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Social Work Students Urge Faculty to Express Solidarity

Bureaucratic red tape presents barrier to institutional action

In light of student activism on campus, some Canadian universities have begun drafting action plans, forming committees, and reexamining their violent histories. However, many students – especially Black and Indigenous students and students of colour – remain frustrated. In response, many are pushing their schools even harder to improve their policies and stand up for their racialized students. At McGill, this momentum is coming to a head in the School of Social Work, where students are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with what they feel are slow, unresponsive bureaucratic systems. Codey Martin, a U2 Social Work student from Listukuj – a Mi’kmaq community on the Gaspé Peninsula – is among those who have been pressuring the School to act in solidarity with Indigenous communities across Canada. 

Martin, who is also a part of the Race Caucus at the School of Social Work, has reached out repeatedly to ask the School for concrete solidarity action, beginning with a letter affirming its support for Indigenous communities. Throughout his time in Social Work, Martin told the Daily, conversations around “allyship” have been constant. He explained, however, that these conversations have seldom led to real change. “It’s kind of time to put those words into action,” Martin said, “[and] not just have these five minute discussions in the classroom and walk away from it.” The School of Social Work has a history fraught with colonial exploitation to reckon with, according to Martin, citing its reliance on Indigenous communities for research purposes without effectively giving back to those communities. “A lot of Indigenous communities are tired of being dissected at [an] academic level.” Martin and others are finding land acknowledgements and brief statements in Social Work not enough. “If you don’t want to be part of the bigger picture, you need to stop using terminology like ‘decolonizing,’ ‘reconciliation,’ you know?”

Wanda Gabriel, an Assistant Professor in Social Work who is originally from Kanehsatà:ke, empathizes with students’ frustrations. Academic institutions, she says, aren’t used to having difficult conversations. “I don’t think that universities have caught up,” she told the Daily. “We’re not getting there fast enough […] to meet the students where they’re at.” But that’s not to say that nothing is happening on the part of the School. Speaking to student concerns about delays in releasing a solidarity statement, Gabriel explained, “The bureaucracy of academia is so huge […] there’s all this red tape to get through.” This is especially true for the School of Social Work, whose internal governance structure is still in the process of being solidified. Gabriel, who also serves as the director of Indigenous Access McGill (IAM), explained that some of the barriers students face come as a result of this administrative confusion: until very recently, “There hasn’t been a governance structure in place that determines how the School of Social Work governs itself.” In addition to a lack of clear administration, the School doesn’t currently have a clear equity structure, making it difficult for students to navigate/access resources.

Last year, the School established a School Council, which serves as “the primary decision-making body” for Social Work. It’s at an upcoming meeting of this council that many students in Social Work, including Codey Martin, intend to voice their concerns and grievances. Jo Roy, another U2 Social Work student, explained that students who have felt largely unheard will be attending the session on October 28 to continue to “speak their truth about the racism they face in the classroom.” Martin encouraged students from other Faculties to attend and to pay attention, emphasizing the importance of solidarity between communities when facing issues like institutional racism. “I want to spread awareness of, you know, racism across the board and the hardships that Indigenous people are facing today in 2020. So I’m looking forward [to] a good outcome from all nationalities.”

The October 28 School Council meeting is also serving another critical purpose — to ratify the new Equity Diversity Decolonization Indigenization Initiative (EDDII) and the related EDDII Strategic Plan. The EDDII is an initiative, not a committee: it’s composed of participants, not members, all of whom have equal decision-making power in terms of the EDDII’s actions. In an email to the Daily, a representative from the EDDII explained that this structure came as a result of consultations with students, and that the initiative’s goal is to “support and track” the implementation of a 4-year action plan, which will focus on decolonization, indigenization, and centering anti-Black racism. Though several students have reported discomfort or dissatisfaction with a lack of action on the part of the EDDII, its ultimate impact won’t become clear until after its ratification (or rejection) at the School Council meeting. 

In the meantime, students in Social Work are left without a clear path to solidarity or equity from the School. Codey Martin told the Daily, “You would expect that with all the committees and all the initiatives, that they would have just done something on their own. I feel like there probably is a lot of labor that’s outsourced to students.” The next step, according to Martin and Roy, is to be “really vocal” at the October 28 meeting. Across the board, from students to professors, the Social Work community emphasized the importance of advocating for improvements together. Where Martin focuses on international, inter-community alliance, Professor Gabriel framed it in terms of being a good relative. Speaking with the Daily, she explained, “Being a good relative comes from Indigenous ways of knowing and being seen. [… It means] be[ing] able to stand with, and sometimes to speak on behalf of [each other].” One Social Work professor also emphasized the importance of these student mobilizing efforts, saying that this work is messy and uncomfortable, but crucial, and will ultimately allow students to get the resources and support they need to excel as social workers.

The lack of such resources is a key point of tension for students like Roy, who told the Daily that “the School’s actions run against everything our profession is supposed to stand for.”

While Social Work students wait for more accessible institutionalized equity resources, IAM continues to provide support for Indigenous students. Speaking on behalf of IAM, Professor Gabriel said, “If students need us to advocate, we will advocate. If we need to just stand with the students, we’ll stand with the students.”

Professor Gabriel, on behalf of IAM, provided the following resources for Indigenous students:

  • Calling the IAM office at 514-398-2129 (home office 450-479-8777)
    • Attending IAM’s monthly Zoom check-ins
  • Accessing the First Peoples’ House

Calling the Hope For Wellness Helpline at 1-855-242-3310