The following are Lynn Lavallee’s reflections on her role as vice provost, Indigenous engagement (VPIE) at the University of Manitoba. I will be writing this in first person. I am sharing this with the senior administrative team and others in the institution, as I have been asked by many people about my recommendations and thoughts about these Indigenous roles and what people are calling, Indigenizing the university. I feel a responsibility to share this information more broadly in order to be responsive to the Indigenous community. The lessons learned and recommendations are for the benefit of everyone. I have removed some of the information about specific circumstances for the version of this document that will be shared beyond the President and Provost and have added more feedback with respect to academia in general (not just UofM). However, all the examples discussed are happening in a similar fashion across universities in Canada and the comments can be applicable more broadly.

Systemic Racism

Systemic racism is the racist effect that arises from bias built into the structure of a system. It’s the rules, policies and practices of a system that create such bias.  In such a system, if you were able to get rid of all of the racists within it, you would continue to have a negative impact on a racialized group. Justice Murray Sinclair

At the University of Manitoba I found, what I experienced as, deeply imbedded, systemic racism. I had told myself upon starting at the UofM that I am here to walk through doors and get things done, not break down doors. Given the open commitment to Indigenous achievement in the strategic plan – Taking Our Place –  I believed I would not have to rationalize WHY Indigenous specific initiatives and responses are needed, but work on HOW to implement. You need to understand that Indigenous faculty and staff in the academy have been doing this rationalization for almost half a century and this is not where we should be when we are citing efforts related to reconciliation. Regardless, I found myself having to go to internal policies, provincial legislation and statistics in order to counter deeply imbedded systemic racism. I will outline how I saw systemic racism play out and be reinforced and also provide recommendations and/or points of emphasis identified in bold throughout the document. Of course, while these recommendations may be specific to my experiences at UofM, this information translates to all of academia. 

One of my first experiences with systemic racism was in my first month attending a Senate meeting as an assessor (non-voting member); specifically, Senate policy – Non-Acceptance of Discriminatory Awards 


When I first started looking at this policy the effective date was 1999 and this has now changed to 2009. On the surface it appears this policy was written to ensure that funders who want to support student awards for groups/populations that face systemic disadvantage can do so, and this would not be discriminatory. 

My issue with this policy is three-fold. The first point I have made around many tables is that the Manitoba Human Rights Code Preamble C and Article 11 state that programs (affirmative action is the wording of the Code) meant to ameliorate the conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups are not discriminatory. Yet the starting point for this non-acceptance of discriminatory awards policy at UofM is that an award appears to be discriminatory if it is not available to everyone and there has to be a rationalization as to why the award should be allowed based on the Human Rights Code of Manitoba. So the discussion starts from the point that the award is discriminatory. 

I asked about the history of the development of this policy and was told that there were groups of people at opposite ends of the discussion about awards for specific population groups so the policy was instituted to address this debate and that any awards that would be available only to special population groups would have to be justified based onunder-representation of the student population (see 1.2 of the policy) and who have been exposed to systemic discrimination. I have also been told this is to prevent people from trying to fund awards for those who might try to rationalize that a group, such as ‘white men’ are systemically disadvantaged. However, the policy has been used to rationalize and deny at least one award for Indigenous people. To reiterate, my first issue with this policy is that the starting point is that the awards are discriminatory and we have to argue why something is not equal. There is failure to understand the difference between equality and equity and that equity is not discriminatory (as emphasized in the Human Rights Code of Manitoba).

My second issue with this award is that it has been used to deny at least one award for Indigenous students. The rationale given for denying this award was based on the Senate policy that uses the ‘under-representation of the student population’. Since the self-identified Indigenous population at the university was around 7-8% and the Indigenous student population in this faculty was around 29%, the potential award was deemed discriminatory based on the Senate policy. Therefore, the donor funds were not accepted with the criteria outlined by the donor. However, the committee or individuals involved in this decision failed to recognize the systemic inequities relative to this discipline. For instance, in Manitoba 85% of children in care are Indigenous (see and 74% of people incarcerated in Manitoba are Indigenous (see I will not cite all the data on the increased morbidity and mortality of Indigenous peoples, but it is very clear that Indigenous people in Canada and Manitoba are still at significant disadvantage and to use internal statistics of self-identified Indigenous students is completely unethical, simple and unsophisticated. I will add that it is also a way to flip the Human Rights Code to ensure Indigenous students are not adequately represented. Even using the population-based statistics in Manitoba (17% and approximately 25% for age range of typical university student) does not take into account the systemic disadvantage represented in various disciplines. We need more than 8% of social workers, lawyers, physicians, nurses, etc.  to be Indigenous. We need more than 25% or 29% of social workers, lawyers, physicians, nurses to be Indigenous when we see the egregious statistics in child welfare, criminal justice and health care (to only name a few disciplines). 

My third issue with this policy relates to the culture that I, and others have experienced at the University with respect to equality and equity. This Senate policy is reflective of the beyond chilly climate that exists for Indigenous people at the UofM. This is systemic discrimination validated in university policy. If something is not available to everyone, the starting point is that it is ‘potentially’ discriminatory and the argument has to be made why something is only for Indigenous people. Much energy is taken up by Indigenous people at the UofM and other educational institutions rationalizing WHYas opposed to having people be supportive and get the HOW. This is the premise of the equality/equity debatethat I have often entered into in academia and how meritocracyis often used to battle this point with respect to everything having to be equal and people be rewarded based on merit (which often translates into grades for students and publications and funding for faculty). For the why, we have to look no further than the statistics I’ve cite above and the commitment by the university with respect to ‘Indigenous achievement’ or reconciliation. So when faced with the statement – even after citing the statistics, legislation, and policy – if we do this then what about the other 100 other groups on campus, I have nothing left to give with respect to this argument, other than, the university should not make public statements of commitment to Indigenous people. 

I want to emphasize again, that this policy is reflective of a broader, systemically engrained culture of meritocracy and equality, failing to truly understand equity. This extends beyond student award donor funding. It permeates into Indigenous students being told that they are taking the seat of a more qualified non-Indigenous student, even when Indigenous students enter the academy under the status quo. This culture permeates into Indigenous faculty experiencing a chilly climate with respect to being hired just because they are Indigenous, again taking the spot of a more qualified non-Indigenous person. It extends to Indigenous staff focusing on Indigenous achievement being told that their job is easier by non-Indigenous counterparts because the perception is that Indigenous staff are just putting on cultural events and hanging around socializing. So even removing this policy, similar to what Justice Murray Sinclair said with respect to removing racist people, will not easily rid the university of this anti-Indigenous systemic racism, but removing it, along with extensive discussion would be a start.

My next point still relating to equality and equity is linked to Indigenous achievement. What do we mean when we say Indigenous achievement? In order to not be exclusionary to non-Indigenous people I have been faced with having to rationalize why even non-monetary awards should exist for Indigenous students, staff and faculty, even though celebrating success of Indigenous student, staff, faculty, alumni and community is noted in the current UofM strategic plan. Saying this something is exclusionary because it is focusing solely on supporting Indigenous people like trying to gather Indigenous faculty together reminds me of the reserve system in Canada which intentionally separated Indigenous peoples. Elder Vern Harper would tell me the reserves were intentionally scattered to separate Indigenous peoples. Not wanting Indigenous peoples to gather together reminds of this intentional dividing. 

I rationalized bringing together Indigenous scholars with the literature on affinity groups (see I would add that non-Indigenous people who feel excluded need to look at this literature, as well as the literature on the performative ally and settler fragility. So rather than Indigenous people doing to the work to rationalize targeted activities, others should be doing work to better understand their own reaction to feeling excluded and why they do not want Indigenous peoples to gather. Not wanting Indigenous peoples to gather is also reflective on Section 141 and the Potlatch Law in the Indian Act which prohibited any gathering of Indigenous peoples. Indian agents felt that gathering of Indigenous peoples interrupted assimilation tactics. Rather than feeling excluded, people should reflect on how not wanting Indigenous specific spaces and programs is symbolic of the Potlatch Law and supports assimilation.

Back to Indigenous achievement. I have had numerous experiences of Indigenous achievement being rewarded at the University that is inclusive of everyone (the equality issue). While this may be fine, we have to recognize that we need to provide more support to Indigenous students, staff and faculty. Although the Indigenous Scholars Fund from the Provost’s office supports 12 Indigenous scholars, not all have been hired yet and the UofM is still losing Indigenous faculty. My recommendation here is to focus Indigenous achievement on Indigenous people in the academy. The Indigenous Achievement Merit Award, that was born out of the UMFA strike a few years back should be for Indigenous faculty only. Now that a list was created out of the Office of Indigenous Engagement of all the self-identified Indigenous faculty who have come forward it can be ensured that the messaging is sent out to all Indigenous faculty before the deadline. Ways to further engage Indigenous faculty in applying for these awards and others should be continued.For instance, I circulated an email to all faculty this year about this award and three Indigenous people received the award compared to the previous year where only two people received this award, including one non-Indigenous person. In addition, as the VPIE I was surprised I was not involved in the adjudication of this award. I will make this point a bit later when I recommend the focus for the role of a VPIE. In addition, research awards for Indigenous achievement (University Indigenous Research Program – UIRP) would serve to have a potential impact on the attrition we see with respect to Indigenous faculty.The UIRP program should be looked at to see how many Indigenous scholars were supported in advancing their research program.

In closing of this section, the systemic issues with respect to barriers put in place for the inclusion and advancement of Indigenous students, staff and faculty needs to be explored, starting with an open and honest discussion about equity and equality and issues of meritocracy. I did not elaborate on meritocracy but there is a lot of literature on this and in order to move forward, education about this needs to be the responsibility of everyone, not just Indigenous people making the argument and trying to education. See for example

Dealing with Anti-Indigenous Racism (systemic and Individual)

In addition to looking at how the current policies contribute, support and validate anti-Indigenous racism, we have to also have open discussions about the colonial structures and supremacy of whiteness in the ivory tower. While some might say using this language shuts down the conversation, I would counter that we have to look at why people feel uncomfortable with such statements, especially within an academic institution that values academic freedom, freedom of expression and speech. Related to this, I recognize why we need people who make these direct statements, as I found myself needing to take this stance in order to be heard and/or understood. Sometimes if we are too gentle in trying to get a point across, particularly in an environment that does not respect Indigenous thought, we have to be direct. Again, this speaks to the literature on white/settler fragility (see for example

How is colonialism, patriarchy and whiteness upheld in the institution? We need not look further than the governance of the institution.  Governance needs to be discussed in light of anti-Indigenous racism. The driving force of the institution is the Board of Governors and Senate, but also the mindset of key players in the institution who have had a strong hold for decades. 


The University should establish INDIGENOUS specific REPRESENTATION ON BOG AND SENATE.This representation cannot be just one person. While there are current members – two faculty on Senate, one self-identified student and one Indigenous staff person BOG (to my understanding), what I am recommending (and this is not a novel idea), are specific Indigenous seats for people who are knowledgeable about advancing Indigenous initiatives at the university and some of the challenges and barriers experienced. I would suggest having these seats be elected from the Indigenous body at the University, i.e. Indigenous academic staff elect, non-academic staff elect, Indigenous students elect. Again, it can’t simply be a token representation. We have heard people like Dr. Barry Lavallee mention that this representation should be 70% and the Indigenous students have mentioned 51%. While this may seem unrealistic to some, this is what is truly needed to effect some type of change. When we look at the composition of some of the bodies/tables at the university we are not surprised to see 70-80% representation of white men, so why is it so shocking to hear the same statistic for Indigenous people. My only issue with this higher representation is that we do not have enough Indigenous people at the university to take on this work and as I mention later, and much of the work ofIndigenizing the universityfalls on the shoulders of Indigenous people. In addition, when we take such as stance to make change at the institutions we face backlash,as some non-Indigenous administers in the academy have stated. Standing as a sole person receiving this backlash is difficult and has been the position of Indigenous peoples in the academy trying to make change for decades. Facing backlash is a regular occurrence for Indigenous people trying to make change. Having more than a small percentage of Indigenous people and non-Indigenous abolitionists (see Racism Scale willing to also face this backlash together is what is needed on the governance bodies and in the institution.

There are many subcommittees of Senate where Indigenous representation is needed. In fact, all tables where issues are discussed (not just what some might feel are Indigenous specific issues) and decided upon should have Indigenous inclusion. For instance, the presidential search committee membership is decided upon by Senate and BoG. Left to nominations coming from the floor of these two groups (which can include non-senators/governors but typically does not), without more than token representation on these bodies, there are not enough Indigenous people to sit on this and every committee. A way to remedy this is to have Indigenous representation be mandatory in the terms of reference in every policy/procedure related to committees composition.However, this can be problematic if the same person is always called upon and if this person is unable to articulate or argue against the status quo (much like I found myself as VPIE). The institutions need to figure this out, but ensuring that there are others around the table that are vocally supportive and understand Indigenous matters is critical. Indigenous people in the academy cannot and should not be expected to do this alone. Getting Indigenous people on board will not be easy because of past experiences of tokenism, feeling burned out from facing backlash and a serious and real threat to one’s job security. 

Indigenous Senior Administrator Focus and Faculty Specific Positions

The focus of this Indigenous senior administrative role should be senior level policy and this person or persons should be on most of the Senate subcommittees.This should be the focus for this role and depending on the person or persons’ skill set, focusing on exploring the systems currently in place to respond to anti-Indigenous racism and develop an Indigenous approach to dealing with individual experiences of racism and harassment. This is a significant amount of work, however, the Indigenous scholars at Ongomiizwin have done a lot of work in this regard and the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences has seemed to responded favourably. This is a significant project and appropriate resources need to be placed in this area for the entire university.

As an assessor on Senate at UofM, I could not bring forward motions or vote on motions, however, I could speak to motions once on the floor. Any Indigenous senior administrator should not be an assessor but a voting member of Senate.Some of the other senior admin are not assessors so this should be changed for any incumbent. 

A senior Indigenous lead person should not focus on curriculum. This needs to be done at the faculty level and with the Teaching and Learning Centre. It is recommended that an Indigenous curriculum lead be established in each faculty where Indigenous curriculum needs to be developed.While the Teaching and Learning Centre can assist with some of this development, specific expertise relative to discipline is needed to develop quality curriculum. This work cannot and should not fall on individual Indigenous faculty, particularly new faculty given their need to focus on tenure and promotion. If any development work is done by faculty this needs to be credited as workload, as well as established as part of the criteria for their tenure and promotion. Faculty need to have this in writing to be placed in their tenure and promotion files so that in a few years’ time when their promotion package comes forward there is not a loss of institutional memory.

As noted above, a senior Indigenous administrator should be involved in key senior level decisions such as Indigenous achievement for merit and developing criteria and adjudicating Indigenous achievement awards for research. 

One of the aspects of this position that I resisted was attempting to be a mediator, or brought into situations to deal with what some might term, a problematic Indigenous person or issue. In fact, I have always taken this stance in academia. If my opinion was asked for, I felt this was good collaboration. This good collaboration happened with various people at the University but I was aware of also being brought in to deal situations much after the fact, once it exacerbated versus bringing me in earlier. There was, and perhaps still is, an expectation by universities that this person will deal with all the Indigenous issues and there is also a counter expectation by community that with these positions change will now happen. Adding an Indigenous senior administrative person does not Indigenize, decolonize or reconcile the university. The university is a colonial structure with imbedded processes to maintain settler privilege. Universities with these senior Indigenous administrative roles have to remain mindful that this person cannot and should not act at the Indian agent, dealing with the Indian problem.

Hearing from Indigenous Student Leadership and Governance

In the 1970’s, Ovide Mercredi and his colleagues started the UofM Indigenous Student Association (UMISA) (albeit it had a different name then). UMISA has representation across all faculties. In addition, a Metis University Students’ Association (MUSA) was established. These elected Indigenous students associations are a critical part of the governance of the institution and should, at minimum, have equal status as UMSU and GSA. Yes, this is a student governance issue, in that UMISA and MUSA are groups under UMSU; however, this is reflective of a colonial model of representation for Indigenous people. Indigenous students are not parallel to the ‘other 100 student groups on campus’ and this point should never have to be argued in an institution publicly committing to Indigenous achievement. 

Given the commitment to Indigenous achievement and the challenges for Indigenous students to be heard, the university should explore changing the University of Manitoba Act that speaks only to UMSU appointing members.At minimum, UMSU should appoint Indigenous student leaders to Senate. The latter would not require a revision to the Act but revising the Act to imbed Indigenous representation in governance at UofM should be negotiated with the province.This is a task that a senior Indigenous lead could focus on with strong support from the entiresenior administrative team. Yes, changing the Act will not be easy but it can be done. This would be a big step toward reconciliation. If the province, city and university is committed to reconciliation as confirmed in the signing of the Manitoba Collaborative Indigenous Education Blueprint, the Winnipeg Indigenous Accordand Memorandum of Understanding with the Manitoba Treaty Commissionthen this is a small change relative to the stated commitment. 

The elected Indigenous students need to have a direct relationship with the senior administrative team, not just the Indigenous lead. An Indigenous Student Experience Committee, similar to that established in 2012 for the University of Manitoba Student Union (UMSU) and the Graduate Student Association (GSA) should be put in place immediatelywhereby Indigenous students bring forward matters of concern directly to the President’s Executive Team and other appropriate senior administration.

Staffing for Indigenous Student Centre, Indigenous Engagement, Access Programs

A constant at the university has been the efforts of the Indigenous staff at ISC, Indigenous Engagement, all of the Indigenous Access programs, and Ongomiizwin. Their primary role, for the most part, is to ensure the well-being and success of Indigenous students. With the increase in Indigenous initiatives at the university, many have been called up to sit on committees, help with curriculum, and many things that completely fall outside of their job description. This takes them away from working directly with Indigenous students. Just as Indigenous faculty service commitments to the university are often well beyond the expectation of non-Indigenous faculty, this happens with Indigenous staff. There needs to be a serious increase in the complement of Indigenous staff who work with Indigenous students and a formal way to acknowledge the labour that falls outside of their scope of work. 

An example of how people at the university simply expect Indigenous people to help them with Indigenous matters is an elder being asked by a non-Indigenous faculty member to assist them to teach the entire term without compensation and expecting this to be part of the Elder’s work at the University. 

Many Indigenous staff welcome doing some of this work in advancing Indigenous knowledge in the academy. It is important in the development of relationships and Indigenous staff want to see the University grow with respect to Indigenous inclusion. However, it is simply too much at this point and when there are experiences where recommendations that are made by the Indigenous person are not considered, these roles begin to resonate as tokenism. Elder Norman Meade shared with me that Indigenous inclusion involves communication, consultation and collaboration. There are definitely experiences of Indigenous people being consulted and the fact that Indigenous people were consulted is often boasted about in presentations to demonstrate that the university did consult; however, communication and collaboration do not always occur, leading to a feeling of tokenistic consultation. If Indigenous peoples felt safe to do so, they would share numerous examples of unwittingly being a token. When referring to unwittingly sitting on university committees as the token Indian, Sharon McIvor stated she will no longer participate in her own oppression. Tokenism is rampant in academic institutions. There needs to be a discussion and education about tokenistic consultation with all senior administrators at the university and those who are putting together initiatives that require Indigenous consultation. 

Education for University Staff

Planned, continued and sequential education for Senior Administration (including Deans, Directors and Heads of Departments), all senior Directors of non-academic units, and all staff at the University needs to occur. This needs to start with foundational knowledge in understanding Indigenous peoples. While this may include cultural competency modules such as those out of Health Sciences, citing Dr. Emma Larocque (Indigenous Scholar Speaker Series talk)this cannot just be cultural competency training.The focus of this education needs to be on anti-Indigenous racism and delve into difficult topics such as supremacy of whiteness, how the status quo that reinforces privilege is upheld in the academy, settler colonial relations, white/settler fragility and white/settler quilt.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) is an educational resource that is not utilized to its full potential at the UofM. This year, while there was a small project funded by the Indigenous Initiatives Fund to create video modules related to the future education of UofM staff, more resources should be provided to NCTR and Learning and Organizational Development to further develop education materials that are mandatory for all administrative and academic staff at the University.

Finally, there is tremendous knowledge amongst the Indigenous faculty at the University. It should not be an expectation of Indigenous faculty to provide education, particularly if this labour is not recognized (i.e. Indigenous people providing this ‘free and unrecognized labour’to Indigenizing the University); however, appropriately compensated curriculum development by Indigenous scholars to educate staff can be developed. Individuals who do this work should be experts in that specific field, i.e., anti-Indigenous racism with and by Indigenous faculty at Ongomiizwin and others who speak to systemic racism, settler-colonial relationships and settle and white privilege, such as those faculty in Native Studies. This knowledge has to delve into the difficult conversations and should not shy away from discomfort. Drs. Barry Lavallee, Niigaan Sinclair and Marcia Anderson are seen as global leaders in this field relative to their disciplines. These are the types of conversations that need to be had with senior administration. 

Making Change Happen 

There are two circumstances I would like to mention relative to how systemic racism has played out at the university and I am recommending that these be explored and decisions made to demonstrate commitment to Indigenous achievement.

I have removed the details of this circumstances due to a potential breech in confidentiality if shared. I have left the recommendations.

How these decisions happened needs to be explored and policy changed to ensure a handful of people cannot make arbitrary decisions that contribute to hidden systemic racism.

It would be ideal if the institution could recognize these past mistakes and provide some type of education to the committee and other senior administration, deans and directors. A discussion at Senate and Board of Governors would also be helpful to provide education related to this topic.

A second issue relates to the harassment Indigenous scholars face from ‘colleagues’ that goes beyond a collegial debate and academic freedom. This is part of the backlash comment made earlier. Even during my short time at the University I received two emails that I saw as attempting to ‘bait’ me into discussing the murders of Tina Fontaine and Colton Bushie, and another challenging anti-Indigenous racism. Unfortunately, there are Indigenous faculty at the UofM and other institutions who are bombarded with emails, phone calls and threats. The university needs to deal with harassment experienced by Indigenous scholars more directly and not pass it off as a personal issue between faculty.A plan could be put in place to address this issue. At minimum, which is typical of the complaint-driven process of harassment and discrimination, education should occur. 

Reconciliation is about truth and in righting these wrong it is important to acknowledge the issue, take ownership of the mistake, figure out exactly what happened and who the key players are who made problematic decision, and have further discussion about the systemic inequities beyond simple representation in the academy and/or based on population-based statistics. 

It’s Never Going to Be Enough

In relation to the performative ally (do a google search for this term to find out more about what this means), some ‘allies’ may feel, it will never be enough when referring to implementing initiatives for Indigenous advancement in the academy. I was initially struck by the comment when I heard this from more than one non-Indigenous person and I’ve reflected on this somewhat. 

I wonder what the non-Indigenous person is thinking about when saying this? Initially the statement comes across to me as patronizing, infantilizing, Indian agentish, colonial and patriarchal. What I heard was, “Whatever I do to help you, it is never enough.” This positioning is what a performative ally would think. However, perhaps what the person was feeling is what Indigenous people feel? The feeling of hopelessness and helplessness that is a result of centuries of colonization, the helplessness related to the missing and murdered Indigenous trans, 2-spirit, women, girls, boys and men, the blatant racism that we see in social media, the suicides and early deaths, and the internalized oppression (to name a few). Or is it because this person is tired of helping ‘us’ and does not feel appreciated and it’s about them? This would be the performative ally positioning. When someone is feeling overwhelmed because of all this Indigenous stuff, what I can say is, “Welcome to our world”. This feeling of being overwhelmed and facing backlash is more closely aligned with understanding Indigenous peoples. However, the position should never be, it will never be enough. Hundreds of years of colonization can’t be reversed by the most well-meaning ally. It’s about how can we help the next generation. That is the ultimate goal and that is why we persevere within a colonial institution.

The focus or goal is not to decolonize, reconcile or Indigenize a colonial institution. Decolonization, reconciliation and indigenization are distractions (borrowing from the words of Jerome Fontaine). The focus should be to make this a safe space and place for the next generation to come away with this colonial degree to break the cycles of poverty and internalized oppression. The focus is on dealing with the anti-Indigenous racism and Indigenous student, staff and faculty achievement, not Indigenous achievement.

All my relations,

Lynn Lavallee, Ph.D.


  1. Excellent Lynn. I will send this to ABNET and I believe it is time to get ALL the Niichi on campus together. We can use the recommendations in this article as an Agenda.



    Liked by 1 person

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