During reading week, Deirdra Cutarm went to visit Elder Marilyn Buffalo at the Indigenous initiatives office. Instead of finding it warm and welcoming as usual, the office was being cleaned out.
Buffalo had been let go from her position as a senior advisor on Indigenous initiatives in the Office of the Provost. The other two women who work on the Indigenous initiatives portfolio had been moved to Pembina Hall. When she found out that Buffalo was gone, Cutarm, a third-year sociology student and former president of the Aboriginal Student Council, said she was shocked and disappointed.
“Marilyn was one of the reasons Native Studies as a faculty exists, and also why Aboriginal Student Council as a group exists,” she said. “Since I wanted to know the history I’d go meet up with her a lot.”
Buffalo is a residential school survivor and a former president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada. In her role with Indigenous initiatives, she offered guidance to faculty, met with the Aboriginal Student Council and the Students’ Union, and engaged elders and community members.
Buffalo signed a temporary contract with the university in December 2016. When the contract was coming to an end a year later, Buffalo was offered a new two-year agreement. However, negotiations between Buffalo and the university broke down. Buffalo said the updated job description she was offered was too narrow and didn’t take into consideration the demands of Indigenous Initiatives and the scope of their work. She and Kelsey Dokis-Jansen, the Indigenous Initiatives Manager, gave the university a counter-proposal on February 12, but she said they never heard back about it.
“Next thing you know they called me into a meeting on the 24th of February and they told me I was dismissed,” she said.
Deputy Provost Wendy Rogers, who dismissed Buffalo in the meeting, was not available for comment.
Buffalo was made to immediately pack up her things and leave the office. Students and staff, according to Buffalo, were never informed that she had been dismissed or that the rest of the Indigenous initiatives staff had been moved out of their office.
“When I came home I kept getting phone calls from people that I knew who had hunted me down and were saying ‘What’s going on, where are you?’” she said.
Creation of a Vice-Provost (Indigenous Initiatives)
Two days before Buffalo’s dismissal, Provost Steven Dew announced that the U of A will be creating a position for a Vice-Provost (Indigenous Initiatives), which the university said will solidify Indigenous initiatives within the governance structure of the university and allow for the creation of staffing supports under it.
“I’m pretty excited about this (new position),” said Chris Anderson, the dean of Native Studies. “This is a natural culmination of what the U of A has been engaged in for the last two and a half, almost three years now.”
Andersen and Shana Dion, the assistant dean for First Nations, Métis and Inuit students, are co-leading the Indigenous initiatives work and the creation of the new vice-provost position, which they plan to fill on July 1, 2019.
“Being a part of this process and this journey so far has been very exciting and the move forward… to bring student voices and concerns to a higher level should be important to the whole campus,” Dion said. “I do believe that moving in the direction of a vice-provost will lend to a higher level of conversation within the university so I think that can only be seen as a positive.”
However, Buffalo said she doesn’t agree with the governance shift, and that she wasn’t told about the creation of the new vice-provost position until it was announced publicly.
“They could have 10 PhDs, they’re not going to know our territory and our people and which issues are important, they’re not,” she said. “I’ve lectured in every university in Canada, I’ve been to every convention for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and I can speak with authority on this matter.”
Students feel blindsided by changes
Native Studies student councillor Nathan Sunday said he “doesn’t necessarily agree” with the switch to create a vice-provost position, and said he thinks it was very unfortunate that students weren’t made aware of Buffalo’s dismissal.
“I think it speaks to how the university is currently going about reconciliation,” he said. “They’re hiring more people in academia with degrees over Aboriginal people with lived experiences like elders and knowledge-keepers. I think it goes back to that hegemonic colonial narrative of Western over traditional knowledge.”
“She’s been here since the 70s,” Sunday added. “She was instrumental in creating the School of Native Studies, which is now the Faculty of Native Studies, which without her, who knows if that would have happened. She’s been a really big part of the community and it is sad to see her go.”
Science students’ councillor Katherine Belcourt said she was upset with the lack of respect Buffalo was treated with during her dismissal by the university.
“To have someone in that position and to understand how we are as Indigenous people, you would think there’d be more respect,” she said. “It just upsets me that they would treat an Elder like that, especially someone who’s given so much to the university.”
Cutarm is also worried about the loss of Buffalo’s support on campus. When she was president of the Aboriginal Student Council, she said she would often go ask Buffalo how she had dealt with leadership issues in the past, or how she had put on events.
“It was nice going to her when I wanted to plan events because to her I don’t have to explain the importance of why I’m doing the event, she already understands,” Cutarm said. “It’s nice to not have to justify why this is an important event in our culture because she gets it and since she does all these cultural things she could even advise us on how to go about it.”
Buffalo said she would always be there for Indigenous students because she wanted them to succeed and to feel loved and supported.
“I had an open-door policy for those young people… that’s what really upsets me,” she said. “Now, I’ve been robbed as an elder, after doing all that work of setting the foundations for that Indigenous presence on campus.”
However, Dion said the Indigenous Initiatives portfolio isn’t mandated to serve students in that capacity, and is focused on higher-level work. She said there are many other support networks across campus for students, including the First Peoples’ House which serves over 1,200 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit learners at U of A.
Dion encourages any students who consider Buffalo a mentor to reach out to her.
“(Buffalo) is still here, she can still be reached, and I hope that they visit her and I hope they still connect with her,” she said.
Despite her contract not being extended, Buffalo said she isn’t going anywhere.
“Presidents come and go, provosts come and go, deputy provosts come and go, but I live here, this is my territory, and I want a say in how those children will be educated, because they are like my children, and I’m not going away,” she said.
“I’m going to be green and gold forever… they don’t intimidate me, I’m Marilyn Buffalo, this is my land, Edmonton is my city, U of A is my university, it’s in my territory.”