Perpetuating stereotypes: Nursing student calls out racism in academia

Danielle Bourque, an Indigenous student originally from Beaver Lake Cree Nation, Alta., is now completing a masters degree in nursing at McMaster University. She said throughout her years as a student, she's often been singled out for her First Nation identity, with experiences ranging from overt to subtle racism all within an academic setting.
Danielle Bourque, an Indigenous student now completing a masters degree in nursing at McMaster University, says she’s often been singled out for her Indigenous identity in the classroom. (Provided by Danilelle Bourque)
Listen8:35

Originally published February 25, 2018.

Danielle Bourque, an Indigenous student originally from Beaver Lake Cree Nation, Alta., is now completing a masters degree in nursing at McMaster University. She said throughout her years as a student, she's often been singled out for her First Nation identity, with experiences ranging from overt to subtle racism all within an academic setting.

"I always self-identify and am very proud of my heritage and my Indigeneity," said Bourque. 

"There's been some very many positive experiences and then also many challenges … I think that added pressure on top of it is being Indigenous in academia and being put in situations and having to go through these experiences of subtle racism, institutionalized racism, and having to essentially call it out."

Bourque recalled one incident that happened in her first year in an undergraduate nursing class. For an assignment, she and her classmates were required to pick a topic, at random, out of a hat. One of the available topics was Indigenous health.
Danielle Bourque is pursuing her masters in nursing at McMaster University. (Provided by Danielle Bourque)

"I just went up to the instructor and I said, 'You know, I think it would be very beneficial for the class if I was able to present on that due to my background,'" said Bourque.

"My instructor responded and basically, in summary, said it would be unfair and inappropriate if I presented that to the rest of the class, if I just got to choose what I got to present on."

Bourque didn't argue, but the next week when it came time to present, "We were met with students that had made headdresses out of pipe cleaners and feathers and wore them during the presentation," she said.

When it came time for questions at the end of the presentation, Bourque voiced her criticisms to the class.

"I think it's very culturally inappropriate, what the headdresses mean and what you're wearing them for and it doesn't represent Indigenous health," she said.

Bourque said it was her instructor's reaction that struck her the most.

"The instructor had stepped in and said that I was actually being inappropriate and asked me to leave — and actually commended the students for their creativity," she said.

The experience made her feel discouraged for speaking up, even questioning the validity of her concerns, but it was not an isolated example.

On a community placement for her undergraduate nursing program, Bourque was with an instructor who was studying Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

"She approached me and she asked me, 'Is there anyone in your family that has FASD?'" said Bourque.

When Bourque shares this story with non-Indigenous people, often she has to explain the weight of this instructor's question.

"The fact that she is perpetuating that stereotype because she heard I was Indigenous and the first thing she associated was that because I'm Indigenous, I must have someone in my family that has FASD because alcoholism is so rampant," said Bourque.

"I think a lot of people don't believe this is actually happening and they try to minimize these experiences and say, you know it's a … one-off experience."

After finishing her undergraduate degree and beginning her masters several provinces from home, Bourque said she finds support in other Indigenous students.

"Having mentorship in nursing or academia is really important, to reach out to your peers, especially Indigenous peers and if your university had elders or an Indigenous student centre to be a part of that because that community can really support you," she said.