For students, the Indigenous Studies program at University of Sudbury is far more than a university program — it is community

·5 min read

In each part of this recent Laurentian University journey, student Connor Lafortune has found out about the future of his university career on social media.

“The whole process, I found out every step through Facebook,” said Lafourtune. “When the insolvency came out, when University of Sudbury decided to take on the French charter, when they decided to just cut us off completely. Everything that I found out was on Facebook and usually at times where you couldn't contact the university.”

Like the night before the Easter long weekend.

“I received an email on Thursday, April 1, at 10:02 p.m. from the Laurentian president informing students about the cancelling of the federation agreement,” said Katie Baltzer, an Indigenous Studies student at the University of a Sudbury and a citizen of the the Métis Nation of Ontario. who is at home in Windsor studying remotely to enhance her abilities as a registered social worker. “This is a very unusual time after hours to receive an email from the university and it was a slap in the face to do this to students right before a long weekend.

“We have to wait days before we can find anything out. I was upset when I heard about it. I was studying for a quiz I had the following day when I got the email and I completely lost focus.”

Fellow Indigenous Studies student Alexandra Stargratt got that same email.

“There were talks about the potential of the federation agreement's dissolution, but I don't think anyone was really prepared for it,” said Stargratt. “Having an email sent to students at 10 p.m. before a long weekend was the last thing any of us expected.”

Stargratt is from Sudbury and began her studies as a bridge student from Cambrian College, moving to Laurentian University to enrol in the Law and Justice program, and is now in her final semester at the University of Sudbury in Indigenous Studies.

“I chose to continue my studies in Indigenous studies at the University of Sudbury because of the faculty and positive experiences I have had with them in my three years at Laurentian,” said Stargratt. “It's one thing to learn from professionals in the field and another to learn from professionals who practice and live the cultures upon which they are teaching.”

Her graduation could mean the end of an era.

“This means that I will be one of the last students to obtain an Indigenous Studies degree through the University of Sudbury’s program, the second oldest Indigenous studies program in North America,” said Stargratt. “For students who aren't graduating, I don't know what this means because Laurentian has yet to disclose enough information for a student to make a well-informed decision regarding their future.”

Indigenous Students faculty members at the University of Sudbury are equally concerned about the future of this groundbreaking program, which along with Trent University, pioneered the field of Indigenous Studies. Tasha Beeds, an associate professor in the program, shared her anguish and concern for the program’s future in a story April 7.

Baltzer, too, feels that Laurentian University has not offered enough information at this time.

“I feel like I am being held hostage by the university,” she said. “On one hand, I want my degree. On the other hand, I do not want a degree at the cost of my professors’ jobs. I don't think students should be burdened with this choice. Faculty are what makes the program enjoyable, and all of my Indigenous Studies professors have shown nothing but expertise and enthusiasm in their courses.”

Lafortune applied to Laurentian University to study at the University of Sudbury because of the school’s Tri-Cultural Mandate. Growing up, Lafortune shared his time between Noelville and Dokis First Nation, and it was that combination that excited him.

“Coming to Laurentian was the first time I ever had a class that was completely in English, other than English class,” said Lafortune. “I came to Laurentian because I can speak French, I can be Indigenous, and I can study in my chosen program. I thought it was such a beautiful thing. And you just come to realize that it's all kind of a lie. It's a face that they put on. ‘Yeah, we have French things. Yeah, we have indigenous things.’ But in reality, everything is English and white.”

He believes that what many are missing is the community behind the school.

“I think what people aren't realizing is that for Indigenous people, especially, and specifically the Indigenous Studies program, this isn't just our career, this isn't just our education, it isn't our path, it's our home.

“We found community here. For a lot of us, we didn't have that community anywhere else. For the first time, we were beginning to feel like we had a space somewhere. And they say, ‘Oh, we’ll make room for you at Laurentian,’ but, I don’t want them to make room. I'm sick of people having to make a place for Indigenous people — there should just ‘be’ a place for Indigenous people.”

Lafortune also notes that one of the most important parts of a home is a family.

“I think that's what we've learned, realizing our professors aren't just our professors in the academic sense, but our teachers, our elders, and our knowledge holders. That it isn't just losing a professor. It's like losing an auntie, a grandfather or grandmother. These aren't just people that we will disregard after our university direction, these are people that we hold dearly.

“It's not just our education that's being changed, but our whole way of being.”

Jenny Lamothe is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com. She covers the Black, Indigenous, immigrant and Francophone communities.

Jenny Lamothe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Sudbury.com