The outpouring of sadness, anger and questions about the deaths of Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine is pushing universities to grapple with what it means to advance reconciliation and encouraging difficult classroom conversations, Indigenous studies professors and students say.
Within days of Gerald Stanley, a white Saskatchewan farmer, being acquitted of the murder of Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old Cree man, professors and students organized forums, wrote petitions demanding increased access for Indigenous students and staff and began to think about how to talk about the verdict. In the wake of Raymond Cormier's acquittal in the death of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old Indigenous girl whose body was pulled from the Red River in Winnipeg, those discussions have become more emotional, sometimes testing the boundaries between teacher and student.
"It's always a huge responsibility being a teacher but Indigenous studies is not like teaching math. … I could not reflect on those [cases] in an intellectual way, I had feelings about the verdicts," said Jana-Rae Yerxa, a professor in the Aboriginal Community Advocacy program at Confederation College in Thunder Bay. "Part of the tension of being an Indigenous studies teacher is that it requires you to be vulnerable," she said.
Even before the jury announced its decision on Feb. 9, Prof. Yerxa was using the Stanley trial as a case study in relations between Indigenous communities and Canadian authorities. Since the Cormier verdict, she has been revising her approach to teaching and sharing more of her own feelings with her students. The cases are making her examine how her own life is shaped by discrimination, she has told them.
"I did not want to create the illusion that just because we [faculty] understand what's going on structurally, it doesn't hurt," she said.
Noticing and responding to the emotional impact of the trials on students is essential to turning the racism and discrimination that both Mr. Boushie and Tina faced into a constructive classroom discussion, professors said.
The vast majority of his students are not Indigenous, said David Newhouse, the chair of Indigenous studies at Trent University, but that does not mean they are indifferent to what they learn.
"Some of them get very angry and very upset that they have not learned these things. Some of them get upset at the injustice," he said.
Later this month, Dr. Newhouse's students will take up the Boushie case in a class on critical incidents in modern Indigenous life. He and other professors teaching first-year Indigenous studies courses have decided they will look at the trial from a variety of perspectives – from that of politicians, to the courts, to Indigenous elders. "The underlying theme [will be] the overall treatment of Indigenous peoples by the justice system and the constant calls for reform by a series of reviews over the last two decades," he explained.
Some Indigenous student groups are questioning what the word "reconciliation" means in the wake of the verdicts.
On Wednesday, the Indigenous Students' Council at the University of Saskatchewan said it would no longer participate in university-wide reconciliation discussions. It has also demanded dedicated student funding for its organization.
"We are told to maintain hope and toe the line of Reconciliation and Indigenization. However, we have not seen any real systemic change occur on campus," they said in a statement posted on Facebook. "We choose to remind everyone that Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine did not have the opportunity to attend university, and do not have the opportunity to wait 20 years for systemic change," the statement said.
The university said that it met with the students on Thursday and will continue to talk to them in the days and weeks to come, adding that it posted an online guide for faculty with ideas on how to discuss the verdicts.
"There are hundreds of Indigenous and non-Indigenous faculty and staff at the U of S who are dedicated to Indigenous student success and who have worked tirelessly for many years toward this goal," Jackie Ottmann, the vice-provost of Indigenous engagement, said in a statement.
"There is something about Colten Boushie's story that is acting as a catalyst here," said Zoe Todd, an assistant professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Carleton University, where she studies the relationship between people and fish in the context of colonialism.
Along with about 30 faculty and students at Carleton, Dr. Todd contributed to drafting a statement in support of Mr. Boushie's family. The statement includes requests to Carleton to double the number of Indigenous staff and faculty and the number of scholarships for Indigenous students. The university also released a statement from president Alastair Summerlee.
"Hopefully all these institutions that wrote letters will also follow through on addressing some of the structural forms of discrimination and racism that continue to impact Indigenous people more broadly," Dr. Todd said.