Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/2/2019 (285 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In early 2014, Kali Storm, the director of the Indigenous Student Centre at the University of Manitoba, was fired.
The firing rocked the Indigenous community on campus. Storm had worked for decades, advocating, planning and eventually overseeing the construction of Migizii Agamik (Bald Eagle Lodge), among other things.
U of M administrators gave no reason for the firing or explain why she had been escorted off campus by security.
The Indigenous community on campus rebelled. Students started a petition to have her reinstated. Staff talked openly about quitting. Most just wondered why. I know, because at the time, I was (and still am) an Indigenous faculty member at the university.
By all accounts, Storm did an excellent job. She had developed university-wide policies for traditional knowledge and elders on campus. She helped start the U of M graduation powwow, which had become a model for universities across Canada. She was beloved and recognized as a community leader. Weeks before she was fired, an internal U of M report gave her work a passing grade.
There was no evidence of financial impropriety or charges of inappropriate behaviour. Storm was just told to go away and never come back, after building the foundation of Indigenous student life on campus.
Rumours were that she refused to implement policies she felt offended elders and contravened cultural protocols in the Indigenous community, and this led to her firing.
In response to the incredible backlash, U of M administration held a public forum to try to clear the air. The meeting did anything but.
Students, staff and faculty cried and demanded answers. Social work professor and Canada Research Chair Michael Hart (now departed, like other outspoken Indigenous faculty members at the university) called the firing a "betrayal."
The meeting ended in anger, with no explanation.
Storm couldn’t offer one either, because of a non-disclosure agreement.
Weeks went by and, while the anger stewed, a new director was hired.
Everyone on campus was expected to just "get over it" and accept the decision of the administration.
The problem, of course, is that no one has forgotten: faculty and staff are still bitter, the community still has no answers.
Meanwhile, Storm has never returned to the U of M and her achievements are barely mentioned. It’s almost like the university wants to forget her decades of work there.
This was the first misstep in five years of missteps between the Indigenous community and the University of Manitoba.
While there have been many achievements at the U of M during this time — one of the highest Indigenous student enrolments in Canada, new investments in scholarships and a mass hiring of Indigenous faculty — the university can’t seem to step out of the shadow of a cantankerous relationship between the Indigenous community on campus and the administration.
The worst of this has involved departures by faculty members such as Dr. Barry Lavallee, who resigned last week, and the recent resignation of Lynn Lavallée, the vice-provost of Indigenous achievement (no relation to Barry).
When asked by the Free Press why he was leaving the U of M, Barry Lavallee said: "Because it’s hopeless." For nine years, he had received national recognition for his work indigenizing medical curriculums, but had also become very outspoken for calling out racism on campus and demanding equity for Indigenous students.
Lynn Lavallée was hired as the de facto "leader" of Indigenous achievement on campus and lasted only 15 months. She resigned on her own terms so she could speak openly.
In a statement on Jan. 3, Lynn Lavallée claimed the U of M has "deeply embedded systemic racism." According to her, this is found in policies, attitudes and the lack of Indigenous voices in venues such as the senate. This leads to conflict, with the Indigenous community on campus being seen as a "problem," framed as complainers and hindrances, and an atmosphere in which Indigenous students and faculty are openly harassed.
When Lynn Lavallée tried to organize meetings amongst Indigenous faculty to discuss solutions, for example, she said she was told she was being "divisive."
The problem, of course, is that the Indigenous community at the U of M isn’t a problem. Indigenous students, staff and faculty are perhaps the most socially and politically engaged community on campus. In fact, the U of M Indigenous community is almost single-handedly responsible for the achievement of one-fifth of the strategic plan: to "indigenize" the university.
The Indigenous community at the University of Manitoba has constructed a building, created policies and built a future in which Indigenous professionals can take their place as the backbone and future of Manitoba.
The U of M — and president David Barnard, in the two years he has left in his term — would be best served to find those in the U of M Indigenous community doing this work and recognize them, put them in decision-making positions and get out of their way.
These people are the university’s greatest resource and the key to getting out of this mess.
But this pool is shrinking. For five years, several dynamic, strong and nationally renowned Indigenous professionals at the U of M have been fired or have become fed up and left.
I received a message from a colleague on Wednesday that said: "What is going on at your university? It looks awful."
Try being in it, I said.
It makes it hard to see all the good work.
It’s almost like the university wants everyone to forget about the past five years and move on. Get over it. Pretend the conflict hasn’t been getting worse and worse.
This, in the end, is the real problem.
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Thursday, February 7, 2019 at 7:27 AM CST: Adds photo