U of R student fights for mandatory indigenous studies course
By Lauren Golosky
January 5, 2012
Her prescription is education.
In November, Beaudin-Herney began circulating a petition to make indigenous studies a mandatory course for all degrees, certificates, and diploma programs at the U of R. So far, the petition has collected over 400 signatures from students, faculty, and community members.
“The whole idea of [the petition] is not to bring up issues, but to address the things that have affected the relationship between non-aboriginals and aboriginals in the past to help bring forward awareness in the issues,” Beaudin-Herney said. “That way we can start working on the accumulated debt of this stigma we have towards each other, where we just kind of assume we don’t like each other just because we were raised this way.”
Beaudrin-Herney has not only the support of hundreds of students behind her but also the support of important figures around the university. Students’ associations, such as the University of Regina Students’ Union, Luther University Student Association, and the Indigenous Students’ Association, have pledged their support to this cause. Beaudin-Herney has also gained the support of external organizations, including the Turtle Island Performers Initiative, the production group of which she is the secretary.
But the support doesn’t end there.
“I’ve been talking to some people at the First Nations University and I’m going to make an appointment with some of the deans, because yes, Vianne Timmons is important in this, but it’s also moreso about the academic part of the house,” she explained. “I’m going to take a meeting with Rick Kleer, who is head of the arts department, and kind of converse with him. He’s already been talking to a few people I know and he is in favour of it, so that helps me out.”
But where there is support, there is criticism, and Beaudin-Herney has met with much of that too.
“People don’t want to pay for an extra class,” she explained. “They don’t want another core class. This doesn’t affect [them]. There’s no issue. Canada’s not racist. They just like believing that they’re not part of the issue.”
Beaudin-Herney takes the criticism mostly in stride, as she believes that most of it stems from societal ignorance. This ignorance comes partly from a serious lack of education on issues of both historical and contemporary standing.
“Think of things such as the Indian Act, the Doctrine of Discovery, [and] the White Paper from Trudeau, which is really important because Trudeau, in Canadian history class here, is emulated as a Canadian hero,” she explained. “But he created the White Paper, which clearly addressed to wipe out everything First Nations – to save the Indian, to save the savage. This wasn’t that long ago.
“We learn about the Holocaust and everything else, but we have to learn about our own holocaust; this is the same thing.”
By addressing the issues that surround First Nations people in Canada, other social problems may be addressed, such as problems of gender and religion. Beaudin-Herney asserted that indigenous studies is all-encompassing, and that by addressing aboriginal issues, issues such as violence against women will also be addressed.
“There are more people than just First Nations and non-aboriginals, and I know that there are other minorities out there,” she said. “I’m not ignoring them. If we tackle this issue, we can tackle them all.”
As an indigenous person herself, Beaudin-Herney has encountered racism, both direct and systemic. Her personal experiences with racism encouraged her desire for change and prompted her to create this initiative.
An encounter with an “Indian princess” Halloween costume made an impresson on Beaudin-Herney just before she authored the petition.
“I felt really objectified,” she said of seeing the costume. “…It’s just an objectifying image of Pocahontas, and being dehumanized and sexualized and romanticized.”
Beaudin-Herney believes that, in Canada, the appropriation and misrepresentation of First Nations culture as costumes – the “Indian princess” outfit, as well as the Internet-notorious “hipster headdress” – is based in cultural misunderstanding of the indigenous people of Canada. Beaudin-Herney wants U of R students to consider this issue. In a region whose aboriginal population is expected to skyrocket in the next 30 years, good communication between the majority and the growing First Nations community is essential.
“I believe that if you believe you’re Canadian, and if you’re going out into the workforce, then you should know how to communicate with your neighbour,” Beaudin-Herney said. “It is just understanding each other, being able to have a straightforward conversation … instead of tiptoeing around the things you can’t say.
“We want to have a harmonious relationship, but how are we able to do that when we’re just sweeping issues under the rug and we’re not getting anything done?”
Although she’s secure in her identity, many of her peers are not. Many of them lack her pride and are actually turned off by First Nations culture, a problem Beaudin-Herney refers to as “whitewashing.” She also believes that whitewashing is a symptom of systemic racism.
“[First Nations people] think that First Nations people are disgusting, therefore they don’t date First Nations people,” she said. “They marginalize First Nations people and it is terrible; it’s getting worse and worse.”
She has encountered this in some of her personal relationships, such as with her ex-boyfriend and even within her own family.
“I try to keep my family informed, and they have learned a lot from this,” she said proudly. “I whipped my brother in shape like nobody’s business.”
Beaudin-Herney is proud of her journey so far, as she’s educating others and herself. Beaudin-Herney, who is transferring her major from visual arts to indigenous studies, said she’s learned a lot about how the university operates and how to co-operate with administration to produce change. Despite any criticism, Beaudin-Herney’s experience with the initiative has proved to be a positive one for her.
“I’ve made a lot of new friends, and I’m more involved in my own community,” she said. “But I’m not forgetting about the friends I had before; I’m just balancing them both.”
But her work is not done. Expect to find Beaudin-Herney and her petition in the Riddell Centre sometime in the weeks to come. The petition may eventually make its way to all universities across Canada.