What I Learned in Class Today Project: Indigenous Student Support In and Beyond the Classroom

Indigenous student voices have always been at the heart of the WILICT project and this collaboratively created article outlines opportunities to better support students in and beyond the classroom.

By Keirra Webb in collaboration with Tsatia Adzich, Vicki George, Maggie Moore, Amy Perreault, and Siera Stonechild

Indigenous Students Champion Institutional Change

As the history of the What I Learned in Class Today (WILICT) project suggests, Indigenous students have often been at the forefront of change at UBC. It is their voices that inform critical initiatives, call for increased representation and leadership roles, and advocate for student spaces like The Indigenous Leadership Collective, The Indigenous Committee, and The Indigenous Lounge in the Nest.

The first and second iterations of WILICT came to be because of the persistence and brilliance of Indigenous students. In 2007, Karrmen Crey, Amy Perreault, and their classmates created the project as a space to share their problematic experiences in order to incite positive change in the University’s campus climate. Their efforts influenced the creation of the 2009 Aboriginal Strategic Plan (ASP) which highlights Indigenous student experiences; they also inspired the creation of a role at the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology with a focus on supporting instructors to integrate Indigenous perspectives into their classrooms. With the launch of the 2020 Indigenous Strategic Plan (ISP), the reboot project asks how these institutional and national initiatives have shifted Indigenous engagement and educational experiences at UBC.

Transforming Campus Climate: Considering the “Being Here Part of It”

In their interviews, participants frequently indicate that the impetus for change can no longer sit on the shoulders of Indigenous students, faculty, and staff. With the demand for institutional reform increasing in collective attention, Dr. Sarah Hunt/Tłaliłila’ogwa (Kwagu’l of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation) urges the University administration to ensure that these shifts are sustainable and actually reflect the needs of Indigenous people on campus; in her words, we need “to make structural changes while thinking about the being here part of it.” This co-created article calls for the support of Indigenous students on campus with the recognition that Indigenous faculty and staff, who advocate for and protect students, are themselves subjected to the racist inner workings of a colonial institution.

One of the article contributors and academic advisor at Arts Indigenous Student Advising, Maggie Moore, explains that “the staff on the ground are putting out fires and burning out rather than being supported.” There is a disconnect between policy around Indigenous initiatives and the actual experiences of Indigenous peoples which the 2020 ISP seeks to reconcile by outlining necessary actions to weave systems of support into the fabric of the University. Uptake of the ISP is especially pertinent in upper administration and leadership because, as Tsatia Adzich says,

“sometimes the racism and institutionalized violence feels so overwhelming to Indigenous peoples that we are just trying to survive it and don’t have the energy to try and advocate for change in that moment. [The University needs to ask:] How are issues being brought up seen as part of a larger picture, and not just a moment of violence? How do we ensure that we are not just addressing an individual experience, but ensuring that the structures that allowed that violence to persist to this point are dismantled and addressed?”

These questions are of particular importance as the University moves to implement the calls from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and those from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action (TRC).

A Growing Indigenous Presence Demands Increased Cross-Discipline Support

By understanding the problematic and violent experiences shared in the original and reboot projects as symptoms of a structure that neither supports nor ensures the safety of Indigenous peoples, the University can begin to address the systemic racism at the root of these incidents. A recent UBC graduate from the Haida Nation and winner of the Lieutenant Governor Medal for her work in empowering Indigenous students on campus, Chelsea Gladstone, recounted an incident around an essay for an Anthropology course. Gladstone included readings from her First Nations and Indigenous Studies (FNIS) courses on the ongoing and systemic nature of settler colonialism, but her Anthropology professor challenged the ‘legitimacy’ of her sources and provided a low mark that reflected this professor’s lack of knowledge of the field of Indigenous Studies. In this moment, Gladstone was forced to choose between academic success and representing her lived experience within the settler colonial state of Canada. In Gladstone’s words,

“that was probably the first time that I really felt like Indigenous students aren’t welcomed in most spaces on campus other than in FNIS, or sometimes GRSJ, like I really thought okay, if we can’t express that this is ongoing and that we live this every single day then I can’t really understand why UBC would even advertise for us to come here because they’re not really putting in the effort to make it a safe space and for us to learn … the truth and to share the truth.”

Institutional Barriers to Indigenous Student Success and Support

In a 2017 Maclean’s article on “Supporting Indigenous Students on Campus,” creator of the First Nations Studies Program (now FNIS) and co-chair of the 2009 ASP, Dr. Linc Kesler spoke out against the problematic nature of recruiting Indigenous students who “when they come to campus… have very difficult experiences dealing with university [administrative] machinery.” Gladstone and Kesler’s perspectives articulate a troubling trend of failing to see Indigenous realities reflected and accepted in classroom environments and institutional grading schemes. When guiding figures in the room negate or tokenize Indigenous student experiences in discussions or assignments, Indigenous students are forced to take on the role of educator or are isolated from their peers and left to deal with the emotional, mental, and academic consequences of these problematic incidents.

Cultivating a Supportive Classroom Climate

Classroom environments have the potential of doing harm, particularly against those who have direct, lived experiences with subject matter around colonialism and Indigenous histories or realities. As more professors integrate Indigenous content into their courses, we are reminded of the personal and ethical dimensions of discussing the “TRC or Residential Schools … children in care, police violence,” the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit (MMIWG2S) Inquiry, and other areas of colonialism (Hunt). By imagining classrooms as communities where relationships and trust must be actively and consistently built, instructors can better create anti-oppressive learning environments that support the wellbeing of all students. Gladstone shares that she was more willing to speak up in class when she was familiar with her peers, knew she would not be tokenized or singled out, and trusted the instructor to hold themselves and others accountable to strict standards of engagement.

When synthesizing strategies to respond to problematic classroom experiences, the article collaborators came up with the idea of a safety protocol for courses dealing with Indigenous topics, similar to lab safety rules. The wellbeing of students in classroom discussions that require vulnerability and proximity to colonial violence is just as much a concern as the physical wellbeing of students in lab environments (Amy Perreault). Vicki George, the Assistant Director of the First Nations House of Learning and a key team member of the 2020 ISP team explains that “Indigenous students need reassurances that the instructor will address problematic and racist comments as they arise. Measures need to be made up front and articulated before the class starts so that Indigenous students can trust their professor to deal with these comments and not let it slide.” Instructors might create a classroom protocol section in their syllabi outlining their own responsibilities, as guiding figures in the room, as well as the students’ in cultivating a supportive classroom environment.

This more formal articulation of the instructor’s role in contributing to classroom climate is necessary to limit problematic experiences like one shared by WILICT participant, Tiana Bone. Bone is a recent UBC graduate from Keeseekoowenin Ojibway First Nation who describes a classroom discussion about the Tina Fontaine and Colten Boushie court cases that neglected the emotional needs of students in the room. Immediately after facilitating a conversation about these incidents the instructor screened a film portraying difficult and negative Indigenous experiences. Instead, Bone wishes that the instructor had given “room and space for Indigenous voices to talk about it if they [wanted] to [without forcing] the conversation onto the students …. Just giving space in the classroom or maybe even just the day off.” Holding conversations with care means tuning into the affective side of the classroom and potentially adjusting the lesson plan to reflect these needs. It also means including narratives outside of colonialism; it is just as important to hold space for Indigenous resistance, resurgence, strength, and joy.

Considering the Entire Student Experience

When Indigenous students enter the classroom, they carry with them a wealth of experiences and knowledge. Oftentimes, however, they are navigating barriers that stem from systemic racism, discrimination, and a lack of resources. Some Indigenous student participants described the difficulty of maintaining their studies while caring for family members and dealing with financial or housing instabilities. Like Gladstone and Bone, Ashley Zarbatany’s interview reveals a lack of awareness on behalf of UBC faculty and staff in discussing colonialism and Indigenous topics in a way that does not cause harm. Zarbatany’s problematic experiences went beyond the classroom when, after reaching out to UBC counselling, she was referred to an off-campus counsellor whom she could not afford. This breakdown of support inside and outside of the classroom prompted Zarbatany to leave UBC and pursue her degree at a university with affordable childcare, housing, and tuition. Zarbatany explains, “if I had tried to stay at UBC I feel like it would have just been crashing and burning … Like I was crashing and burning.”

Action 28 from the 2020 ISP calls for an increase in financial aid for tuition, child-care, and housing for Indigenous students like Zarbatany. One of our article collaborators also wanted to shine light on the new Affordable Child Care Benefit that grants households earning less than $111,000 up to $1,250 a month per child. These initiatives within the institution and the province are critical steps in supporting students who are parents in reaching their academic goals without compromising their wellbeing.

Overcoming Barriers to Institutional Change

Too often when Indigenous students seek to address classroom incidents or reform University structures, they are met with administrative barriers to change. Robbie Knott, a Red River Métis and recent graduate of the Masters of Community and Regional Planning Program, described a moment when he and his peers fought for the University to take responsibility for the racist words of a visiting lecturer. Knott believes that their call for University-wide cultural sensitivity training was denied because you “have to be embedded in the system in order to create that change.” It is imperative, then, that Indigenous peoples hold leadership roles across campus, that Indigenous presence is increased by supporting Indigenous students’ financial needs, and that the University create a “holistic system of support” (ISP 25).

These Indigenous student experiences point to the need for dramatic institutional change that begins by creating space for and listening to Indigenous voices. Dr. Dory Nason declares that it is everyone’s responsibility to consider how they can “make space for more Indigenous content and Indigenous people at the University, make people feel welcome at the University, make their knowledges feel welcome, and their languages feel welcome.”

The stories shared with WILICT in the original and reboot projects illustrate the colonial reality that Indigenous students face every day in the classroom. The frequency of these experiences means that Indigenous students have to pick their battles while also knowing that they have every right to use their voice when standing up for themselves and their peers (Vicki George). When creating this article, our conversation with collaborators continuously circled back to one defining point: Indigenous students are resilient in demanding support for their wellbeing on campus, but it is past time for that labour of change to come from the University itself.

Resources for Further Learning

  • Check out—and stay up to date on!—Erica Violet Lee’s blog where she comments on her experiences as an Indigenous student and activist within the Canadian education system. We recommend beginning with “The Deadly Academic Silence: Outspoken Indigenous Students & Unsettling the Canadian University.
  • Read this exposé in Piikani Nation News on Indigenous student leaders, Matthew Provost and Spirit River Striped Wolf, and the important work they are spearheading at SFU and Mount Royal University.
  • This article summarizes key findings from a report by Jacqueline Romanow, the University of Winnipeg’s chair of Indigenous Studies, regarding Indigenous students’ experiences of racism in academic environments. Romanow explains, “with all this talk about Indigenization in universities and colleges, some extra effort has to be put into providing supports and resources for Indigenous students and recognition for the unique struggles that they have just getting into the classroom, and that extra burden they bear.”
  • Join Memegwans Johnson-Owl, an Anishinaabekwe and UBC alumni, on this short, virtual tour of UBC-Vancouver to learn more about Indigenous spaces on campus

Featured Image on Carousel by eberhard grossgasteiger on Unsplash