Photo by Cindy Cui / Photo Editor
By: Evan Jamieson-Eckel, Contributor
On Nov. 8, 2019, Indigenous women took to Twitter to call out Ainsley Whynacht. Whynacht applied for an Indigenous Student scholarship through the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) and received one of the six awards worth $1,500. Her paper, which was required to apply for the scholarship, discussed the negative conditions experienced by people living on reservations. Here’s the catch: Whynacht is not Indigenous (and, no, claiming fake Indigenous identity doesn’t count).
From the scholarship committee who gave an indigenous scholarship to a white girl who gleefully posted her deception on social media: we’re letting her keep the award, and shame on you ndns for being mean to her. https://t.co/Tx3bGGWuoR
— tara houska (@zhaabowekwe) November 11, 2019
The issue here is theft of opportunity for Indigenous Peoples that may otherwise allow us to reclaim our voices. If we look at this issue on a broader level, it is more common than you might realize. In this era of reconciliation that we are currently in, it has become acceptable for mainstream society to consume anything Indigenous without reciprocation or even a basic awareness of the consequences of consumption. This non-reciprocal consumption occurs here at McMaster University, where settlers can major or minor in Indigenous studies.
You read that right: our university provides the means for settlers to establish a career in dominating Indigenous voices.
This is a core issue with reconciliation-driven initiatives. Instead of creating opportunities for Indigenous People to reclaim our voices, make a living and rebuild Indigenous Nationhood, mainstream Canadian society maintains the oppression of Indigenous Peoples by supporting the creation of settler “Indian experts”. Settlers like William Fenton, an anthropologist who rewrote Haudenosaunee history as he saw fit throughout the mid 1900’s, have dominated Indigenous knowledge and its reproduction for centuries. Twisting the truth of our Nations and cultures to better suit settler needs and wants has always taken priority over undoing the destruction caused by settler colonialism. Institutions like McMaster University allow settlers to continue to have our cake and eat it too, in 2019 and beyond.
Now using reconciliation as their excuse, settlers are all too eager to find the next way to benefit from Indigenous experience. With most of our land base taken from us, the knowledge we’ve protected as Indigenous Peoples is more valuable than ever. While Whynact’s theft of $1,500 is wrong, it is also a drop in the bucket compared to the wealth that settler graduates in Indigenous studies will generate at our expense in the future. There are various lucrative jobs that having a degree in Indigenous studies will allow you to be considered for, including in education and politics. As of right now, the average annual salary for these kinds of jobs is around $94,743. Having a minor or major in Indigenous Studies acts as a resume buffer when reconciliation is positively regarded in hiring processes. These institutional preferences may prevent employers from addressing discrimination in their hiring practices, as credentials such as a university degree will outweigh actual Indigenous experience. This is a major problem since many Indigenous Peoples do not have the ability to attend university to obtain a degree in something that is clearly for us, yet it is all available on a silver platter to be consumed by those who can afford to enroll in the Indigenous studies program.
The issue goes deeper on the local level. Even before settler students at McMaster University graduate from the program, they are also able to obtain employment as teaching assistants in Indigenous studies classes. I took this issue to CUPE 3906, who are now bargaining to give preference to Indigenous applicants in the TA hiring process. This is common practice in other Indigenous-focused organizations and programs. Beyond obtaining a degree in Indigenous studies, employers will also be looking for graduates with experience. By allowing settler students to be TAs in Indigenous studies courses, it sets them up for further success and profit when they enter the job market as settler graduates will have the added experience of being a TA. Worse still, the dynamic of settlers marking Indigenous knowledge is problematic in its own right. Considering how unemployment is often referenced in anti-Indigenous racism through laziness or lack of intelligence, it is a wonder that settlers will also take away employment opportunities that are best suited by Indigenous peoples ourselves.
To be clear, settlers that take advantage of opportunities that are meant for Indigenous people are not helping us. The impact of their actions will always outweigh their intent. If they were committed to real reconciliation, settlers would learn how to not take up space and know when it is time to stay in their own lane for once in the history of Indigenous/settler relations. They would only take Indigenous studies courses to supplement their learning, not as a minor or a major that allows them to establish authority over the subject. They would support Indigenous peoples in their efforts to rebuild their Nations. They would not be looking for the next way to make a buck at our expense. They would take the time to educate themselves about the settler-colonial foundation of Canada, understand their complicity in it and seek out Indigenous written resources for how to commit to genuine reconciliation.