HALIFAX – An Indigenous professor at Saint Mary’s University is resigning in protest over what she calls the Halifax university’s failure to “indigenize the academy” and confront the legacy of colonialism.
Sandra Muse Isaacs says she’s quitting her job as an Indigenous literature professor over the lack of progress on the recommendations outlined in a report by a task force on Aboriginal students struck in the wake of a student’s murder.
Loretta Saunders, a 26-year-old Inuk student researching missing and murdered Indigenous women, was killed in 2014.
Her murder appeared to serve as a catalyst for change at the small university. The task force recommended hiring Indigenous faculty and expanding Indigenous curriculum to “enhance the indigenization of the academy.”
“It was part of the reason I came here,” said Muse Isaacs, a Cherokee woman originally from the U.S. “I read it and I felt like, ‘This institution gets it now.'”
But she said the university has been reluctant to change, and she felt like the “token” Indigenous professor.
Out of the 17 recommendations, Muse Isaacs said Saint Mary’s has only implemented the first two — creating an Aboriginal Student Centre and hiring an Aboriginal student adviser — “only with a lot of pushing.”
“Once I began showing resistance and telling them this needs to be done,” she said, “I was labelled a trouble maker.”
Margaret Murphy, associate vice-president of external affairs at Saint Mary’s, said the university is committed to the recommendations in the task force report.
“We recognize there is still more to be done, so we’re continuing to implement those recommendations and continuing to commit more resources to support both the Indigenous students on campus and to support a greater role — and a greater number — of Indigenous faculty,” she said.
Murphy said the university has made progress in recent years yet acknowledges there’s still “a long way to go.”
In addition to a new space for Indigenous students and a student adviser, Saint Mary’s is creating curriculum on the history and culture of Indigenous Peoples and incorporating territorial land acknowledgments and First Nations recognition in the school’s ceremonial practices.
The university also has a Mi’kmaw chief on its board of governors, raises the Mi’kmaw flag in partnership with elders and has awarded honorary degrees to members of the Mi’kmaw community.
Muse Isaacs said many of the university’s actions amount to “window dressing” and are “not what indigenizing the academy is all about.”
“It’s nice but it doesn’t change the education students are getting,” she said.
Murphy admitted that some of the changes have been slow to come about, and said Muse Isaacs is “right to hold us to task, to hold us accountable.”
Other recommendations from the task force, including an Aboriginal Advisory Council and a university chair in Indigenous Studies, are works in progress, she said.
While Saint Mary’s is committed to hiring more Indigenous faculty, Murphy was unable to provide a specific commitment about when or how many new Indigenous professors would be hired.
In its report, the task force admitted that “implementing these changes will take time.”
But it said that “Saint Mary’s is woefully behind other post-secondary institutions in the region and nationally when it comes to meeting the needs of Aboriginal students.”
The report added: “There is, simply, a need for immediate and effective action, even in a climate of restraint.”
Tyler Sack, a Saint Mary’s alumnus and former Aboriginal student adviser, said while some progress has been achieved the university has not made Aboriginal students a priority as promised.
“Other universities in the region have done more in less time and not in response to a student murder,” he said, pointing to Cape Breton University’s Unama’ki College.
Another Halifax university recently found itself embroiled in controversy after assigning a course about Canada’s residential schools to a non-Indigenous professor.
Mount Saint Vincent University called a meeting with history department leaders, faculty, school administration and the senior adviser to the president on Aboriginal affairs. After the meeting, the university said Professor Martha Walls had the support of Indigenous and non-Indigenous faculty and administration to teach the course.
Muse Isaacs has been hired by the University of Windsor in Ontario, which has committed to hiring five new full-time, tenure-track Indigenous professors.