Indigenous students say the Indigenous representative position on the St. Thomas University Students’ Union is set up in a colonial framework that doesn’t fit with their cultures or values.
The Indigenous representative position will be empty as of May 1, because no one ran for the position in the spring election — but not because of a lack of interest or political engagement.
“All the sudden there was this position and we needed to fill it,” said Shelley Augustine, a fourth-year student from Elispogtog First Nation.
“Our input would have been important because we would have put forth whatever we needed of that position and how we can fill that position in our way, not the colonial way of voting the right person in and running in the election.”
As a group, Indigenous students say they can help each other express ideas and pool their collective knowledge to make sure all voices are heard.
“As Indigenous students, we’re always expected to always have the right things to say, or have all the academic education to be able to express issues like this clearly, when we don’t. I’m still learning every day,” said Kyana Kingbird, a fourth-year student from Esgenoopetitj First Nation.
Creation of position
Philippe Ferland, outgoing STUSU president, created the position last year when he was the vice-president administration, along with three other minority representative positions.
“We felt the current council structure wasn’t good enough for getting those sort of minority voices on the table, so that’s where the idea sort of came from,” Ferland said.
Ferland said he now knows the dialogue between the council and Indigenous students about the idea of the position wasn’t enough consultation.
“There was no, kind of like, more in-depth discussion of what that would look like, whether that would fit Indigenous culture, so that was a mistake on my part because I approached the minority reps in a sort of blanket fashion. Like this is the only way of doing things is to create one rep for these different groups without necessarily understanding the fact that maybe different groups would have to be represented in different ways.”
The first person to hold the position was Keyaira Gruben, who was elected in fall byelection in 2016. Gruben was impeached for not attending the weekly meetings. Ferland said STUSU takes some blame for that, because he feels they do not properly inform candidates on the expectations of positions before they run.
“I know when we advertise for positions to be run we just kinda put the name and we don’t really explain what they all do. And so, elaborating on that or maybe putting a more extensive ad campaign beforehand, just so that there’s more information on what these positions are, what they do, what the responsibilities are before people actually decide on whether they should run or not,” he said.
Gruben said she ran because she saw a flyer on campus and thought it was a good opportunity to share her voice, but the responsibilities of the position were not explained to her.
“I didn’t even know there was a STUSU Facebook group. I was added in late and when I was added in I realized I had missed meetings.”
Gruben found she had missed too many meetings and was being removed.
“I thought if this is going to be that demanding then I don’t want any part of this anyway.”
Gruben graduated from STU in 2017 with her bachelor of arts. She was recently elected as a councillor for Kingsclear First Nation, is pursuing another degree in the Mi’kmaq Wolastoqiyik bachelor of social work and on maternity leave from her position as a resource development consultation coordinator for the provincial government.
The position was not filled in the 2017 spring election, nor in the 2017 fall byelection. Alexa Metallic was appointed to the position for the 2017-18 academic year. No one ran for the position in the 2018 spring election.
A non-competitive community
The elected position may also make Indigenous students feel they have to compete against each other, said Augustine.
“We don’t come from a world of competitiveness between one another,” she said.
“Why try to compete and possibly make bad blood between us if one person really wants it? It’s them stepping up to that task and saying, ‘Yeah I’m going to take on this task.’ It’s knowing that if someone else wanted it I’m always there to help them if they need advice or anything, because that’s really common among Indigenous students is turning to each other if you have advice or some insight that you could provide to someone,” Kingbird said.
When Gruben ran for the position in Sept. 2016 she had heard a friend had wanted to run, and originally went to withdraw her name, only to find her friend had withdrawn his name already.
“I don’t want to compete against somebody that I respect and that I believe also has good ideas. Why couldn’t we both be the rep, why couldn’t we rotate?” Gruben said.
Augustine also pointed out because of the closeness of their community, individuals consider the skills others would bring to the role and benefit they would get from the experience.
Collective dialogue and decision-making is a part of Indigenous cultures Indigenous students say they feel is more inclusive.
“As a collective we’re more able to come up with ideas or come across concepts. Where I might be floundering on how to explain myself or express myself someone else could pick it up easily and bounce ideas off of each other. I feel more comfortable where I’m in a collective where everyone is able to talk together, as opposed to just me by myself trying to speak on a subject that affects everybody,” Kingbird said.
Individual instead of inclusive
Another concern students have with the position is it is too individualistic.
In his discussions with current Indigenous representative Alexa Metallic, Ferland said, “her biggest concern was the fact that one Indigenous student isn’t the expert on all things Indigenous, and that was something she felt the position itself tries to imply by being the only position or the only individual who can take up that position.”
Kingbird said one idea on how to make Indigenous representation on STUSU more inclusive to Indigenous culture is to have a council that meets to discuss ideas and have a rotation of council members who attend the weekly STUSU meetings.
Kingbird said this would also make the position of representative more attractive to Indigenous students because it would reduce the work placed on each individual.
“Indigenous students, a lot of them come from places of poverty where you have to work or you have to do other things [while going to school]. A lot of women I know that go to campus here do have kids as well, so just taking any extra work is always kind of daunting,” Kingbird said.
A framework based on a council rather than an individual would alleviate concerns some students may have about the workload or their availability to attend meetings by sharing the work and at the same time including all perspectives.
Gruben agreed, adding that different voices are valid and important.
“If more than one person wanted to show up … I think that should be validated because the diversity amongst First Nations students themselves and our lived experiences are also something that should be taken into consideration … it takes away from the uniqueness of everybody backgrounds.”
Sticking to tradition
Augustine said the way the position currently exists, Indigenous students feel they are forced to conform to colonial ideas of representation they may not agree with.
“We don’t really want to adapt to that idea. We want to stick to our own traditions and how we do things.”
She said this builds a wall between the two groups and creates resistance.
“We understand that, yeah, thank you for creating the position for an Aboriginal representative but we need to do it our way, not the colonialized way,” Augustine said.
“We are willing to accommodate the new position that we need to fill, but we need to accommodate according to us.”
Gruben said discussions like this are maybe what was needed to shed light on the colonial structure of STUSU.
“We need to do better to really continue the dialogue other than when there’s just an event going on,” she said.
“There needs to be real respect of our traditional nationhood and our traditional ways of doing things, because if that’s not there then this whole talk of reconciliation, it’s not real.”
The future of Indigenous representation on STUSU
There hasn’t been any official discussion of changes to be made to Indigenous representation on the students’ union.
Incoming president Brianna Workman said she would like to see how to make STUSU more accessible to Indigenous students.
“I think the first step for me in my new role will be taking time to connect with as many people in the Indigenous community as I can, listen to what they think would be the best way to more forward and then for me and my team to provide whatever support we can to Indigenous students, in order to make necessary improvements,” Workman said.
“It will be essential for us to consult and work with Indigenous students once they’re back on campus in September, about the Indigenous representative position on the SRC, in order to gauge interest and provide support to anyone who may be interested in taking on the role.”
Kingbird said she’s hopeful for the future of representation on the Union, as she feels there has been more communication this year.
“It definitely probably would have been a lot smoother in transitioning Indigenous student leadership in if there was more Indigenous consultation right from the get go, as opposed to assuming that you know what’s best for another group of people,” she said.
“It makes sense if right from the bat it’s not completely perfect. There’s always room to improve and the fact that people are taking the opportunity to try to improve how it’s run [is encouraging].”