A student in the Mi’kmaq/Maliseet Bachelor of Social Work program is taking a stand against St. Thomas University’s policy on babies in the classroom.
Keyaira Gruben of Kingsclear First Nation is a single mom to her one-year-old daughter, Cedar. Gruben, who is in her second year of the two-year MMBSW program, has filed a human rights complaint against the university after she received a letter stating she could no longer bring Cedar to class.
“I was just appalled that they’re making me … choose motherhood or education, when the program was sold to me as I could do both,” Gruben said.
The director of the social work department, Marilyn Dupre, sent the letter to Gruben on Nov. 2 on behalf of the MMBSW steering committee, threatening to expel her from the program if she continued to bring Cedar to class.
Gruben said she was shocked when she received the letter.
“I was pissed, actually. I was like, ‘Wow, this has gone too far,'” Gruben said.
“Non-Native mainstream society might view babies as problems or as distractions or as they don’t belong in academia. That’s their way. That’s not our way.”
Students in the MMBSW program are in class for one week each month from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from September to June.
“I chose not to do the mainstream program because I was like, ‘I can’t raise a baby and go to school nine to five.’ This program is a week long per month, so I’m only there five days a month,” Gruben said.
Gruben is one of three mothers in the class. She said she enrolled in the MMBSW program because the description of the course said it “provides First Nation individuals with an opportunity to receive social work education within a flexible and culturally relevant framework.”
But Gruben said the program is not following through on that commitment.
“To me, this program is the embodiment of tokenism. It’s kind of using our cultures and identities as a way to lure in Indigenous students and they claim, ‘We honour you and we honour your ways of being,’ and then they do the exact opposite,” she said.
“I think there’s a lot of skepticism, [a lot of], ‘Well, babies don’t belong in classrooms.’ That’s where our worldviews differ because women and babies are the heart of our epistemologies.”
In January, the steering committee for the MMBSW program received complaints from students and instructors saying the babies in the classroom were distracting.
Because of the complaints, the university established a policy to accommodate mothers in the MMBSW program.
The Mi’kmaq Wolastoqey BSW Child/Baby Policy reads, “A student parent of a nursing infant may bring in their child to nurse provided the infant does not distract course instruction or other students in the classroom; and the student has a family member/sitter to care for the child outside of the classroom once the feeding is complete.”
Jeffrey Carleton, associate vice-president communications at STU, said the program has “always supported and accommodated nursing mothers.”
He said the policy they made is consistent with similar policies at other universities in Canada.
“We’re confident that this [policy] meets the standard for the duty to accommodate,” he said.
Carleton said the university is following Section 3 of the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission’s Guideline on Family Status which reads, “A person is only entitled to a reasonable accommodation, not a perfect one.”
“We did diligently check on our position with legal council and also with the Human Rights Commission [before the policies were put in place],” Carleton said.
Gruben said she would like to see the university rescind the Mi’kmaq Wolastoqey BSW Child/Baby Policy and offer a public apology.
“There’s no conflict resolution happening in class. It’s sort of like walking on eggshells in there. I’m coming to school and I have anxiety and I’m stressed out.”
She also said society needs to analyze its opinions on babies in academia.
“Those beliefs are so tainted in patriarchy and that really needs to be addressed as well. This isn’t just a Native issue … it’s a women’s rights issue. It’s a clear human rights violation.”