‘We don’t want to lose focus;’ ILSA reps say incident at town hall a chance to reexamine systemic discrimination

Indigenous Law Students’ Association (ILSA) representatives responded to incidents that happened at a recent forum for student feedback on proposed law tuition increases for incoming 2022 students.

The University of Alberta’s Indigenous Law Students’ Association (ILSA) has responded to incidents that happened during a forum about the proposed tuition increase for incoming 2022 law students.

Two forums took place the first week of May where students were invited to voice their opinion on the increases to the Dean of Law, with the president of the Law Students’ Association (LSA) serving as the moderator. Law students and ILSA representatives have spoken out about their concern that the exceptional 45 per cent tuition increases will disproportionately affect racialized and marginalized students interested in attending law at the U of A.

Incidents occurred during the first May 4 forum that Mia Bottos, the LSA president, detailed in an email sent out to all law students the following day.

In the email, Bottos apologized for the incidents, specifically saying that she called a racialized student hostile, made facial expressions such as frowns and eye-rolls, and ate food when students were speaking. 

The Gateway reached out to the student Bottos called hostile, and they did not wish to speak on the record.

Bottos’s email apology said she described her actions as “disrespectful and unprofessional.”

“As a white person with a great deal of influence and institutional access, I absolutely need to be more mindful of my tone and my actions towards those who already experience a great deal of systemic and interpersonal violence,” she said in the email. “You deserve better.”

Anita Cardinal-Stewart, president of the Indigenous Law Students’ Association (ILSA), said that she doesn’t believe she’s alone in thinking the forums were “a trainwreck.” She compared the two student forums to the full year of consultation the faculty of law spent with students when a tuition increase was proposed in 2014

“100 per cent, I do not consider this adequate or meaningful consultation,” Cardinal-Stewart said. 

She said that the Dean of Law did not acknowledge the incidents in the subsequent student forum.

“It would have been good to at least have an official statement from the Dean, if not at the town hall, perhaps after the incident happened, as a way to provide clarity on her position,” she said. “It’s unfortunate … she didn’t attempt to mitigate the situation to begin with.”

Cardinal-Stewart highlighted that she recognizes how some students might have felt intimidated during the forum because the situation had gone unaddressed, but acknowledged that she herself felt heard. 

“[The feeling of intimidation] didn’t encompass everybody,” Cardinal-Stewart said. “I felt like I was able to speak and have my questions addressed for the most part, even if no solutions were substantially offered.”

In a statement released May 10, the Indigenous Law Students’ Association (ILSA) said that the pervasive nature of systemic issues such as “racism, prejudice, and bias in all forms” need denunciation and strong action. 

“We know there will be difficult conversations to be had and challenging decisions to be made in response to these events,” the statement said. “The work of dismantling systemic racism and discrimination takes all of us, and we are committed to … transparency and accountability.” 

Cardinal-Stewart said that the May 4 instance has made students wary of the LSA.

“There’s no doubt that there has been a loss of trust for the LSA to represent the students with regards to the tuition hike but with recent talks with them, we are hopeful that could change,” she said. 

LSA president apologizes for behaviour in email

In the email she sent out May 5, Bottos apologized to the students who were present at the first forum.

“It takes a great deal of courage and strength to come forward and speak in front of your Dean, the president of your LSA, and your peers, and I did not honour that with my actions,” Bottos said in the email.

In the email, Bottos attached her personal apology to the student she called hostile for “transparency and accountability.” In this email, she offered to remove herself as a moderator from the forums, to commit to ensuring “this does not happen again,” and to add an additional student forum that would be recorded for transparency. 

“I will do everything in my power, both as a person and as your LSA president, to ensure that BIPOC students feel welcomed to the table,” Bottos said in the email. “The challenges we are currently facing as a student body are hard enough without being marred by racist behaviour, and I promise to do better.”

Cardinal-Stewart said that she believes that Bottos is dedicated to working towards accountability and working with other student groups and individuals.

“There’s some really creative solutions that can help unite rather than divide [students],” she said. “I think working towards accountability and in the spirit of reconciliation will strive towards an equitable solution that tackles these systemic issues.”

Gavin Wilkes, who serves as an executive for both the Indigenous Law Students’ Association and the LSA, said that while he can’t speak on behalf of other Indigenous students, to him, Bottos’ apology “opens up the doors of communication.”

“Accountability has to be in place,” Wilkes said. “Apologizing is an appropriate step towards accountability.”

Forums a “missed opportunity,” Bottos said 

Bottos said that in hindsight, the LSA should not have accepted the offer to moderate the forums, calling it a “missed opportunity” to advocate for students. 

“We thought that it would help, but we should have joined the student forums as students and advocated and voiced our own opinions as well,” Bottos said. “This is a complex issue, and the overwhelming amount of student opinion is that this increase is going to negatively impact potential students that are already facing substantial systemic barriers.”

She said that she stands by “every word” of her initial apology.

“I behaved in a way that was not becoming of an elected student representative,” she said. “My behaviour was definitely unprofessional, and students deserve an apology for that.”

Like Cardinal-Stewart, Bottos compared the two forums to the year-long consultation in 2014, arguing that the current consultation process has not been “meaningful or substantial” in her view. 

“We still are lacking a lot of information on how the money would be used,” Bottos said. “Promises have been fairly ambiguous, and we lack the data to really be able to hold the faculty accountable to the things that they say they’re committed to, such as improving Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) culture within the law school.” 

Bottos said that she has been having “productive” conversations with members from student groups such as the Black Law Students’ Association (BLSA) and the Women’s Law Forum. Additionally, she said she is working very closely with the ILSA on both Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) efforts, in addition to advocacy efforts against the tuition increase.

“I’m hoping that now we can focus all our efforts as students on the tuition increase and work together to see what kind of impact we can have and hopefully continue to make our faculty an accessible and welcoming place for all students,” Bottos said. 

Focus must stay on proposed tuition hike, Cardinal-Stewart said

Ultimately, Cardinal-Stewart said that she hopes the voices of marginalized and racialized students will be heard when they dissent for the proposed tuition hikes.

“We don’t want to lose focus,” she said. “We all know how all these [proposed] tuition rates will affect diversity … when you’re looking at potential Indigenous and Métis law students who are wanting to come to the university or wanting to go to law school, that proposed 45 per cent hike presents a huge barrier for access.”

She said that the increase, should it be accepted, would contribute to systemic discrimination. 

“I think the incidents at the forums have actually presented an opportunity to look more closely at systemic racism and discrimination within the legal community,” she said. “Now we’re forced to talk about this further.”

Wilkes seconded Cardinal-Stewart, highlighting how the proposed tuition increase would only further barriers for diversity.

“As Indigenous students, we’re in an education system that has been built off of systemic racism,” Wilkes said. “The issue that we need to tackle now is how to unite and move forward and think about accessibility in education.”

He said that if the increases are instated, it will mean important opportunities will be taken away from would-be students. 

“There’s going to be some brilliant minds that aren’t going to be able to be here, because they won’t be able to afford it,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the message that the faculty should be putting across.” 

Dean comments on student forums

Barbara Billingsley, the Dean of Law, responded to student criticism that the May 4 incidents went unacknowledged in a statement provided to The Gateway on May 14.

“Speaking on behalf of myself and the Faculty of Law, we are committed to a process of mutual respect and collaborative discussion with all of our students on the difficult issue of the tuition increase proposal,” the Dean of Law said in the statement. 

She said that the faculty needs to “hear from each individual who wants to share their perspective.”

“In addition to our faculty-wide forums, we’ve invited students to share their individual feedback through anonymous forms, and I’ve also invited any Law student or Law student group who wishes to meet with me directly to reach out,” she said. “Continuing consultations in a respectful manner for all concerned remains my top priority. My faculty and I are committed to ensuring that all members of our community are welcome, heard and supported.”

Rachel Narvey

Rachel is the Gateway's 2020-21 Staff Reporter. This summer, she will complete her MA program in English and Film studies before returning to the U of A in the fall as an Education student. In her spare time she writes poetry and watches Jeopardy. You can often find her sitting alone, eating a burrito.

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