Members of the Indigenous Cultural Alliance (ICA) at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Que., went public Thursday with allegations of harassment, discrimination, and “whitewashing” by university staffers.
In a press release, the group outlines a number of recent incidents which, in their view, constitute “systemic racism” on-campus.
Nikki Baribeau, Cree from Mistissini, is the former vice-chair of the Bishop’s University Task Force on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.
She resigned from the committee in December after encountering what she said was “bullying and disrespect” by task force leadership for questioning their decisions, according to a press release.
“There was a lot of eye-rolling and there was a lot of negative tones when we were asking our questions,” Baribeau explained.
“It has been a battle to try and express our needs as First Nations,” added Alicia Moore, who is also part of the Alliance.
With the help of the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR), a Montreal-based civil rights organization, the group held a press conference Thursday to paint a picture of everyday campus life at Bishop’s.
According to the ICA, the university’s diversity task force is “whitewashed,” and Indigenous professors are chronically underrepresented in the Bishop’s faculty.
An evaluation completed by the Quebec Human Rights commission covering a three-year period between 2016 and 2019 identified only two Indigenous faculty members on-staff at Bishop’s.
A Bishop’s spokesperson was unable to provide updated staff numbers when contacted by APTN News.
CRARR’s Executive Director Fo Niemi, says Quebec universities are bound by law to ensure equal employment opportunities.
“Bishop’s is required to implement measures to ensure the equitable representation of Indigenous people,” Niemi said.
Another point of contention is the university’s current land acknowledgement, which states that Bishop’s is “proud to be located on the traditional territory of the Abenaki people” – a statement the group deemed “insensitive.”
“In 2021, there is nothing to be proud of when a predominantly white university with almost 0 Indigenous staff and faculty operates on unceded territory,” according to a press statement from a student who wished to remain anonymous.
Cassey Perley, the Indigenous representative of the Bishop’s Student Resource Centre, says professors at the helm of the university’s First Nations-themed courses are known to retaliate against students who correct them.
“When we try to help, we are looked down upon – we are downgraded,” Perley explained.
“I had a teacher mispronouncing, misspelling a lot of Indigenous stuff. I sent him an email to try and help him out, and I was downgraded for it. I was singled out in class, I was not given homework back.
“He would purposely fail me in stuff due to this – and even when I brought it up to the school’s attention, nothing was done,” Perley alleged.
Shawna Jerome says she, and others, tried to get professors on-board with having guest speakers from First Nations or Inuit communities – but the idea was quickly shut down.
“[We] asked if this individual could come and get paid to give their expertise, and [the professor] said ‘no, we can’t pay this person. It has to be free,’” Jerome recounted Thursday.
“We have to go out of our own way, and into our own pockets, and in our own club funds, to actually get these speakers.”
Another issue outlined by the group is use of $5.9 million in government cash provided for the “Kwigw8mna ‘Our House’” project.
In 2017, Quebec allocated the money to build an “Indigenous space with a resource centre” on the Bishop’s campus.
According to the CRARR-issued press release, almost 80 per cent of the planned space will be used for administrative offices.
“We were told that we can’t get everything that we want,” Baribeau added. “We’ve had a lot of comments about how we should be grateful for getting a space.”
“We’ve been given the responsibility to decorate the outside space and no inclusion in the planning and decision-making meeting that will take place within the administration.”
APTN News sent the university the statement from CRARR on the allegations of racism and issues around the “Kwigw8mna” project for comment.
In a response, Bishop’s Principal Michael Goldbloom reaffirmed his commitment to “continuing [the university’s] efforts to address systemic racism” and to “advance equity, diversity, and inclusion in all aspects.”
“These are important and at times difficult and painful discussions, and we are determined to pursue them in a climate of candor and mutual respect,” Goldbloom said.
The university said it’s also in the process of hiring a “special advisor” whose mandate will be “to foster a university environment where individual differences are recognized, embraced and valued,” according to the statement.
But the Indigenous Cultural Alliance at Bishop’s is taking it a step further, issuing seven demands to university officials.
The first asserts the right to be “included, heard, and respected in all task forces and committees” involving Indigenous issues, and is followed by a call to provide training on systemic racism for all university employees by August 2021.
The Indigenous Cultural Alliance is also calling for public acknowledgement that systemic racism is “real,” revision to task force staff, and for additional oversight on the “Kwigw8mna” project.
“As Indigenous youth and students, we want to end systemic racism at this university,” Moore explained. “We want real change now, because we want to honour the previous generation that did not have the chance to attend universities.”
“We want to ensure that we, and the next generations of Indigenous youth will have their rightful place and space at this university,” Moore added.