Despite the Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqey flags flying at the foot of the campus, St. Thomas University (STU) has a decade-long track record of keeping its Native Studies Department underfunded and interfering with Indigenous students’ ability to organize.
Besides displaying the flags of the Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqey peoples, last year STU hosted its “Conference on Reconciliation” and opened a lounge for native students. The Wabanaki Student Centre opened in 2012 and serves as a place for native students where the elder-in-residence is regularly present for counselling purposes.
None of these gestures however, were called for by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action. Canadian post-secondary institutions are mentioned twice in the Calls to Action: in #16, they are called upon to “create university and college degree and diploma programs in Aboriginal languages.”, and #86 calls upon “Canadian journalism programs and media schools to require education for all students on the history of Aboriginal peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal-Crown relations.”
STU does have a Wolastoqey language program on the St. Mary’s First Nation, but it has only two part-time instructors. STU may argue this is because of the difficulty of finding Indigenous professors of the Wolastoqey language, considering both how few people are left that speak the language, and the systemic barriers that prevent native people from becoming professors. Both these issues, however, along with TRC #86, can be addressed by increasing funding for STU’s Native Studies department.
Founded in the early 1980s, it almost immediately started to offer students a Major in the subject; today it is the only native studies department of any university in the Maritimes that does this.
In his external review of the department in 1992, Fred Wien from Dalhousie University stated, “Native Studies is part of what makes St. Thomas University unique among the post-secondary institutions in New Brunswick.” He recommended that STU steadily increase the native studies endowment fund from where it was at the time ($1.5 million) to $2 million.
Today, the native studies endowment fund (the money allocated to a given department by their university) is back at $1.5 million, even though Wein’s recommended level is $3 million today, accounting for inflation.
According to Robin Vose, president of the STU faculty union, FAUST, STU’s contract with them clearly states that there must be two full-time permanent faculty members in the Native Studies department in addition to the current chair. Right now, there is only one full-time professor in the Native Studies department and one part-time faculty member for whom having an overload of courses has become common-place to keep up with student demand.
Even the Wabanaki Student Centre, a seemingly innocent contribution on STU’s part, was created as a more marketable alternative to what used to be known as the Native Student Lounge. This lounge had many similar features to the Wabanaki Student Centre, the difference being that it was used for all the meetings for the Native Student Council.
The Native Student Council was a group of students dedicated to helping native students with any problems they were having with communication between the university and their band council about funding. The Council also worked closely with the Native Studies profs to select and promote guest speakers. Their president represented native students on the student representative council, and their last president Shaunessy McKay was even working with a local non-profit organization to find a way to provide free childcare for students who needed it.
The expectation was that the Native Student Council would just continue to meet in the Wabanaki Student Centre. McKay and the rest of the Council however were extremely uncomfortable with sharing their meeting space with an elder-in-residence, as they were already having problems with STU faculty sitting in on and dictating their meetings. When asked about concerns with the Wabanaki Student Centre, McKay said: “I think our primary concern even before the Wabanaki Center was to be able to meet unsupervised. We had already had issues with a member of staff inviting himself to meetings and taking over. We were ignored when we took these complaints to his supervisor, and we worried that it would get worse with the Wabanaki Centre. We felt that it was giving him, and potentially other members of staff, permission to take control entirely.”
While simply ignoring opposition, the university got rid of the Native Student Lounge to create the more marketable Wabanaki Centre. Without their lounge, the Native Student Council met less and less often until they stopped meeting all together in 2012.
When taking down the Native Student Lounge, the STU administration appropriated multiple pieces of student property that were donated specifically for use in the Native Student Lounge, including a computer, a bookshelf and multiple books, artwork, and posters. STU ignored McKay’s objections. According to McKay, “We pushed for information about what happened to the things we had in the lounge, all of which were donated by students, and got no resolution, and eventually everyone graduated and moved on. One of the difficulties in fighting with an institution like this is that the administration has time to stall, since students are only around for a limited time.”
The obvious conclusion to make here is that STU’s proclaimed commitment to indigenization should be taken with a massive grain of salt. STU’s recent history with its native students and faculty should be taken as a wake-up call to students.
Naomi Gullison is a Native Studies student at St. Thomas University.