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Indigenous studies class guest speaker downplays Cree suffering in residential schools

BY Ben Powless Nov 24, 2021

A guest speaker in a Concordia University class on Indigenous history sparked a walkout by students after she asserted that Crees attended residential schools voluntarily and suffered less abuse than others.

The speaker, Toby Morantz, was invited to the First Peoples Studies course on the history of Algonquian Peoples to discuss her 2002 book, The White Man’s Gonna Getcha: The Colonial Challenge to the Crees in Quebec. Morantz is a retired anthropology professor from McGill University.

Student Mavis Poucachiche, from Waswanipi, said she felt “tricked” by the Morantz’ attendance after students had been discussing the book in class, unaware the author was in the room with them.

“The teacher asked us to speak about the book and ourselves, and many of us didn’t like it. Then the teacher said, you know it’s customary to invite the authors of the books we read to class, so here’s Toby Morantz,” Poucachiche told the Nation. “We were shocked. It turns out she was listening to us talk about her book. It felt like a trick.”

“In her presentation she was making ill-informed remarks about the Crees, saying their attendance at the schools in James Bay, at Fort George, was voluntary,” explained Poucachiche. “[Morantz] said they weren’t forced to go, and they had suffered less abuse than other people. As she was making these remarks, we started voicing our concerns.”

Poucachiche said a Cree student from Chisasibi spoke up to share that his grandmother attended residential school in Fort George and that her parents were threatened with their family allowance being cut if their children didn’t attend. But as he spoke, Poucachiche said, Morantz waved her finger denying that had happened. 

“I found that super disrespectful and I left the class because she didn’t want to listen to us,” Poucachiche said, adding that a number of other students, mostly Indigenous, also walked out. 

Morantz’ research, according to Poucachiche, came from examining records at the National Archives and National Library in Ottawa, as well as the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives. Morantz also referenced Abel Bosum and Billy Diamond, saying their accounts on residential school showed their experiences were different and benefitted them by giving them contacts and networking. 

However, Morantz never actually talked to Billy Diamond or Abel Bosum and instead relied on their written accounts. Poucachiche said their experiences were not necessarily the same as others who attended residential schools. 

She also pushed back on relying on government-affiliated research, saying, “Those are archives provided by the government and they play such a huge role in marginalizing us, and I didn’t appreciate that she didn’t understand that her info came from the oppressors and most of it is wrong.”

After the class, Poucachiche says students received an email from their professor, Emanuel Lowi, stating that he had never met Morantz, that he regretted inviting her and apologized for her comments. Lowi did not respond to a request for comment. 

Poucachiche says that in the future she wants professors to properly evaluate potential guest speakers, ensuring the invitees have both experience and the required cultural sensitivity for such discussions. 

Catherine Richardson, Director of First Peoples Studies at Concordia, agreed that professors have the responsibility to know what a guest speaker might say.

“If a guest speaker is an author, they should understand the ideas presented in the person’s book before inviting them,” Richardson said. “When it comes to understanding colonial violence against Indigenous people in its context, there is no need for a devil’s advocate or, ‘Let’s have a debate with non-Indigenous people about the merits of systemic racism’. This is completely out of line.” 

Richardson said she held a healing/talking circle with the affected students over Zoom and then in person to create a safe space and let the students share their own experiences. She congratulated them on their activism in challenging the guest speaker and speaking out in the media.

She said that the First Peoples program is actively working to centre Indigenous perspectives, which includes inviting in Elders and knowledge-keepers, while challenging historical records and examining their authorship and biases. 

“Most records, such as those held by churches, by the [Hudson’s Bay Company] or museum archives, were created from a European colonial perspective… by men who saw Indigenous people as ‘savages.’ We must be very careful with mainstream records because they can do so much damage to the Indigenous psyche and identity,” she observed. 

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.