A Concordia University class on Algonquian Peoples ended with some students walking out in response to comments made by a guest speaker last Thursday, October 28.
The class, offered as part of the First Peoples Studies program, was receiving a visit from Toby Morantz, a professor emerita of McGill University in the Department of Anthropology.
Students had just been assigned to read a portion of her book White Man’s Gonna Getcha: The Colonial Challenge to the Crees in Quebec. It was her comments about the experiences of James Bay Crees in residential schools and their interactions with the Hudson’s Bay Company that spurred the walkout.
“What triggered the whole class was when she said the Crees of James Bay suffered less in residential schools than at any other residential schools because that was one of the last residential schools that was built in Quebec,” Terrence Duff explained.
Duff is a student in the class and a member of the Cree Nation. He was one of the students who eventually walked out of the class. He said he tried to engage with her and present evidence from his lived experiences and those of his family that contradicted Morantz’s comments but eventually gave up.
Duff walked out after he said Morantz disagreed with his statement that his grandparents were removed from their parents against their will by federal agents. “As you can imagine, my blood was boiling.”
Mavis Pouachiche, also Cree, was frustrated with the way Morantz’s comments asserted that Crees benefitted from colonial systems like residential schools, as it gave them the networks and contacts to eventually fight hydroelectric dams on their territory.
“She was really speaking on behalf of Cree people,” said Pouachiche. “When I raised my hand up, I asked, ‘Did they explicitly tell you this?’ Because if you go and ask these leaders, and if you have heard their stories, it’s not good at all.”
She and Duff also criticized Morantz’s research for the book they read in class, as it drew heavily from written accounts by anthropologists and officials of the Hudson’s Bay Company, rather than directly from Crees.
Pouachiche walked out after seeing the way Morantz was responding to Duff’s interjections, especially when waving her finger at him. “It did not feel culturally safe at all,” she said.
Morantz responded to The Eastern Door’s request for comment with a written statement.
“It has been blown out of proportion,” she wrote. “I never made racist comments; I was describing the differences in the two policies regarding residential schools.”
She said she was not referring to the individual suffering of Cree students in the residential school near James Bay, but the differences in the structure and curriculum of the newer schools created after the Second World War that were considered to be less harsh than pre-war religious schools.
“In my book, which the students had read, I had stated that these schools were ‘less brutal.’ I should have stuck to that terminology, but I was extemporizing.”
The students said the instructor, Emanuel Lowi, did push back on some of the comments made by Morantz, but they wish more had been done. Iohserí:io Chloe Polson felt that the instructor should have intervened rather than let Morantz continue.
“I feel like it should have been stopped once students started to leave because that’s when it was really being pushed way too far,” said Polson.
Polson said that the whole interaction lasted several minutes, with controversial comments being repeated a few times by Morantz.
The instructor eventually apologized to the students via email, expressing regret that Morantz was not properly vetted before being invited to speak.
The day after the class, students had a meeting with the director of the First Peoples Studies Program, Catherine Kinewesquao Richardson.
“That is when I felt a bit better about the situation,” said Duff, as he said Richardson was listening to the students’ concerns.
In a statement to The Eastern Door, Richardson wrote that the instructor made an error in judgement and was not previously aware of Morantz’s “problematic research and hateful views.”
“I am proud of the students for having such strong social and critical analysis, for standing up against anti-Indigenous racism and for promoting the values of mutual care and social justice,” she wrote.
“At Concordia, we will continue to make sure that all students can participate without being made to feel ‘less than’ or marginalized on the unceded lands of the Kanien’kehá:ka.”
There will also be a healing circle held for the students to express their feelings about the situation and receive support. But despite the quick response from the department, the students said the experience is not one they will soon get over.
“It felt frustrating,” said Polson. “It caused a lot of anxiety for everyone in the class to have gone through that. I know a lot of people don’t really feel comfortable returning to class this week.”
Savannah Stewart, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door