Growing up in Northern Ontario as a member of the Teme-Augama Anishnabai, Sheila Cote-Meek is no stranger to the impact of Canada’s colonial history.
So when she set out to study colonized classrooms for her PhD dissertation — published as a book in 2014 — she had a good idea of the kind of stories she would hear from university students and professors.
Still, even she was taken aback: “I was shocked and saddened that in this day and age, students still have to deal with racism in overt and covert ways,” she recalls.
Today, as Associate Vice President, Academic & Indigenous Programs at Laurentian University, Cote-Meek is in a position to get the word out, and to do something about it.
Her book, Colonized Classrooms, is based on in-depth interviews with nine students and eight professors from universities across Canada. In it, she shows how colonization and related violence are not a distant experience. The stories she collected highlight how students and professors are still experiencing colonial violence on a daily basis.
“I name it as colonial violence, but people might better associate it with racism,” says Cote-Meek.
For example, many students reported comments from fellow students suggesting they didn’t deserve to be in an academic setting because they were there as a result of a special program. In fact, most of the students she interviewed got into university on their own merits.
Many students reported classmates rolling their eyes or even giggling when they challenged ideas under discussion in the classroom. Often, professors let it ride, says Cote-Meek.
On the flip side, students and professors alike were often called upon to be experts on all things Indigenous, even though Indigenous communities are not homogenous.
“This becomes another form of racism,” says Cote-Meek. “If you are from Ontario and get asked about West Coast experiences, you can’t answer. But then you are viewed as a fraud because you can’t even answer questions about being Indigenous.”
As Cote-Meek points out, such modern racism is overlayed on traumatic historic experiences — such as residential schools — that continue to affect descendants. This means today’s students and professors are dealing with the effects of both past and present racism.
In her book, and in her job as a university administrator, Cote-Meek offers solutions. That includes urging professors to pay attention not just to the content of their lectures, but to the words they use and the emotional impact those words have.
She suggests occasionally swapping lectures for circles, where everyone’s view is heard respectfully, and bringing in Indigenous professors to teach specific sections. Hiring more Indigenous professors, especially outside of traditional Indigenous studies, is also crucial, says Cote-Meek.
“At Laurentian, we have had 11 new hires in the last two to four years, in a variety of disciplines,” she says. “We have made a big change and I’m seeing other Ontario universities making moves too.”
**On February 2, 2016, the Council of Ontario Universities proudly launched the Let’s Take Our Future Further campaign highlighting Aboriginal learners’ achievements at Ontario universities and their contributions to Ontario’s social, cultural, and economic fabric. As part of the launch of the Future Further website, Research Matters is proud to feature five influential Aboriginal researchers from Ontario universities.