Skip to content

Indigenous, disabled student alleges discrimination

McGill Dentistry student was unfairly accused of being drunk during student clinic

On August 20, Gregory Gareau, a third-year student in McGill’s Faculty of Dentistry, was informed that he would not be promoted to the fourth year of the Dentistry program, DMD-IV, since he had failed two courses. “The reasons for having me repeat two courses from third year are either outright lies or instances in which my student rights have been violated,” Gareau told me. He says that he has been denied adequate accommodations for his disability, and has faced harassment and discrimination based on the fact that he’s an Indigenous person. After appealing the decision on October 11, his appeal was denied.

Gareau is a Métis student from rural Manitoba, who also suffers from chronic back pain. He’s endured everything from vulgar messages written on his locker, to having to wait two years for a modified dental chair for his disability – all of which have made his time in Dentistry “a nightmare,” he told me. “I have been told by dental supervisors that people like me are ‘too slow’ to ever succeed in dentistry,” he said.

“Sit down or get out”: treatment of students with disabilities

Gareau was in a serious car accident when he was 17, in 2005. “The seat belt broke two vertebrae in my neck, and it cut one of my muscles under my right armpit, and it sliced through my abdominal muscles. I lost six bags of blood. I tore ligaments in my knee and in my right shoulder. I broke teeth. One of my quad muscles was put in to reconstruct my abdominal wall – I still have a flank hernia, I had a colostomy bag for 9 months,” he told me.

Gareau said all of this is known to the Faculty of Dentistry, since he’d included it in his application to the Dentistry program. “I had applied using my story […] to explain why I am going to be a great healthcare professional, why I have the potential to be a healer, because of what I’ve gone through and my experiences on both ends of the spectrum of the doctor-patient relationship,” he explained.

After the crash, a portion of his intestine was removed, and he has been diagnosed with liver hemangioma – a tangle of blood vessels in the liver – as well as gallstones. In order to minimize his stomach pain, he needs to eat frequent, small meals. With a doctor’s note, which was provided to the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD), the OSD made the recommendation that he be allowed to eat in class.

“I was sent to the Students’ Promotions Committee [SPC] in second year because they were not sure that I was ‘professional enough’ to move from second year to third year, because I was eating in class,” Gareau said. Faculty have repeatedly challenged his accommodations, with one instructor “yelling at me in front of my classmates, stating multiple times that I was told not to eat in class,” he said.

“The seat belt broke two vertebrae in my neck, and it cut one of my muscles under my right armpit, and it sliced through my abdominal muscles. I lost six bags of blood.”

Gareau is a patient at the Chronic Pain Management Unit of the Montreal General Hospital, and part of his treatment includes taking daily medication to control his back pain, another residual effect of the car crash. “The Faculty of Dentistry has, on multiple occasions, ordered me to not take any medications at all on days which I am to treat a patient,” he continued. “In fact, the changing nature of my prescriptions has been scoffed at by the faculty in email correspondences and used […] to discredit my requests for accommodations.”

As another accommodation for his back pain, Gareau requested a modified dental chair which helped support his lower back, since the standard-issue dental chairs which students receive caused his pain to be so severe as to be “incapacitating,” he told me.

Although Gareau was assured in a letter from the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, Shahrokh Esfandiari, that he would “find an expedited way” for Greg to receive a modified dental chair, it took him two years to actually receive a new chair. “There were so many barriers put in: after I got the doctor’s note, after I registered with the OSD, [the faculty member] drew it out. He would always say, ‘Now we need this, now we need that, now we need you to see an occupational therapist.’”

“On Monday I may have seemed okay, but […] I was not leaving my house from Friday when I got home from school, till Monday morning when I went back to school, because I would be laying on my floor to alleviate my back pain,” Gareau said. Another dentistry student, Nathalie* told me that, during those two years, she had seen Gareau flat on his back on the floor of the Dentistry locker room many times, to reduce his pain.

“I’ve been made to feel ashamed of my disability in Dentistry.”

Other times, Gareau has to stand up during lectures due to his pain – an accommodation he says was made explicit to the Faculty by the OSD. Nathalie described an incident where Gareau was standing during a class, and the professor interrupted his lecture to tell Gareau to “sit down or get out” of the classroom.

“The way they treat him is ridiculous,” Nathalie told me. “Once he was standing in clinic, because he has problems with his back. The profs always make fun of him, they look at him in a weird way.”

Because of his back pain, Gareau uses loops – small lenses that sit on top of eyeglasses, which change the wearer’s field of vision so they don’t have to bend their neck to work at a desk. But the loops that Gareau ordered – paying $1500 out of his own pocket even after a student discount was applied – were too heavy, and had a “working distance” between his eyes and the desk that was too short. When he sent a request to the faculty to have his loops exchanged, “they outright refused, and they admonished me again for daring to question them,” said Gareau.

“I’ve been made to feel ashamed of my disability in Dentistry,” he told me. “I’ve been forced to apologize for the impact that my need for accommodations has had on the faculty. It’s been really hard for me, to go to so many people [and request accommodations] and say, ‘because I am a person with a disability.’ It doesn’t look like I have a disability, but chronic pain is an invisible disability.”

Kevin Tam

Anti-Indigenous sentiments in Dentistry

“I come from a small village named Woodlands. The town consists of 250 people with the surrounding area; it’s an hour north of Winnipeg,” Gareau told me. “It’s the kind of place where people play horseshoes, and have town barbecues and rodeos. It’s an Aboriginal area – it’s not a reserve – and mainly Métis people, or people of Métis descent, live in the area,” he explained.

Gareau, like most people in his community, is Métis – a term which refers to someone of mixed European and Indigenous ancestry, recognized as Aboriginal under Canadian law. He’s the first in his immediate family to go to university.

During our first interview, he told me immediately, “I like to talk with my eyes closed to try and concentrate when I try to recall events. For me, this is normal, when we speak in Aboriginal ceremonies, everybody gets a turn to talk and you’re not necessarily looking at each other. I say this because I’ve been made to feel very self-conscious about the way that I act while at McGill, while in Dentistry, by faculty, by other students.”

Gareau said that he’s been dealing with harassment and alienation since the beginning of his time in Dentistry. He’s found messages written on whiteboards in the Dentistry locker room, such as “suck a dick Greg,” and had his locker vandalized with drawings of a penis.

Some of the anti-Indigenous sentiment in Dentistry is subtle – for example, Gareau told me about how a professor in the faculty would carelessly call meetings with students “pow-wows.” But, more alarmingly, Gareau has been accused of being high or drunk while working in the dental clinic – a stereotype often used to discredit Indigenous people.

Gareau told me about how a professor in the faculty would carelessly call meetings with students “pow-wows.”

“I’m always told from faculty that I look high, that I look ‘weird,’ that I’m ‘too slow to ever succeed in dentistry.’ I’ve been asked if I ‘smoked drugs,’” Gareau said. The letter from the SPC to Gareau notes that “The committee members have expressed great concerns about your professional behavior and agreed with the DENT310 directorship that you are not ready to be promoted to DMD-IV.”

He recounted an instance in which, during his time working in the Dentistry student clinic, he was taken aside by the clinic manager and was told that there was an “anonymous complaint” from a staff member that he smelled like alcohol.

“I came in from the front doors, went up the stairs, and started setting up my station, and immediately I was pulled aside. It was the first week of treating patients in third year.

“I’m always told from faculty that I look high, that I look ‘weird,’ that I’m ‘too slow to ever succeed in dentistry.’”

I didn’t even talk to anybody, I just walked in the building,” Gareau told me. After being pulled aside by the clinic manager, “we went into a small radiograph room, and she started smelling me, my clothes. I took off my shoes and she smelled my shoes. And she said ‘nope, you don’t smell like alcohol,’” he added.

In an email to Gareau, the clinic supervisor explained that after pulling Gareau aside, she noticed that he had been chewing gum, which was what she had smelled.

“Alcohol has devastated Aboriginal communities, and personally I’ve been touched by alcohol abuse, within my own family,” said Gareau. “This happened about ten or 15 minutes to 9 a.m., when I’m supposed to see a patient – and I did. I put it aside, and dealt with it. But I was shocked.”

Indigenizing the University

Since coming to McGill, Gareau has coordinated dental workshops for youth through the Native Friendship Centre of Montreal, as well as participated in the Indigenous Student Mentorship Program under McGill’s First Peoples House. He began studying Dentistry with the aim of working in a rural Indigenous community, since children in Indigenous communities have some of the highest rates of severe tooth decay in Canada.

“I am so grateful that I have escaped generations of family abuse, alcoholism, and as a Métis man, colonialism, in order to be in a position to become a healthcare professional,” he told me. But in his appeal letter, Gareau wrote, “I am concerned that my repetition of third year will be seen as evidence that Western professional programs are incompatible with Aboriginal worldviews and beliefs.”

In an interview with the McGill Reporter, McGill professor and Indigenous rights advocate Cindy Blackstock said, “You don’t recruit Aboriginal students; you change your university environment so that they’ll come.” And despite McGill launching a task force on Indigenous Studies and Education this year, it seems like McGill’s faculties may still be a hostile environment for many Indigenous students.

“You don’t recruit Aboriginal students; you change your university environment so that they’ll come.”

“The first step towards healing is for the Faculty to announce that ‘yes, there are reports of unfair treatment’ and ‘yes, our faculty and everyone who steps through our doors is going to get a lesson on cultural safety,’” Gareau said.

Paul Allison, Dean of the Faculty of Dentistry, told me in an email that while the Faculty didn’t systematically collect data about Indigenous students, “we know there are currently three self-declared Indigenous students across the four years of our program of approximately forty students per year (i.e. three in a current total of 157 students).”

Allison also noted that “faculty have attended university-wide training on cultural sensitivity, diversity and equity offered in collaboration with the Office of Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) for, among others, search committees and human resources.”

He added that the Admissions Committee, which oversees the selection and admission of applicants to the Dentistry program, “seeks to promote as diverse an applicant pool and as diverse a pool of students admitted to the program as is possible, while recognizing the demanding academic, social, behavioural, communications and ethical qualities all our dental students should have in order to be admitted.”

Kevin Tam

What does this mean for McGill Dentistry?

In the Faculty of Dentistry, failing any supplemental or remedial examination means that the student is required to repeat the year. Gareau had failed two courses, DENT 310 and DENT 318 – failing the supplemental exam for the latter – which led to the decision not to promote him to DMD-IV.

However, Gareau told me that while he was writing exams, including his remedial exam for DENT 318, he was interrupted multiple times, and called the interruptions a “tactic.” “I would be writing my exams at the dental building with an OSD invigilator. Someone would continuously come in and ask me if I needed a washroom break, every 15 to twenty minutes,” he told me. “Finally I said, ‘the protocol is that I request a stopwatch break time as part of my accommodations, and I go to the washroom, and I just let the invigilator know.’”

The letter from the SPC cites “low productivity,” and “not adhering to clinical guidelines” as reasons why Gareau failed DENT 310, even though Gareau provided documents that show he completed well above the average number of restorations (also known as fillings) for the class, and his student evaluation forms consistently show him “meeting expectations” or “exceeding expectations.”

In a letter Gareau received from Shahrokh Esfandiari, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, in 2015, Esfandiari wrote, “Greg, I remind you that you were admitted into the DMD program based on your qualifications that have placed you above many other highly competitive applicants, and for this reason I am confident that you have the ability to become a competent health care provider.” Esfandiari was a member of the SPC which, almost a year later, had to vote unanimously to have Greg repeat the year. He also represented the SPC at the Student Appeal Committee on October 11.

Gareau appealed the decision to the Student Appeal Committee on October 11, 2016. His appeal was denied on the grounds that “the Committee decided that there is not enough evidence to question the decision taken by the Student Promotions Committee,” according to a letter Gareau received from the Student Appeal Committee Chair. Gareau is currently seeking a year-long leave of absence from the Dentistry program, after which he plans to graduate in April 2019.

“The denial of the appeal means that I have an opportunity to raise the issues of discrimination that I have witnessed and have faced to an audience outside of the Faculty of Dentistry, where fresh ears will hear them,” he told me.

In June 2015, McGill’s medical school was put on probation after it received a failing grade from the Committee on Accreditation of Canadian Medical schools (CACMS). One of the concerns was that there was “significant under-representation in the student and faculty body of identified groups, including women in leadership positions, and aboriginal faculty.” Then, in April 2016, The Daily reported that a McGill medical student filed a lawsuit against the Faculty of Medicine after he was put on academic probation, alleging that he had not received adequate accommodations for his disability.

“The denial of the appeal means that I have an opportunity to raise the issues of discrimination that I have witnessed and have faced to an audience outside of the Faculty of Dentistry, where fresh ears will hear them.”

Gareau believes that McGill’s Faculty of Dentistry faces similar issues of systemic discrimination to those alleged against the Faculty of Medicine. “This is just my story – just one – and there are forty students in each year,” he said. Aside from the concerns of discrimination, he also cites a lack of adherence to clinical protocols and sound teaching practices as reasons for his appeal.

“I wish more students stood up, but they’re so scared,” said Nathalie. “[Dentistry is] not like mathematics, where it doesn’t matter if they like you or not, if you have the right answer. Dentistry is […] very subjective. If they don’t like you, they’ll give you hell.”

“I’m having nightmares of the people who told me that I would never succeed when I first started going to school,” Gareau told me. “It is hard to remember all of the supportive words from the elders in my life because I am so far removed from that kind of support.”

“I have also made it clear to the Dean of Dentistry that, when I am confident that my safety has been made a priority by the school, that I am willing to once again open my heart and move the faculty of Dentistry’s relationship with Indigenous communities forward.”

*name has been changed