We Are All Part of This Conversation

Conversations in Society Shape Campus Climate

Over a year and a half into the pandemic that drastically shifted our personal, professional, and academic lives, that exacerbated pre-existing social inequities—increasing public awareness and engagement in movements around Black Lives Matter, Indigenous sovereignty and the resistance of anti-Asian violence—alongside a concurrent rise in white nationalist reaction and rhetoric, the time for university-wide action in creating a supportive campus environment is long overdue.

Changes concerning Indigenous peoples’ human rights are unfolding at university- and national-scales with moves to implement The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, the Final Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and most recently, UBC’s 2020 Indigenous Strategic Plan. These initiatives are monumental in creating collective traction towards truth, reconciliation, and decolonization, but the question remains around how this advancing conversation is impacting Indigenous peoples’ felt experiences on campus, particularly Indigenous students in the classroom.

The Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology’s Indigenous Initiatives team (CTLT-II), along with countless other campus groups with a focus on decolonization, anti-racism, equity, and inclusion, have long called for such relational attention to one’s position in terms of place and power. Projects such as What I Learned in Class Today (WILICT)illustrate a longstanding commitment to considering “the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical environments” of UBC in order to create supportive and productive campus climates for all (Ambrose et al.). The above excerpt by Ambrose et al (2010), quoted in Amy Perreault and Hanae Tsukada’s 2016 article, is foundational to the WILICT project’s intention to create dialogue around Indigenous peoples’ experiences of the institution.

This is the first of several articles in the new Student Perspectives series that weaves together the stories of positive classroom experiences alongside deeply problematic encounters with interpersonal and institutional racism shared by Indigenous and non-Indigenous student participants in the renewed What I Learned in Class Today project. As articulated in this blog post overviewing the project’s history and upcoming resources, events and conversations happening in society directly impact student experiences of course curriculum and campus climate. When student participant Maistoo’awaastaan “Crow Flag” (Rodney Little Mustache), who is a citizen of the Piikani, Niitsitapi First Nation, an undergraduate in the Faculty of Arts, and a member of UBC’s Anti-Racism and Inclusive Excellence Task Force, was asked what the most difficult aspect of teaching Indigenous perspectives in the classroom was, they responded simply that professors “never bring it up.” Maistoo’awaastaan explained that instructors need to do more to facilitate conversations about Indigeneity in their courses so as to resist racist narratives online:

“After that Murdered and Missing Women’s report came out a few weeks ago, I sat there and I really felt empowered, eh, and when I saw, the next day when I turned on twitter, oh my god all those racist remarks, it just shocked me. It really shocked me that … nobody was willing to, uhm, I’m not saying that these professors here are racist but they should be adding to the conversation our history as well. They should put in their… syllabuses, that there will be discussions about it because this is going to further everything along, like that hatred because they’re not addressing it too, and I feel that they should be doing that.”

Maistoo’awaastaan is illustrating how silence speaks to power, and how that power is distributed between students and instructors. They are suggesting that students are affected as much by what professors say as by what they don’t say. When this instructor chose, whether consciously or not, to remain silent on these critical cultural conversations, they lost an opportunity to challenge racist narratives online. Students like Maistoo’awaastaan are advocating for instructors to break out of the old siloing of academia and to instead honour their responsibility as guiding figures in the classroom to integrate Indigenous histories and contemporary realities in a way that goes beyond additive or surface-level approaches. Otis Jasper, a student in the 2007 WILICT project, made a similar call for engagement with Indigenous topics in all stages of one’s institutional experience, particularly in the early years, so that students are equipped with “a general knowledge… [that] allows deeper conversation … so that everything they hear or read in the media, they don’t just take for truth … they can offer critical analysis of that even if it’s just a little trickle of knowledge” (Otis Jasper, 1 March 2007, 4.44-45).

Breaking Institutional Silences By Starting Conversations

Cultivating an awareness of our collective Indigenous-settler histories in the country currently known as Canada is a goal that must be taken up by the entire UBC community, whether they are Indigenous or non-Indigenous, international or domestic students, teachers or learners. As Maistoo’awaastaan explains, “there are a lot of times you guys are learning things here at UBC about Canada, but they’re not telling the full story and that has got to change, they really need to change that.” When Indigenous topics are misrepresented or excluded in a course, all students are affected because they lose the opportunity to learn the whole truth. Moreover, this lack of engagement perpetuates knowledge gaps and institutional silences that further negate Indigenous student realities and reinforce the problematic ‘Indigenous student as expert’ trope.

Yet the impetus for change and the direction for this learning journey cannot come solely from Indigenous students. Maistoo’awaastaan asks listeners to “not just … take [their] word for it but do the research,” utilize the resources at X̱wi7x̱wa Library, “go down there and learn our history, then you’ll understand. And when you find out, when you learn something new about Canada, bring it back to your, your country and start teaching them.” While Maistoo’awaastaan is addressing international students here, the heart of this advice is for everyone to take responsibility for their education by self-motivating, seeking resources, and sharing these lessons with their communities.

What Happens When Knowledge Gaps Are Left Unaddressed?

A central takeaway from Perreault and Tsukada’s article that aligns with the stories shared by WILICT student participants is that when knowledge gaps are left unaddressed, difficult classroom situations are likely to arise. The instructor is responsible for attending to “deeper structural issues of difference, power, and privilege” (6) while staying attuned to the affective tone of a classroom to pick up on often “implicit and unintentional” forms of aggression known as microaggressions (11-12).

Student participants Xanjuu (Chelsea Gladstone) and Denali YoungWolfe experienced this consequence of unaddressed knowledge gaps in classrooms at UBC where they continuously encountered conversations that attempted to address nuanced topics related to Indigeneity but were unable to pass the stage of white guilt. Xanjuu is a member of the Ts’aahl eagle clan of the Haida Nation who graduated in 2019 with a double major in First Nations Indigenous Studies and Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice. Throughout the course of her degree, Xanjuu continually encountered microaggressions in the form of white guilt. Listening to her classmates navigate their privilege and center white experiences without challenge or support from the instructor to return to the material at hand left Xanjuu to declare that:

“For now I feel like the conversations, I’m not very satisfied because I leave classrooms feeling angry a lot of the time and frustrated because there is ignorance. The ignorance doesn’t come from people not wanting to know, it’s just the education system is so far behind, and it’s a lot of responsibility for UBC to kind of, like, make up for that gap, especially for when students are coming from around the world or around Canada from different school districts. So, I would say if Indigenous students, uhm, I know from talking with my friends like if we’re always leaving the classrooms feeling frustrated, not heard or upset about things that we talk about, I don’t think that’s a good thing.”

Xanjuu’s experience touches upon several key themes that will be explored in the Student Perspectives series including the effects of ignorance and knowledge gaps; various forms of silence and the power dynamics they reveal; and the tokenistic tendency to rely upon Indigenous students to do the emotional and intellectual lifting in classroom conversations. Xanjuu explains that this pattern of white guilt left her with a difficult choice: she could remain silent but leave “the classrooms feeling frustrated, not heard” or she could navigate the discomfort of “sharing in a classroom … with predominantly non-Indigenous folk.” Because the classroom space had not been set up to account for the intersectional identities and power relations of the teachers and learners in the room, “the responsibility to share” and move the conversation beyond white guilt was implicitly put upon Xanjuu’s shoulders. In Xanjuu’s words, “obviously hard conversations are not fun but [Indigenous students] shouldn’t feel sad and down every single time.” Indigenous students should not bear the weight of dissatisfaction after seeing their personal well being superseded by the emotional processing of their peers nor should their academic pursuits be stalled by a wall of white guilt.

Shutting Down Problematic Encounters & Calling Students In

Denali YoungWolfe was enrolled in a class similarly caught in a pattern of guilt and shame, yet the proactive response of the Indigenous instructor to shut down and call students into further learning negated some of the lingering emotional ramifications for students in the room. YoungWolfe’s family is Nehiyaw and Saulteaux from Muskowekwan, Saskatchewan, Treaty 4 Territory and they have been raised in accordance with Nehiyaw and Saulteaux law after coming to their family as a child through adoption. After witnessing the vast amount of class time being allocated to non-Indigenous students’ emotionality as they contended with the ongoing traumas of settler colonialism, YoungWolfe remembers that the Indigenous professor:

“kindly but firmly shut it down. Just made it clear that there is no space for this in this class. This is an act of violence against Indigenous students and you need to handle your, your guilt in a different way, not by projecting it and taking over the class and making it about you. Which is what’s happened so often. They just shut that down.”

This instructor recognized the dominating presence of white guilt as a microaggression, as “an act of violence against Indigenous students,” and undermined its power with an act of microresistance. Interrupting the learned behaviour that non-Indigenous students can occupy space in the classroom, at the detriment of their peers and the course objective, was a subtle action with long term impacts. YoungWolfe explains that the students were called out on a behaviour that had never been challenged before, they apologized, and thanked the professor for an opportunity to reflect.

“They experienced an opportunity for growth which is what we want. We want not just Indigenous students to be aware of Indigenous perspectives and realities. We want all UBC students to be aware of that and in that course, it created a beautiful opportunity to expect students to be academics, to engage in scholarly discourse, to reflect, critically think. That’s what education is about.”

Undertones That Inform Student Success: Reflection & Belonging

The undertones that inform student satisfaction and wellbeing begin the moment students step foot, whether literally or virtually, onto unceded xʷməθkʷəy̓əm territory at UBC-Vancouver. Participant interviews show us that classroom experiences impact campus climate and vice versa, and when Indigenous students do not see themselves reflected or accepted upon their arrival at UBC, it can negatively affect their success rates. Ashley Zarbatany is a WILICT participant who attended UBC while raising her child. Zarbatany explains that upon her arrival at UBC:

“I was actually told that I was the last person in my demographic of being a single mother, Indigenous in the undergraduate program at UBC. I was the last one in my demographic. And I think that was supposed to motivate me but it was actually really crushing to hear that.”

Zarbatany explains that this experience was “very isolating” because she was implicitly told that she was not “the conventional UBC student which is typically a white, wealthy person.” Zarbatany’s description of this “tokenizing” experience can be contextualized by an analogy from Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of the pivotal book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race. Tatum notes that if we were to take a selfie with a group of people then look at that photograph afterwards, the first thing we would search for would be ourselves. In an interview by Melinda D. Anderson in The Atlantic, Tatum explains that “if you think about classrooms or workspaces or conferences, wherever we are, we go into these spaces and we look for ourselves. You want to see yourself represented. In that sense, when young people walk into a classroom, they want to see someone who they identify with, maybe because they’re the same race.” Before Zarbatany even reached the classroom, she was told that she didn’t belong; and this encounter set the tone for the remainder of her time at UBC before she was forced by a lack of childcare, housing, tuition, and counselling support to transfer to another university.

A piece of critical advice that stretches across faculty and student interviews is the importance of holding conversations with care both inside and, as Zarbatany’s experience illustrates, outside of the classroom. Students need to see themselves reflected throughout the entirety of their campus experiences; they need to be told that they matter, that they are seen, and that they are carriers of a wealth of knowledge and experiences that are assets to their educational journeys.

Creating Community & Educational Environments Beyond the Classroom

Robbie Knott is a graduate of the UBC School of Community and Regional Planning who, despite encountering challenges within the current colonial education paradigm, was able to find spaces in his department and beyond that supported his own unlearning journey and reflected his identity as Red River Métis. Knott discusses the power of learning traditional ecological knowledge from an Indigenous professor who could speak from a land-based pedagogical approach grounded in lived experience. Having Indigenous folks in positions of power across the university can offer Indigenous students the validating experience of seeing themselves reflected at UBC. Moreover, Knott found community and belonging through education outside of the classroom by interning at xʷc̓ic̓əsəm, the Indigenous Health Research and Education Garden on traditional xʷməθkʷəy̓əm teaching land. It’s a place where:

“you’re learning about the plants, and interactions, issues of Indigenous food sovereignty, food security while you’re in a garden with protocols … and teaching about the land, whose land it is and what that means. It means a lot more when you’re in the garden as opposed to in a classroom and there’s a lot of baggage attached to the … education system right now, especially for Indigenous people.”

We Are All Part of This Conversation

In this moment when racist and assimilationist roots stemming from a colonial education system are gaining awareness in public knowledge, it is past time to listen to the stories of Indigenous students at UBC. From encounters with white guilt, knowledge gaps, and tokenization to powerful meetings with Indigenous instructors and pedagogies, participants in the WILICT project are setting the stage for dialogue between all members of the UBC community. Beverly Tatum explains that she includes the word “conversations” in her book titles “because you can’t move forward without talking to people” and that “talk by itself isn’t sufficient; you want to have those conversations because you want to inspire action” (The Atlantic). Fourteen years after the WILICT conversation about Indigenous student experiences began with the original 2007 project, it’s due time that UBC-Vancouver makes the shift from dialogue to action.


By Keirra Webb. This article series has been made possible through the collective effort, stories, and shared experiences of many including WILICT participants, campus and community partners, and the CTLT, Indigenous Initiatives team.