and disrespectful.
“On one occasion, Ms. Trevisanutto declared that she felt she did not have to listen to the Plaintiff, as she did not consider the Plaintiff to be her boss,” Eaglewoman’s claim says.
Trevisanutto told APTN last spring that she denies all claims by EagleWoman.
Similar allegations also came from Annet Maurer, who left the school in December 2016 and took civil action against the university two months later, according to EagleWoman.
“She asserted that discrimination could be inferred based on certain factors, including the fact that the Plaintiff had published academic articles describing oppression she had experienced and that the Plaintiff had expressed her support for an Indigenous-focussed law school,” according to EagleWoman’s statement of claim.
Both cases have since been settled – but that’s not where the tension with faculty and staff ended.
EagleWoman says things came to a head after associate professor Daniel Dylan, who is listed as teaching Indigenous Knowledge Governance on the faculty website, apparently yelled at EagleWoman before storming out of a faculty meeting on Jan. 25, 2018.
“The Acting Provost was shocked by the conduct of Mr. Daniel and agreed his conduct was inappropriate,” the claim says.
(Former Bora Laskin law school dean Angelique EagleWoman)
It was then, EagleWoman says she realized she couldn’t continue. In addition to being dean, her workload included teaching Indigenous course content due to a lack of Indigenous scholars in the faculty.
“The Plaintiff advised the Acting Provost that the work environment was having a significant impact on her health and well-being.”
EagleWoman took a sick day the following day and three months later she announced her resignation in a letter to the faculty’s Aboriginal Advisory Committee in March 2018.
“It has reached a point that I am under such mental and emotional stress that it is untenable for me to stay,” the letter says.
While EagleWoman claims she suffered moral and aggravated damages because of a hostile work environment and an unsupportive administration, the key issue in this case outlines a bigger issue that Indigenous leaders and communities say can no longer continue.
“The Defendant benefitted from the publicity surrounding the Plaintiff’s appointment through national exposure, heightened credibility with Aboriginal communities, and increased Aboriginal student enrolment,” the claim says.
In 2009, Lakehead University was one of two institutions to express interest to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada (FLSC).
Its interest in developing a new law school for northern Ontario was based on four rationales including working with Aboriginal peoples to meet the legal needs of Indigenous communities, increase sole and small firm law practice, and a focus on legal issues relating to the resource-based economy of northern Ontario.
Lakehead submitted its proposal to the LFSC on June 28, 2010.
Lakehead says their unique curricula would meet the standards identified by First Nations and allow development of programs and materials to help protect and preserve Indigenous culture, language and history.
“Lakehead University has the advantage of being geographically close to these northwestern Ontario communities, and having established working partnerships with First Nations and Métis communities throughout Northern Ontario,” the application says.
“As such, Lakehead University is in a unique position to establish a law school that would not only be a leader in providing a current and expert curriculum on Aboriginal and treaty rights in Canada, but it is also able to work with First Nation and Métis partners to develop a school that is responsive to the needs of Aboriginal peoples.”
The university would be one of the first law schools in Canada to offer mandatory Indigenous course content.
“It was argued that this law school would be unique in Canada and would produce lawyers capable of analyzing the law from an Aboriginal perspective,” EagleWoman claim says.
The FLSC approved Lakehead’s application for a three-year juris doctoral program in Jan. 2012 and the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law opened its doors to its charter class in September 2013.
Average enrolment at the law school is approximately 60 students each year. Last year there were 188 students enrolled and 26 of them identified as Indigenous, according to Lakehead.
The FLSC’s national requirements state that “the law school is adequately resourced to enable it to meet its objectives, and in particular, has appropriate numbers of properly qualified academic staff to meet the needs of the academic program.”
According to EagleWoman, the law school was understaffed and lacking the resources and support to hire a full complement of faculty.
She says this was an ongoing issue of contention with the FLSC.
In its application, Lakehead committed to retaining a full-time teaching faculty complement of 10 faculty members, including the dean, within the first three years of the program.
“Every attempt will be made to recruit Aboriginal faculty,” the proposal says.
EagleWoman asserts Lakehead has failed to live up to its commitments to meet the requirements of the law school.
Last spring, then acting university president Moira McPherson said they acknowledge systemic racism exists throughout society, including at Lakehead.
“It’s the practices, the policies, the patterns that are involved in structures and the structures are as old as the communities or the organizations themselves or the universities,” said McPherson, who was recently appointed the university’s seventh president.
Lakehead University and the Federation of Law Societies of Canada have declined a request for an interview as it is before the courts.
EagleWoman has requested her case be heard in an Ottawa court and not Thunder Bay because of the ties between the legal community and the faculty of law.