Mary Jane McCallum – Letter to Premier Brian Pallister and MLAs

Dear Hon. Brian Pallister,

I’m writing as a citizen of Manitoba who is very concerned about the way the Progressive Conservative government is treating universities.  The Province of Manitoba’s Path To Reconciliation Act defines reconciliation as an “ongoing process of establishing and maintaining mutually respectful relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in order to build trust, affirm historical agreements, address healing and create a more equitable and inclusive society.”  Our universities play an important role in this process, and have committed to reconciliation in a variety of ways including bringing Indigenous knowledge into curriculum and pedagogy, promoting research and learning about the history and contemporary context of the lives of Indigenous peoples, increasing services and supports for Indigenous students, and building school and campus communities that value diversity and are free of racism.  By proposing University budget cuts, your government also proposes cuts to commitments to reconciliation through education.  

I am a professor and the chair of the Indigenization and Decolonization committee of the Department of History at the University of Winnipeg. Copied on this email are Dr. Mark Meuwese and Paul Lawrie, who are also members of this committee.  Our committee deals with issues related to post-secondary Indigenous history education and works to ensure that we deliver top quality courses and research to our communities. One of our roles is to assist in the delivery Indigenous Course Requirement (ICR) courses. These courses are a foundation for undergraduate education at the University of Winnipeg and represent a significant effort on the part of the university to examine and break down the colonial relationship that continues to define Canadian-Indigenous relations.

Our public health responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted university education in a number of ways. This spring, the History department is offering 11 unique undergraduate courses (some with multiple sections), all of which are being offered online, many for the first time in this format.  Faculty have worked hard to train themselves on how to refashion their courses to suit this format while still covering the necessary content and requirements. There are currently approximately 300 students waitlisted in these courses, a significant Spring course enrolment increase.  One of these courses is an ICR course.  It is a third-year course, HIST 3523, called Indigenous Women’s History, and it is currently full, with 84 students on the waitlist. An extra section is being added, but this will still leave over 50 students waitlisted.  The department usually also offers a second-year ICR course in the Spring, HIST 2516 (History of Indigenous Education: Residential Schools and Beyond), however the instructor normally contracted to teach the course could not do it this year due to scheduling conflicts at the health care facility where they work.  HIST 2516 always has a long waitlist. 

One problem that pre-dated this pandemic is the challenge of finding qualified instructors who can teach ICR courses. When the ICR was introduced at the University of Winnipeg in September 2016, there was no concomitant support to hire additional permanent faculty with expertise in Indigenous Studies or history (these two departments teach three-quarters of ICR student registrations ). The justification at that time, and still now, for not hiring more faculty was a lack of funds. Thoughtful planning, consideration, and commitment to the ICR on the part of faculty, staff, and administration has enabled the university to ensure that we have the capacity to teach ICRs; however, only about 63% of ICR courses are taught by regular permanent faculty with secure positions who also play a role in university governance and research. The rest are by contract or term positions. 

Compounding the need for faculty with teaching expertise in the area of Indigenous history and Indigenous Studies is the rise in professional, graduate, and post-graduate education programs delivered at the University of Winnipeg and jointly with the University of Manitoba.  In addition, there is an accelerating demand from our cities, Indigenous and other communities, provincial and national governments, and international organization for rigorous, balanced, and ethical Indigenous research. Qualified instructors are thus pulled in all directions.

Anecdotal and empirical studies of the ICR have shown that the courses are having a positive impact. These courses directly serve the province in a variety of sectors including, but not limited to education, medicine, social work, law, policing, heritage, governance, and resource management. Of some concern for those who teach ICRs is that our temporary adjustment to online and remote modes of course delivery does not undermine longer term pedagogical standards for ICR courses including face-to-face discussions, small class sizes, and financial support for guest speakers such as Elders, trips to archives, museums and cultural centres, and land-based education opportunities.  We must not sacrifice the established goals for ICR resources in the rush to save scarce resources.  

We need more faculty and support at this time, not threats to salary and wages; more care for our robust scholarly environment, not panic and more apprehension; more support for diverse knowledge production, not pressure to function below capacity. The current proposed cuts, while ostensibly temporary, appear in fact to be part of a longer history of freezing or reducing provincial operating grants to universities. As institutions committed to operationalizing the province’s commitment to recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and vitally important sites for analysis of inequity and social justice, universities need reinforcements now more than ever.

Sincerely,

Dr. Mary Jane McCallum
Professor 
Canada Research Chair in Indigenous People, History and Archives
Department of History
University of Winnipeg