The low enrollment for Indigenous Students at McGill is linked to the absence of a First Nations Studies program at the University, according to Faculty of Education Professor Michael Doxtater.
“There are only about 92 official indigenous students at McGill,” Doxtater said, currently the only tenured indigenous professor at McGill. “And it’s probably actually less than that. Some might be ‘box-checkers’ on [Minerva] and not actually indigenous.”
Doxtater has been pushing for several years to expand First Nations studies at McGill beyond the First Nations and Inuit Education (FNIE) bachelor’s program, the only degree concentrating on indigenous issues offered at McGill. He considers such an expansion integral to attracting indigenous students to the university.
But in his efforts to create a a minor concentration in Native Studies within the Arts Faculty, he has grown frustrated with the McGill administration.
“We’ve had very little progress,” he said. “The University chose to focus on improving native student services, but the indigenous students won’t come for the services; they’ll come for the programs.”
Doxtater has been at McGill for four years and is the director of FNIE– a bachelor program created in 2007 that creates partnerships between the McGill faculty of Education and various indigenous communities and institutions.
Doxtater worried that McGill Chancellor Richard Pound’s racist comments have hurt the University’s image in the eyes of First Nation peoples.
“Of course when we’re trying to attract Native students to come to McGill, it doesn’t help when we have no Native Studies programs, and people associated with the University are making derogatory statements against First Nation communities,” said Doxtater.
From comments made in an interview conducted in French with Montreal newspaper La Presse, Pound was criticized for calling First Nations peoples “savages” 400 years ago. Pound made the comments in late-August and apologized for his remarks a few weeks ago after a public outcry was raised in response.
Pound apparently used the term “pays de sauvage,” a term used by French Jesuits 400 years ago to describe First Nations communities.
The University hurriedly distanced themselves from Pound’s comments.
Indigenous-oriented courses currently running at McGill often have high enrollment, but professors recognize McGill’s weakness in comparison to other universities across Canada – including University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser, McMaster, and the University of Victoria – that offer First Nations Studies Bachelors degrees.
“McGill is not even competitive with [other programs across Canada],” Doxtater said. “I don’t know why McGill is behind.”
Faculty of Law Professor Kirsten Anker, who teaches a class in Aboriginal Law, said her class is popular, but recognized that with only a small number of classes offered on First Nations issues, the University’s scope on the area of study is limited.
“There are relatively few optional courses and so we are limited in the number of ‘special interest’ topics we can offer,” she said.
Linda Starkey, Associate Dean of Students, said she made an attempt a few years ago to create a Native Studies program, but her efforts fell short.
“There was indigenous content in other courses, but we couldn’t get a fix on what would be the core of the program. It wouldn’t have been a concrete program.”
McGill has been trying to strengthen relationships with indigenous communities, however. Four years ago the University created the Aboriginal Affairs Work Group, a group with responsibilities, among other things, to look at the representation of aboriginal students in the student body, increase university access to aboriginal students, and take steps to create a seamless transition for aboriginal students into the University.
“There have been concrete steps taken to improve outreach and accessibility to aboriginal students,” said Starkey.
Starkey described several programs designed to attract aboriginal students to pursue a secondary education at McGill, including a High Performance Camp, a long weekend with activities centered on Athletics, and setting and achieving goals.
“It’s a twofold issue in that we’re encouraging youth to think about higher education, and also making sure that we can offer them adequate support when they come here,” said Starkey.
“Obviously we could do more.”