Manitoba

U of M Indigenous leader resigns, says administration frustrated anti-racism efforts

The vice-provost of Indigenous engagement at the University of Manitoba has resigned, after she says her efforts to fight systemic racism at the school were met with frequent resistance from administration.

Lynn Lavallée became school's 1st vice-provost of Indigenous engagement in September 2017

Lynn Lavallee resigned her position as vice-provost of Indigenous engagement at the University of Manitoba on Thursday. (Warren Kay/CBC)

The vice-provost of Indigenous engagement at the University of Manitoba has resigned, after she says her efforts to fight systemic racism at the school were met with frequent resistance from administration.

Lynn Lavallé​e resigned from her position at the university on Thursday.

She was the first person to fill the role after it was created in 2017. But instead of being able to develop new initiatives, she said she found herself repeatedly forced to justify to senior administration why Indigenous initiatives are important.

"I shouldn't have to provide a rationale as to why this is important. We should be saying, 'How are we going to do this?'" Lavallé​e said Thursday.

"Because I had done this for decades already, coming to the U of M in the senior leadership role, I wanted to hit the ground running."

Lavallé​e, who is Anishinaabe-Metis, said her vision for the role didn't align with the school's and she started to feel ineffective throughout the year. She said she hopes her resignation will ultimately result in more resources being provided for others within the university, including Indigenous students, working to similar goals.

"It really comes down to a sole person sitting at the senior administrative table, trying to cover everything Indigenous at the institution, which is a bit problematic," she said.

"Prior to my arrival, I was told that there were a lot of things happening at the U of M, because there were collectives of Indigenous faculty, Indigenous students communicating directly with the president, and things were happening that way. And putting in a sole position almost creates a funnel."

University of Manitoba Provost and Vice-President-Academic Janice Ristock said Indigenous achievement is a priority for the school and a cornerstone of its vision. (CBC)

The University of Manitoba declined CBC's request for an interview with President David Barnard, but sent an emailed statement from provost and vice-president (academic) Janice Ristock honouring Lavallé​e's contributions.

"I respect Dr. Lavallé​e's opinions. She is deeply committed to Indigenous achievement and to bringing about the changes needed to facilitate the success of the Indigenous community of students, staff and faculty at the University of Manitoba. We benefit from listening carefully to her voice and her perspective," Ristock said.

In the statement, Ristock said Indigenous achievement is a priority for the school and a cornerstone of its vision.

"Fulfilling the strategic plan commitments can be challenging. Just as implementing the action items outlined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will not always be easy for this nation," she wrote.

"But resolving to persist in this pursuit is critically important, and at the University of Manitoba remains firm in its commitment to bring about transformations at the institutional level that will facilitate Indigenous achievement."

Lavallé​e will now take on a faculty position at Ryerson University in Toronto.

U of M 'no different than any other' university: Lavallé​e

Lavallé​e, who started in the role in September 2017, is one of a handful of Indigenous leaders at universities across the country who left their positions this year.

In April, elder Marilyn Buffalo was dismissed one month before a two-year contract extension with the University of Alberta was set to take effect. Buffalo, who helped lay the groundwork for the university's faculty of Native studies in the late 1970s, was hired on a temporary contract as a senior adviser on Indigenous initiatives in the office of the provost in 2016.

In the same month, Angelique EagleWoman resigned from her position as dean of the law school at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., citing systemic racism and discrimination at the school.

EagleWoman had been celebrated across the country when she was hired in 2016 as the first female Indigenous law school dean in Canada.

Angelique EagleWoman addresses a press conference in Fort William First Nation in April where Indigenous leaders called for change at Lakehead University. (Christina Jung / CBC)

In June, Sandra Muse Isaacs resigned her position as a professor at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, citing the school's failure to make progress against the legacy of colonialism.

Lavallé​e said she thinks the wave of departures is because Indigenous leaders come in hopeful and then find themselves forced to explain why the efforts are needed.

"I think the resignations across Canada are a catalyst and I hope that's how people take it," she said. "I am not doing this to be malicious. I think that University of Manitoba is no different than any other post-secondary institute in Canada. Racism exists everywhere."

'Multi-pronged approach'

Lavallé​e said she left a list of recommendations for the school. She hopes to see a focus on anti-Indigenous racism within the school and adding multiple Indigenous-specific seats to key areas of governance including the board of governors and the university's senate.

"We need staffing, we need people who understand human rights," she said.

"With respect to the anti-Indigenous racism on an individual basis, we need to have more supports."

She said as it stands, the responsibility of reconciliation in universities is falling solely on the shoulders of Indigenous people within them.

"We're at a point where we don't have enough Indigenous people in the academy," she said. "And we're tired of educating people."

Lynn Lavallee, the university's vice-provost of Indigenous engagement has resigned, saying senior administration did not support her plans to combat racism on campus. 5:35

With files from Aviva Jacob, Marcy Markusa and Aidan Geary