First Nations students walk out after professor says Cree students suffered less at residential school

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Mavis Poucachiche and Iohseri:io Chloe Polson are students at Concordia University who walked out of a First Peoples Studies class last week. (Shuyee Lee/CBC - image credit)
Mavis Poucachiche and Iohseri:io Chloe Polson are students at Concordia University who walked out of a First Peoples Studies class last week. (Shuyee Lee/CBC - image credit)

A Concordia University student said her jaw dropped after hearing a guest lecturer argue that her nation suffered less harm from residential schools established in the James Bay Cree territory compared to survivors of other residential schools.

"I couldn't believe it," said Mavis Poucachiche, a student from the Waswanipi Cree Nation.

She was one of a handful of First Nations students who walked out of class last week during the lecture given by Toby Morantz, a retired professor from McGill University's anthropology department.

Morantz was invited to a First Peoples Studies class on Algonquian Peoples to speak about her 2002 book The White Man's Gonna Getcha: The Colonial Challenge to the Crees in Quebec.

In a letter of complaint to both universities, students said Morantz stated in her lecture that attendance by James Bay Cree in residential schools was voluntary, that James Bay Cree suffered less from cultural identity loss, physical and sexual abuse at the institutions established in their territory than those in other regions, and that they actually benefited as a nation from the schools.

"She was basically telling us Cree students that what we learned, what we knew our whole lives was basically wrong," said Poucachiche.

"It was very disheartening and very disturbing."

'I have a choice to walk out of this class'

Poucachiche said she walked out of class after the professor waved her finger "no" at a Cree student who shared his family's own experiences with residential schools. Terrence Duff, who is Cree from Chisasibi, said he challenged the professor's views multiple times before walking out of the class as well.

"My grandparents were taken away from their parents and the threat was that their family allowance will be taken away if they didn't agree," said Duff.

"I thought, I have a choice to walk out of this class, when my grandmother or mother did not have a choice to walk out of a residential school."

Terrence Duff/Facebook
Terrence Duff/Facebook

Morantz said in an emailed statement to CBC News that in the class she was quoting a passage from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples that discusses how residential school policies shifted after the Second World War.

"The government switched from the harsher industrial schools that had existed out west to more secular ones with provincial curricula. Those are primarily the schools attended by most of the students from James Bay," wrote Morantz in the statement.

"I said that these students did not suffer as much or something to that effect but was using suffer in the sense of 'endure.' When I realized it was a trigger word, I repeated over and over again that I was not referring to individual suffering but to the differences in the school systems."

Program director issues apology

McGill University said Morantz is no longer teaching at the university, and wouldn't comment further on the matter.

Catherine Richardson, the director of the First Peoples Studies program at Concordia University, told CBC News that a debriefing was held with students following the incident.

She issued a public apology on Facebook, calling it a "deplorable moment when racism entered one of our classrooms," and said Morantz was "improperly vetted."

"This guest speaker had shared views about residential school without proper attention to the fact that this was part of the Indian Act," said Richardson.

"She made numerous racist statements that were inaccurate, and it was just really unfortunate that that happened."

Iohserí:io Chloe Polson, a Kanien'kehá:ka and Algonquin student at Concordia who co-signed the letter, said human suffering shouldn't be quantified and hopes lessons are learned from the incident.

"It shouldn't have happened in that classroom," she said.

"Going back to class next week is going to feel a little unsafe."

In the future, the students said they'd like to see guest speakers be better vetted, and hope to hear from more Indigenous authors when it comes to Indigenous knowledge and histories.

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