Elder's dismissal by University of Alberta a setback for reconciliation, says Treaty 6 Grand Chief

Elder Marilyn Buffalo, a senior adviser on Indigenous initiatives in the U of A's Office of the Provost, was let go six days before her contract expired in late February, less than a month after being offered a two-year extension.

Elder Marilyn Buffalo was offered a 2-year contract and then dismissed a month later

Marilyn Buffalo (centre) was honoured in 2015 with a blanket by the University of Alberta during a ceremony acknowledging her role in establishing Aboriginal Student Services and laying the groundwork for the Faculty of Native Studies. (submitted by Marilyn Buffalo)

A former commissioner with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission says the University of Alberta took a step backwards on the road to reconciliation when it suddenly dismissed a prominent Elder.

Wilton Littlechild, who is now Grand Chief of Treaty 6, said he was "very concerned" with how the university treated Elder Marilyn Buffalo, 68, who was let go six days before her contract expired in late February, less than a month after being offered a two-year extension.

Buffalo helped lay the groundwork for the university's Faculty of Native Studies in the late 1970s.

"It really sets us back in terms of advancing reconciliation through the highest level of the University of Alberta," said Littlechild.

"It flies really against the reconciliation process in any post-secondary institution, not just the University of Alberta."

Littlechild himself is among the school's alumni. He said the university, which sits in Treaty 6 territory, should hire Buffalo back.

"I was very concerned with what I heard from her in terms of a sudden dismissal," said Littlechild.

"She brings a lot of positives to the institution."

Buffalo, who has worked in and around First Nations politics, education and movements for 50 years, was initially hired by the university in December 2016 on a temporary contract as a senior adviser on Indigenous initiatives in the Office of the Provost.

Treaty 6 Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild, pictured here during his time as one of the three members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, says he is concerned over the way the University of Alberta treated Elder Marilyn Buffalo. (Canadian Press)

Buffalo is a residential school survivor quoted in the TRC's final report, and a former president of the Native Women's Association of Canada. 

She was also one of the signatories to a memorandum of understanding signed last June between the university and the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. The national centre was created as a repository for residential school historical documents.

On Jan. 29, Buffalo was offered a two-year contract to continue her work as a senior advisor when her original contract expired at the end of February. She then was suddenly let go on Feb. 22, according to letters provided to CBC News.

'It hit me pretty hard'

Buffalo said she was abruptly dismissed after a short meeting with deputy provost Wendy Rogers.

"I had one question. I said, 'well is this how you treat your elders in Treaty 6?'" said Buffalo.

She was then forced to immediately vacate her office and said she didn't have time to gather all her items, including tobacco, which she left behind.

Her dismissal came at a time when the Indigenous community was dealing with the fallout from the Gerald Stanley verdict in Saskatchewan. Stanley was found not guilty in the shooting death of Colten Boushie, who was from the Red Pheasant First Nation.

"So it hit me pretty hard, I am not going to lie about it," said Buffalo.

Buffalo said her experience revealed the "hypocrisy" of the university's commitment to reconciliation and that the senior levels of the university did not value her experience and Indigenous perspective.

"It is no longer acceptable to be treating me and my people as second class," she said.

University wanted 'different leadership approach'

The TRC, which was created by the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, delved into the history of residential schools and released a report that included 94 calls to action as guideposts for the country to achieve reconciliation. The TRC called on post-secondary institutions to take a leadership role in implementing the calls to action.

University of Alberta deputy provost Wendy Rogers wrote a letter to Marilyn Buffalo that ended her contract. (University of Alberta website)

The Feb. 22 termination letter written by Rogers and given to Buffalo said it had become "clear a different leadership approach" would "be necessary to move forward the University of Alberta's reconciliation efforts."

Less than a month earlier, Kathleen Brough, the university's senior administrative officer, wrote to Buffalo saying she had a "remarkable career" and "compelling past experience" in a letter offering her the two-year contract.

"We are lucky to have you and the important and impressive traditional knowledge and historical perspective that you have," wrote Brough, in the Jan. 29 letter.

During her time with the university Buffalo said she advised on the creation of an Indigenous house of learning, developed ties between the university and First Nations, advised on the creation of an Indigenous recruitment office and recommended the creation of a council of Indigenous Elders drawn from the ranks of the university's alumni.

"I have a proven track record of integrity. I am honest and my people trust me," said Buffalo.

"I want to go back to work. I am willing to forget this happened."

Reconciliation work moving ahead, says university

After Buffalo's departure, the university began reworking plans on responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action.

The university referred questions on the issue to Chris Andersen, dean of the Faculty of Native Studies. Andersen said he couldn't comment on the specifics of Buffalo's case because it was a human resources issue.

Chris Andersen, dean of the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, says the university is doing good work on responding to the TRC's calls to action. (University of Alberta)

"Marilyn is absolutely amazing and it's surprising to me that she hasn't received an Order of Canada," he said.

Andersen said the university's reconciliation work had faced no setbacks but was actually steaming ahead. He said the institution had spent $12 million on Indigenous initiatives.

Andersen said he was working with Shana Dion, assistant dean for First Nations, Métis and Inuit students, to create a new position for vice-provost of Indigenous initiatives. He said they are also developing the creation of a council of elders for the university drawn from the alumni — an idea that originated with Buffalo.

"I doubt there are too many universities in the history of Canada that have done more than we have done to respond to the TRC in the last couple of years," he said.

"We want to build something that impacts not just us but seven generations going forward."

About the Author

Jorge Barrera

Reporter

Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He is currently working for the CBC Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa.