'We shouldn't be forced to move to certain areas of the classroom': U of M Indigenous students

Indigenous students at the University of Manitoba say they were feeling racial tension on campus long before the messages of hate were posted on campus last week.

'It's okay to be white' posters are only the latest examples of racism on Manitoba campuses

Jack Theis, a student from Dallas, Texas, says racism existed at the University of Manitoba long before posters that said "It's okay to be white" were put up on campus. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

An Indigenous student from Texas says he never thought he'd experience racism on his first day of class at the University of Manitoba.

Jack Theis, a 26-year-old transfer student from Dallas, came to Winnipeg in 2017 to take a Native studies course.

"It was maybe my third day in Canada and I thought, 'Oh it will be a few weeks before I start to hear racist stuff in Canada.' Well no, it was the first day," Theis said.

"My first day of class all these white kids around me were cussing and complaining that they had to take this Native studies course, and I called them out later in the class, and the professor, who was Indigenous, educated them and that was definitely great, but it's just these kids shouldn't be saying this."

Theis, who is Anishinaabe and Métis, didn't say what the comments were, but he said the students who made the remarks knew he was Indigenous. 

"I was like I'm not dealing with this anymore, like they saw my ponytail, like they knew who I was, and they didn't care," he said.

Theis said after that day he started sitting with other Indigenous students at the front of the classroom so he could focus on the lectures.

"We shouldn't be forced to move to certain areas of the classroom because we're so uncomfortable that we can't focus on what the professor is saying. It's not right." 

But he said he's experienced many other racists attacks on campus.

"Stuff happens like that every day. I can't keep track of it anymore." 

Theis is one of many Indigenous students at the University of Manitoba who are feeling uneasy after messages that said "It's okay to be white" were posted around campus last week.

The University of Manitoba has said the president condemns the posters and the university security service is investigating. The posters also were reported to Winnipeg police and police have said they're looking into it.

"The focus is always on ensuring safety and a respectful environment rather than engaging directly with provocations," the university said in a statement earlier this week.

Faxes with the same phrase were sent to offices around the campus, including the women's and gender studies program.

The same messages were found posted in many cities across Canada. University of Manitoba president David Barnard said the posters are part of "a co-ordinated international effort by neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups."

The posters also appeared on North American campuses in November 2017, including the University of Regina, Washington State University, the University of California in Berkeley and Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn.

"It just goes to show that racism isn't only something that elders are upholding. It's the younger generation as well, and we have to be vigilant of that," Theis said. 

'Hard to get to class'

Shayla Seymour-Hourie said being an Indigenous student can be lonely.

"I feel deeply when things happen to any one of us, whether it's racism in class or, you know, like feeling excluded on campus," Seymour-Hourie said.

"Sometimes it's just hard to get to class when you know it's going to be a discussion about who you are, like you're not even there. That's tough."

The 24-year-old mother from Kenora, Ont., is in her second year of studies and hopes to get into the Asper School of Business. She's also part of the University of Manitoba Indigenous Students' Association.

"As an Indigenous person, you need to make your own community here. You need to find your own sense of belonging because ... you know this wasn't an institution meant for us. We weren't meant to be here," she said.

Students dealing with racism on campus

5 years ago
Duration 2:41
Some Indigenous students at the University of Manitoba say posters put up on campus saying "It's okay to be white," are wake up calls to the racism and discrimination they experience every day.

"All these photos along the UMSU wall, that's the student union, and you know, right up to the 1970s, you don't see any people of colour in the photos."

Chance Paupanakis, national executive representative of Circle of First Nation Mé​tis and Inuit Students with the Canadian Federation of Students, said the "It's okay to be white" messages have prompted meetings with other student groups at the University of Winnipeg to talk about how to handle the issue.

"My fear is that this will turn into something much more violent," Paupanakis said. 

This isn't the first time university students in Manitoba have dealt with racist messages on campus. In December of 2016, stickers and posters promoting white supremacy started appearing at Brandon University. 

"I think that this was an intimidation tactic and it's working to a certain level, but it's also resulted in an even bigger push-back," he said.

I have students coming to me saying, 'I don't feel safe,' and they feel like their existence is being questioned- Chance Paupanakis

Paupanakis, who is also the former co-president of the University of Manitoba Indigenous Students' Association, said the tension on campus was felt long before the posters went up last week.

"I've been dealing with this for three or four years," he said.

"I have students coming to me saying, 'I don't feel safe,' and they feel like their existence is being questioned."

Seymour-Hourie said being an Indigenous woman is hard enough in Winnipeg, but seeing the posters on campus has made her feel more unsafe.

"I never feel safe, but that's because of the bigger issues in Canada, you know, with the missing and murdered Indigenous women, and the fact that I'm raising a daughter and I see the statistics," she said.

"It's hard, but I'm here, and at the end of the day, I'm here to make my daughter's life better." 


Nelly Gonzalez is an award winning reporter/editor at CBC Manitoba based in Winnipeg. She's been working with CBC since 2011 and has 14 years reporting experience in Winnipeg. She began working at CBC as a videographer covering stories in Brandon before relocating to Winnipeg in 2012.