Commentary | The problem of systemic discrimination at McGill

Hyde Park

McGill University chancellor Richard Pound is not a racist.

When the news broke that he’d called Indigenous people “sauvages” in La Presse last summer, people inside and outside the University denounced the comment as racist. Consequently, I said he should apologize for clumsily referring to indigenous people with such derogatory language. But I never said he was racist.

Eventually, I sent Pound a message asking for his opinion on the issue. We had a long conversation, and his explanation of his comments satisfied me, as did his televised apology that night I saw on CTV.

McGill needs to pay attention to more than Pound’s remarks in La Presse. What is more important is how quickly the outside native community accused Pound and McGill of racism, as if his comments confirmed what they had known all along. The pressing question, then, is where this perception comes from.

In my experience, McGill University has many non-native professional monopolies that recruit collaborators from the native community in order to help them validate their claims to “native expertness.”

These monopolies are easily threatened when people like me come along and say that this is not what people want. And so we are ignored. I call this systemic discrimination – a kind of workplace discrimination where your opinions threaten existing status quos. You are ignored.

Here’s how threatened professional monopolies work:

In 2004 the Cree School Board (CSB) wanted teacher training changed. After over 25 years of McGill’s First Nations and Inuit teacher training program, the CSB said they still needed qualified teachers. And so I was hired by McGill to change a program that had remained unchanged for 25 years, resulting in incredibly high dropout rates in the communities where McGill trains the teachers. With this mandate, a restructuring plan to amalgamate First Nations and Inuit program administration back into the faculty was designed to improve the quality of teacher education. We were painting the walls.

Instead the native teacher-training status quo reversed the plan by misleading the communities into believing that McGill was destroying native teacher education. The program looks like the same one decision-makers, community-members, and students wanted changed after 25 years. Currently, the professional monopolies inside and outside the University collaborate in maintaining this flawed program.

There have been attempts by passionate educators to create an Indigenous Studies program at McGill. There are courses in Social Work and Law, and some teachers let students “indigenize” their studies. As well, supportive and progressive individuals like former Arts Dean John Gallaty proposed an Indigenous Studies minor concentration four years ago. But currently, no Indigenous Studies programs exist on-campus.

Gallaty’s proposal coincided with my outreach to the Eberts Family to support Indigenous Studies – a $3-million project – and to use their $700, 000 family endowment to support bursaries and the First Peoples House.

The original attempt to establish an Indigenous Studies program at McGill was obstructed by the rarity of full content Indigenous Studies courses on-campus. Off-campus, plenty of courses listed for First Nations and Inuit Studies are offered through Continuing Education. And once again, the professional monopolies lobby to these courses off-campus.

I have written reports and proposals that mysteriously vanish in McGill’s chain of command. Proposals include plans to recruit a native board member, develop on-campus programs, receive base funding for native studies, develop Canada Research Chairs with Native foci, develop a First Peoples Residence to assist students in adjusting to Montreal life, and creating research centres at McGill. McGill’s decision-makers chose not to heed my advice.

My indigenous colleagues at universities like UBC, Simon Fraser, Calgary, Alberta, Regina, Brandon, Manitoba, Lakehead, Laurentian, Trent, Concordia, McMaster, Toronto, Dartmouth, Cornell, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Arizona, California all use the same model for Indigenous Studies and support programs. Generally, programs begin with a First People’s residence followed by the creation of an academic program. It’s a no-brainer.

McGill University prefers to keep native students off campus in second-rate programs masquerading as university programs. This is the only conclusion I can make from my experience.

I have encountered racists here, but Dick Pound isn’t one of them.

Dr. Doxtater is the Director of First Nations and Inuit Education and an Associate Professor who teaches Organizational Learning in the Faculty of Education. He can be reached at michael.doxtater@mcgill.ca.


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