'Ask me anything Indigenous,' Winnipeg teacher urges students after Cormier, Stanley verdicts

With not-guilty verdicts in two high-profile murder cases raising uncomfortable questions about how Indigenous people are treated by Canadian society, one Winnipeg high school teacher is tackling stereotypes and misinformation directly, telling students to "Ask me anything Indigenous."

U of Winnipeg Collegiate teacher tackles stereotypes and misinformation after verdicts in high-profile trials

University of Winnipeg Collegiate teacher Christine M'Lot got the idea for 'ask me anything Indigenous' from a cousin who invited questions in her university class, and from a junior high health teacher who took on a similar initiative. She says it's generating a lot of good discussion. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

The recent not-guilty verdicts in two high-profile murder cases are hot topics in classrooms across the country right now, raising uncomfortable questions about how Indigenous people are treated in Canadian society.

One high school teacher at the University of Winnipeg Collegiate is tackling stereotypes and misinformation directly, telling her high school students to "ask me anything Indigenous."

"I think these conversations are happening anyways, whether it's out in the community or online," said teacher Christine M'Lot after one of her recent Grade 12 English classes.

"So I think it's important for them also to happen in the classroom so we can discuss it in a safe place," M'Lot said.

The students have questions after Raymond Cormier was found not guilty of second-degree murder in the death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, whose body was pulled from the Red River in Winnipeg in 2014, and the not-guilty verdict for Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley, who was charged with second-degree murder in the 2016 shooting death of Indigenous man Colten Boushie.

Both verdicts have sparked calls for justice reform and discussions around racism in Canada.

At the beginning of the class, M'Lot handed out blank pieces of paper and asked her students to write questions on them.

"These are questions you might not ever want to ask out loud. Maybe you think it sounds racist. Go ahead and ask it, it's fine," she said before answering some of the questions she received in previous classes.

"OK — this was one of the questions. 'Does racism against white people exist?'"
Teacher Christine M'Lot canvassed colleagues and friends for answers to questions like 'Does racism against white people exist?' (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

M'Lot explained that, although she's Indigenous, she doesn't have the answer to every question. For this one, she canvassed other teachers and her Facebook friends.

One response she got was that "racism against anyone can exist when we live in a society with power imbalance and inequalities based on supremacist politics of one group of people over another group of people."

There was also an answer from Alex Wilson, academic director of the Aboriginal Education Research Centre at the University of Saskatchewan.

"She wanted me to give you the formula for racism," M'Lot told her students.

"Racism is power and privilege. She says racism against white people doesn't exist but individual acts of discrimination against individuals could  happen. So of course anybody can say something racism to another person and it's still racist, but racism on a large scale has to do with power and it's ingrained into society and privilege."

One of the questions M'Lot answered was written by Dawson Adair.
'Why do people get away with murdering Indigenous people?' Grade 12 student Dawson Adair asked. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

"Why do people get away with murdering Indigenous people?" he wanted to know.

"There are so many Indigenous people just getting murdered and nothing is getting done about it. They just push it to the side. People are getting let off and I don't understand why."

Adair later explained his question was triggered by the trials of Stanley and Cormier.

There were vast differences in the cases and evidence presented, but they raised questions about how Indigenous people are treated by the justice system.

"How many people have heard of Tina Fontaine? How many have heard of Colten Boushie?" M'Lot asked her class.

All of the students said they had.

"These are topics that have been in the media lately and it kind of breaks my heart that someone asks this," she said.

"Dr. Moneca St. Clair said it has to do with our justice system and that it's written from a male Euro patriarchy system to defend privilege."

That led to a discussion in M'Lot's class about how Indigenous people are portrayed in the media.

M'Lot brought up a headline written during Raymond Cormier's trial that read "Tina Fontaine had drugs, alcohol in system when she was killed: toxicologist."

Student Joshua Barthelett wasn't impressed.

"It was blaming the victim and I don't get it. I don't know why we would do that," he said.

"There's so much different headlines you could've had and different ways you could've said it. It made it look like a young girl, Tina — you forget she was so young, [a] small girl — is being looked at like an alcoholic or on drugs and she's getting, 'It's your fault for putting yourself in that situation.'"

Joshua Barthelett asked a question about how Indigenous people are portrayed in the news media and Hollywood. He was outraged over coverage of the Raymond Cormier trial that he said victim-blamed Tina Fontaine for her death. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

All undergraduate students at the University of Winnipeg have to take one Indigenous studies course before they graduate.

Barthelett thinks a course like that should be mandatory at high school, too.

"Some people don't go to university until you're 19, 20. Sometimes you've already grown into the person you're going to be at that point and you're already stuck on that thing. Maybe you won't be able to comprehend this stuff or even want to comprehend it," he said.

"But if you're even from the age of 10 to 18, when your mind is still developing, when you're starting to understand and have ideas of your own, I think that's the best time to inform people."

Winnipeg teacher Christine M'Lot is tackling stereotypes and misinformation directly, telling her high school students to "ask me anything Indigenous." She says there has to be a safe place for students to ask uncomfortable questions. 2:19

About the Author

Karen Pauls

National Reporter

Karen Pauls is an award-winning journalist who has been a national news reporter in Manitoba since 2004. She has travelled across Canada and around the world to do stories for CBC, including the 2011 Royal Wedding in London. Karen has worked in Washington and was the correspondent in Berlin, Germany, for three months in 2013, covering the selection of Pope Francis in Rome. Twitter @karenpaulscbc