An apology is not only warranted, it’s expected
By Nickita Longman, contributor & First Nations University of Canada Alumnus
It’s been nearly a week since the national CBC article made waves of the University of Regina’s Woodrow Lloyd Lecture standing firm in their controversial invitation to Canada’s former poet laureate and University of Toronto professor George Elliott Clarke. The controversy was rooted in the subject of Clarke’s lecture, titled “‘Truth and Reconciliation’ versus ‘the Murdered and Missing’: Examining Indigenous Experiences of (In)Justice in Four Saskatchewan Poets.”
Digging deeper into Clarke’s history revealed a close working relationship with Steven Kummerfield/Brown – a former U of R student and one of two convicted murderers in the death of Pamela George. More fuel was added to the fire when Clarke dangled his privileged position in the face of the Indigenous community, referring to them a “lynch mob” and vaguely stating that he “may or may not read” the work of Kummerfield as an institutionally invited guest in Pamela George’s home territory.
Although Indigenous campus members and allies attempted to alert the Woodrow Lloyd Lecture committee of the insensitivity and lack of consultation for the event, the University of Regina dug its heels in under the thin guise of academic freedom of speech. Richard Kleer, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, specifically stated that cancelling the lecture would “go against everything a university should stand for.” For the most part, President Vianne Timmons remained silent over the matter, sending her own message entirely by doing so.
I am sure Kleer and the U of R administration is aware of the concept of freedom of speech, but perhaps this situation begs the reminder that this does not mean freedom of consequences. The controversy resulted in a public demand of cancellation from FSIN leaders and a petition created by Idle No More with over 5,000 signatories.
On Twitter, a Woodrow Lloyd Lecture’s previous invitee Pamela Palmater expressed her dismay in the university, along with many other Indigenous activists, academics, and thinkers across Turtle Island. The campus community also expressed their dismay and a letter of disappointment was issued from the First Nations University’s Student Association while the resignations of two faculty members from the Lecture committee sent a clear message. Kleer, Timmons, and the university are now left in their own mess of repercussions.
However, in an unexpected turn of events, Clarke did what the university should have done from the beginning and cancelled his own participation in the lecture and issued an apology for the hurt he caused to the Indigenous community.
If the U of R is as committed to reconciliation and Indigenization efforts as they claim, then they too need to issue a proper apology and demonstrate concrete accountability. Specifically, a public apology for the wounds re-opened to families of murdered and missing Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit folks needs to be issued immediately. As well, the university needs to apologize to the Indigenous students, staff, faculty and allies for dismissing their efforts of trying to appropriately deal with this situation out of the prying eyes of the public.
And last, the university needs to strongly reevaluate the additional labour it imposes on Indigenous students, staff, faculty, and campus Elders. Accountability for the university’s missteps should not fall onto the shoulders of another Indigenous-led committee, and a strong policy that implements a serious and rigorous procedure to address the concerns of the Indigenous community as they arise needs to be created and practised by all levels of the institution.
In closing, I would like to remind the institution that it rests on stolen land and conducting oneself in a respectful way to the Indigenous peoples of that land is the bare minimum to honouring the treaties that benefit such guests. Maintaining good relationships with the Indigenous community is crucial to the university’s future.