a, Opinion

Why McGill needs to be proactive about race

Racial tension at universities in the United States has finally turned into discussion and action. Students of colour at institutions like Dartmouth College and Yale University are speaking out about injustices and racism they have experienced on campus. Exclusion from events, racial slurs and stereotypes, culturally appropriative halloween costumes, mascot controversies, and underrepresentation of minority faculty are just a few of the important topics being brought to light by the campus protests. Indigenous students have added their voices to the protests in Ivy League universities this year, organizing peaceful marches, drum circles, and demonstrations. But this conversation is not happening at McGill.

Very little conversation on race—and, specifically, indigenous issues—has taken place across the broader campus during my time here, perhaps because all seems well. But McGill and its student body are not immune to racial issues; these problems need to be talked about. Though there will always be exceptions, it appears that McGill has swung to the other side of racial problems—lack of representation, lack of conversation with minority students, and misguided allies leads to silence about racial issues on campus. McGill’s student body may be reflecting the wider Canadian context which ignores or forgets about racial and indigenous issues. In my experience, the low amount of discussion about racism is taken as an indication that ‘racism is over.’ In response to this, minority students need to come together to facilitate discussion about race and take action towards making the campus more inclusive.

The university itself lacks representation of indigenous peoples. According to the First Peoples’ House, only around 200 indigenous students are enrolled as full-time undergraduates, comprising less than one per cent of the student population. There is one full-time, tenure-track, indigenous faculty member, Professor Allan Downey, and one part-time Academic associate, Michael Loft. While many Indigenous students are involved with Indigenous groups on campus, there simply are not enough of us to have a major political and academic impact. I am often the only indigenous student in my classes, and my voice is not enough to counter a professor’s or students’ ignorant comments. Social Equity and Diversity Education’s (SEDE) Indigenous Education Advisor, Allan Vicaire, is often someone indigenous students must turn to to get assistance countering racism in class.

Allies have an important place in activism and race relations, but some misguided allies advocate for Indigenous peoples without consulting with them. Other student groups host radical Indigenous speakers—like Kahentinetha Horn, who wrote the notice of seizure to McGill Univeristy in September—speak with false authority and claim to represent entire peoples to further their political agendas. While I appreciate these student groups’ efforts to include indigenous voices, sometimes it leads to tokenization and perpetuation of negative stereotypes, as well as the homogenization of indigenous peoples and their concerns. When indigenous students and the Indigenous Student Alliance attempt to address these issues, we are met with cognitive dissonance and dismissal.

A place to start would be a speaker-series on race relations in the university context and an on-campus campaign, led by minority students, breaking down common microaggressions experienced in class. But as the Ivy League universities have shown, prestigious institutions and their student bodies often do not like to acknowledge institutionalized racism. Greater action may be necessary to have our voices heard.

As a First Nation student, microaggressions, misguided allies, and not being heard by the institution are standard parts of my post-secondary experience. I am certain other minority students experience institutional and subtle racism at McGill as well. By coming together to talk about our experiences, we can facilitate understanding and support each other. It may not be through solidarity protests or peaceful sit-ins (or die-ins) but together we can raise awareness of these issues and initiate action on racial issues. We need to start a conversation about racial injustices, issues, and racism on McGill’s campus. Then we can work towards taking action to make McGill an inclusive place for minority students.

Do you have thoughts on the conversation about race and indigenous issues on campus? Send a message to [email protected].

Ashley is a U3 student in environmental science and a member of Mishkeegogamang Ojibway First Nation. She is the coordinator of the Indigenous Student Alliance, is a University Representative and Communications and Outreach co-chair for the Ivy Native Council. She is also a co-founder and member of the McGill Students Chapter of AISES. She frequents the First Peoples’ House and is thankful for the incredible friends she has met there. Her academic interests include indigenous health, environmental health, and chronic diseases.


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  1. humanbeing111

    As a brown person, an immigrant, and person, I empathically decry this article, written by a white female. Stop projecting so much on people, geez. Yes, I have experienced racism in this country, and of course hopefully in the future it will not be the case, but to me the core of the issue is not being racist. I couldn’t care less if you are racist. Seriously.

    I only care that you do not act racist in my face. That’s all. There are basically three type of white people: people that don’t care about my race, people that hate me because of it, and people like the author, who pity me.

    I can understand hate, it’s a very human thing to do, and it is a byproduct of ignorance. Pity, on the other hand, is dehumanizing.

    • apihtawikosisan

      Written by a White female? Check again. This was written by a First Nations woman, discussing her experiences with racism, microagressions, and tokenization on campus. A campus which is located on unceded Mohawk and Algonquin lands. You “decry this article” and then erase a First Nations woman’s identity by calling her White? For what purpose exactly? Do your experiences somehow invalidate her and render her piece something that needs to be publicly denounced?

      I attended McGill law for a year, after coming to Montreal with an LLB from the University of Alberta. The U of A is an incredibly conservative university, and the law faculty is like the concentrated essence of that. Alberta is also shockingly racist, in very visceral, and physically violent ways. Nonetheless, I felt more erased and more alienated at McGill than I ever did in Alberta where we at least have a Faculty of Native Studies, and enough First Nations, Métis and Inuit students to be noticed from time to time.

      At McGill, there was an “Indigenous journal” run entirely by non-Indigenous people, and in the wider community, an activist group focused on Missing and Murdered Indigenous women that had not a single Indigenous person as a member. I never had the option to have an Indigenous professor, or take any courses that centered Indigenous topics. Indigenous issues are ignored, tokenized, or fetishized at McGill and THAT is what deserves to be decried.

      kinanâskomitin Ashley, kâkikê-ki-sôhki-atoskêstamâkonaw.

  2. Annoyed Citizen

    This is a well-written, thoughtful piece about an important topic. Thank you for publishing it.

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