Instructors seek open, honest dialogue with students about complicated issues
‘Ask me anything Indigenous,’ teachers say
IN the wake of cross-Canada outcry over the verdicts in the Gerald Stanley and Raymond Cormier trials, a pair of Winnipeg teachers are trying to explain the news and debunk stereotypes in the classroom with “ask me anything Indigenous” projects.
Christine M’Lot teaches Grades 10 and 12 English at University of Winnipeg Collegiate.
“With all the things going on in the media right now, the Colten Boushie (case), the Tina Fontaine (case), I knew that the students would be hearing about those things in the news, and so I thought it was the perfect time to start an Indigenous graphic novel and continue to talk about these things,” said the instructor, who hails from Winnipeg and has family ties to Swan Lake First Nation.
This term, her Grade 10 students are reading Secret Path, by Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire, while the Grade 12s are delving into The Life of Helen Betty Osborne: a Graphic Novel, by David Robertson and Madison Blackstone.
M’Lot also passes out slips of paper to her students at the start of class and tells them to write something down — whether it’s a question or not — for her to address later.
“I say, ‘Even if you’re not asking a question, you have to write something,’ just so students can’t figure out who wrote what,” M’Lot explained.
“I said, ‘Ask me anything Indigenous that you wouldn’t normally ask out loud — anything that you have in the back of your mind, even if you think it sounds racist or whatever. Just go ahead and ask, because this is a safe space and we’re going to discuss it.’” Some of the questions she’s fielded so far include: “Does racism against white people exist?” and “Why are so many people who kill Aboriginals let go?”
For queries that leave her stumped, she sometimes turns to her social networks for insight.
“I have a pretty strong network of brilliant Indigenous minds on my Facebook and Twitter, so there were a couple of questions where I wasn’t sure how to respond and so I got some feedback,” M’Lot said, citing the former question specifically.
Her Facebook friends weighed in, largely saying no, racism against white people does not exist due to current power and privilege structures in Canada. However, individual acts of discrimination can happen.
M’Lot borrowed the “ask me anything Indigenous” idea from her cousin and fellow instructor, Tara Williamson.
Williamson has taught at the postsecondary level for about seven years, working mostly in Ontario at Fleming College, Ryerson University/First Nations Technical Institute and Trent University.
Since September, she’s taught Indigenous studies at the University of Winnipeg, where a mandatory Indigenous course requirement took effect in September 2016. Students have to take three credit hours of Indigenous Studies to graduate.
“One of the goals of those classes is to debunk myths and stereotypes. So one of the easiest ways to do it is to address… questions coming from students, right? It’s not like I’m pulling them out of thin air,” said Williamson, who is a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation and grew up in Swan Lake.
In her classroom, Williamson passes a large envelope around, soliciting anonymous questions about Indigenous topics. Many are curious about employment rates, substance use, treaty benefits and quality of life on reserves, she said.
The majority of her 250 or so students are non-Indigenous
and, for some, their instructor is the first Indigenous person they’ve met.
In the coming days, Williamson plans to dive into discussions on the justice system and how it disproportionately involves Indigenous people.
“I needed some time as a teacher and as an Indigenous person in the community… I needed some time and space to sort of wrap my head around how I was going to teach (about the Stanley trial), and so we’ll be broaching that subject this week,” she said.
Though she can’t quantifiably measure the impact of the Indigenous course requirement on U of W students yet, the instructor said she sees itmaking a positive difference.
“I don’t know if I want to call it a success yet, but I do think it’s having an impact. And we’re actually just… the university is in the process of figuring out how to evaluate exactly what that impact is,” Williamson said.
Both teachers acknowledged how recent stories, such as those about the Stanley and Cormier trials, can stir emotions for students and themselves.
In early February, a jury in Saskatchewan found Gerald Stanley — a white farmer — not guilty of second-degree murder in the 2016 shooting death of 22-year-old Cree man Colten Boushie.
Later that month, a jury in Winnipeg found Raymond Cormier not guilty of second-degree murder in the 2014 death of 15-year-old First Nations girl Tina Fontaine.
“I know this stuff is very triggering, because I feel triggered even. I see myself as Tina Fontaine when I was 15 and 16. That could have really easily been me as well,” M’Lot said.
“So, I know that it’s especially triggering for the Indigenous students, and I wanted them to know I care about this. This is important to discuss this in school.”