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RSU fails to adequately support Indigenous students

by Kirti Vyas

Members of the Indigenous Students’ Association say the students’ union has failed to include them in matters pertaining to reconciliation efforts at Ryerson throughout the past year

The Truth and Reconciliation Movement Across the Ryerson Campus, was one of the firs events to jelp kick-off Ryerson’s 7th annual Social Justice Week. (Photo by Kate Skelly)

Amongst the issues the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) has come under fire for over the past school year, members of the Indigenous Students’ Association (ISA) say the union has failed to adequately connect with Indigenous students, including their group for matters related to reconciliation. 

Conversations about the RSU signing a letter calling for the removal of the Egerton Ryerson statue started in November 2020; when an open letter from the Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson (CESAR) was presented to RSU members at the Board of Directors (BoD) meeting

As the letter, signed by over 750 undergraduate students, garnered more signatures and momentum across the university George Carter, previous senate representative, put forth a motion that pushed for solidarity with Indigenous students, including a call for the RSU to publicly sign the open letter. The motion also included a push for the RSU to make their own statement in solidarity with Indigenous students. 

However, the RSU did not sign or publish any letter following the November meeting, nor the January meeting. RSU president Ali Yousaf instead decided the RSU would write their own letter in solidarity with Indigenous students. In the February 2021 meeting, when asked about the letter once again, RSU president Yousaf said he wanted to include Indigenous students’ opinions before publishing the statement, but said Indigenous students, namely the ISA, had not responded to his emails.

To this day, no letter has been released. 

RSU’s lack of support for Indigenous students

ISA executive Cordelia Sheppard, a third-year food and nutrition student, told the Ryersonian that the group doesn’t have access to its email account due to communication issues with the RSU following the termination of campus groups coordinator, Dawn Murray, last semester. 

“His efforts to reach us were very minimal,” she said. According to Sheppard, she spoke to current Board of Governors (BoG) representative M.J. Wright for a comment on behalf of the group over the summer when he reached out to them on Facebook. “The president could have done (this) rather than just emailing us,” she said.

Before Yousaf said he needed to hear from Indigenous students in order to write a statement, he  refused to sign CESAR’s open letter at the meeting in November, stating that he wanted to wait to discuss the matter with the RSU’s legal team first. Members of the board agreed with then-BoG student representative David Jardine’s amendment to the motion, calling for the RSU to pen a new letter outlining its dedication to support Indigenous students and call on the university’s task force to remove the statue. 

Jardine also called for the RSU to release the new letter within a week’s time and requested that the union hire an Indigenous director onto the board — a position Jardine believed had been vacant for two years. However, the RSU did not respond to Jardine’s request. 

The RSU’s refusal to sign CESAR’s open letter was contested by numerous BoD members at the meeting in November, with concerns that the RSU was trying to overwrite the concerns of Indigenous students. 

“If we draft our own letter, it would be speaking over Indigenous students, we don’t need to reiterate what they said,” Gabrielle Douglas, the Faculty of Arts director, said. “I think a lot of the times we are speaking over a lot of voices who have more of a say (in these issues) than we do.”

Months later, at the RSU’s January BoD meeting, Yousaf provided an update on the proposed RSU statement, saying he reached out to the ISA by email a few times, with no response. “If they seem to not be responding to this, then I guess we’re left with no option,” Yousaf said, as reported by The Eyeopener

Sheppard said the group wasn’t even aware of the meetings that were taking place for a statement of solidarity until the Ryersonian first reached out to the group in early February.

With respect to the meetings being held, Julianna Alton, a fourth-year history student and an executive member of the ISA, said the group was left in the dark after Carter reached out to them.

“After (Carter’s) original contact with us, we hadn’t had any other sort of contact with the RSU, any other meetings or any of their discussions too, like on what they would be doing, drafting their letter or anything like that,” she said.

“This represents that (the RSU is) very apprehensive to giving a voice to Indigenous people on campus,” said Alton. “Because that would put a damper on the way that they want to run things — (knowing) that they have to change.”

Indigenous students at the university have voiced their concerns over the RSU’s lack of action towards Indigenous solidarity, the statue and the university’s name change in the past, asking the union to take Indigenous student’s perspectives into consideration.

Vigil attendees stand infront of the controversial Egerton Ryerson Statue to honour those lost to the residential school system. (Photo by Joti Grewal)

The story behind the calls to action

The statue of Egerton Ryerson stands outside the Kerr Quad on Gould Street and was defaced a number of times amidst the Black Lives Matter movement this past summer. Ryerson was a key leader in designing and implementing the residential school system in Canada — which saw thousands of Indigenous children taken away from their homes and forced into “boarding schools” aimed at assimilating them into Christians and Euro-Canadians. These schools ran from 1831 to 1996.

Among the calls to action outlined in CESAR’s letter was a demand for the university to replace the statue with a plaque that would underscore Ryerson’s role in creating the residential school system in Canada. In addition, the letter called for the plaque to have the original agreements of the land, through Two-Row Wampum and the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving address. All of this would be done in open consultation with Indigenous community members at the university.

Jeremie Caribou, a fourth-year politics and governance student who is half Nehithew and Mohawk from Pukatawagan, situated on the Mississippi in northwestern Manitoba and also a member of the ISA, echoed that demand.

“That statue should be removed,” Caribou said. “It should actually be melted down and then transformed into a plaque that explores the true facts of (Ryerson’s) involvement with (the residential school system).” 

The motion Carter introduced at November’s BoD meeting also requested that current RSU vice-president equity Vaishali Vinayak organize anti-Indigenous racism response training for all members of the board, with a separate training for RSU members. 

Caribou identifies a larger issue within the system, concerned that calls for anti-Indigenous racism training for the RSU are enough in the first place. 

“If the education system wasn’t so narrow minded, and one-sided, they wouldn’t be needing this training.” he said. “We need Indigenous perspectives (to be) implemented or integrated into the education system.”

In February, the RSU held its second BoD meeting of 2021. While Yousaf was absent due to a family-related emergency, Vinayak was present and announced that there will be anti-Indigenous racism training for members of the board, according to tweets by The Eyeopener’s news editor, Heidi Lee.

The training will be led by Michael Etherington, an Indigenous relations consultant. When asked for comment regarding when the decision for training will be implemented and whether or not the ISA would be part of the training, they did not respond. 

When asked why the RSU did not sign the original letter and what the RSU’s plans were to hold anti-Indigenous racism training, demands which were voiced by Indigenous students at Ryerson, neither Vinayak nor Yousaf responded to the Ryersonian’s request for comment.

Update on the task force

The university’s organized task force committee named Standing Strong (Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win) is currently working on addressing the issue of the statue and the possibility of renaming the school. The task force’s name has been contested for several reasons, by Indigenous members of the university, including Hayden King, a researcher and executive director at the Yellowhead Institute.

Ewan Cassidy, another executive member of the ISA and a second-year environment and sustainability student, said that his group has concerns about whether or not the task force is actively trying to consult with Indigenous students.

 “It’s important to have these community leaders speak for us, but at the same time, they don’t always represent the students,” said Cassidy. “My concerns are: How is the student community being involved?”

According to Catherine Ellis, an associate professor in the department of history and a co-chair on the taskforce, the committee has enlisted a current student and an alumni to sit on the committee. She said that they will be directly contacting the ISA and other organizations on campus for consultations.

But when it comes to reconciliation efforts, even CESAR has lacked in its efforts to connect with Indigenous students, including members of the ISA.

Samantha Howden, a fourth-year social work student and the diversity and equity co-ordinator of the ISA, wrote the CESAR letter’s demands, which make up a significant portion of it. They said they felt like they were being rushed to include them as their team was not informed by RSU executives about the upcoming meeting where CESAR planned to call on the RSU to sign it as an act of solidarity with Indigenous students.

“Folks weren’t even thinking about solutions around it, I was really upset at the time… I was only invited in at the last minute,” they said. “There were all these signatures, all these prompts coming in from many different departments, but there were barely any Indigenous people involved in writing this letter.”

Howden said that they were confused as to why Indigenous students weren’t being notified of the RSU’s meetings happening beforehand. They were rushing to finish the letter the night before it was to be published. They were only notified about the RSU meeting after Carter personally informed them.

After the letter was drafted and presented, Howden said that there was no follow-up from either CESAR or the RSU. “We hadn’t had any sort of contact with the RSU about any other meetings or any other discussions, on what they would be doing, like drafting their letter or anything like that,” they said.

Editor’s Note: 

The Ryersonian has made several efforts to get in touch with both Yousaf and Vinayak through email since Feb. 22, after getting in touch with the ISA to hear their side of the story. Despite multiple attempts for a comment, the duo did not respond. Our last followup email was sent on March 1, 2020.

During the recent RSU election, Vinayak won vice-president of operations for the 2021-22 school year. Additionally, Adapt, the party Vinayak was running for, won all executive positions within the RSU. 

The next BoG meeting is scheduled for March 30.

This article may have been created with the use of AI software such as Google Docs, Grammarly, and/or Otter.ai for transcription.

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