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Lakehead dean of law resigns claiming 'systemic racism'

Angelique EagleWoman says she was challenged by lack of funding for the program and ‘hostile’ environment
|Written By Jennifer Brown
Lakehead dean of law resigns claiming 'systemic racism'
Angelique EagleWoman was appointed the first Indigenous dean of law at a Canadian university in 2016.

Angelique EagleWoman says she has been the “victim of systemic discrimination” at Lakehead University and has resigned two years into being appointed the first Indigenous dean of law at a Canadian university.

“It’s been very hard,” says EagleWoman, who was appointed to the role in January 2016. “Unfortunately, I feel that Lakehead University [senior administration] presented themselves as wanting to have a strong Indigenous leader but in the actual day-to-day interactions took steps to minimize and undermine my authority and micromanage my work.”

She says the school played a “shell game” in terms of what they were really looking for in a dean of law for the school.

While she cited some law faculty colleagues such as associate professor Ryan Alford who “maintained order” during some of the “more aggressive” faculty council meetings where she says she was targeted, overall, she says, she felt she was not supported in fulfilling her mandate.

“I dealt with challenges both inside the law school and from the senior administration,” she says. “There was some egregious conduct to the level of written reprimand being issued, the most recent one in January.”

EagleWoman built her reputation as a law professor and legal scholar at the University of Idaho College of Law. At the time of her appointment, she told Canadian Lawyer the position at Lakehead was a “dream come true.”

However, over the last two years she says she faced “strong resistance” to any proposals or solutions she presented to faculty members.

“The response was often out of proportion to the significance of the issue, and so I saw that as personal attacks and attributable to attitudes about me as an Indigenous woman rather than a focus on curriculum or staffing or any other issue we were discussing,” she says. “In a way, it seemed as if they wanted to view the Indigenous curriculum as an add-on. They wanted me to be the Indigenous face but not act as an Indigenous person or bring in Indigenous processes or make it part of the fabric of the law school, which is an impossible task for any person. You bring in and contribute from who you are.”

In an emailed response, a Lakehead University spokesperson said the school “acknowledges” Dean Eaglewoman’s resignation date of June 30.

When asked to respond to the allegations of systemic racism, it provided the following statement:

“Lakehead embraces the fact that it has students, faculty and staff from various Indigenous communities, and dozens of countries from around the world learning, teaching, researching, working, and living together on our two campuses.

"Lakehead has made exceptional efforts to create an environment where students, faculty, and staff can come together to learn, teach, work, and live in a university community.

"Lakehead has many exceptional people and groups working hard to promote and facilitate an inclusive culture for all members of our diverse University community, including, among others, our Office of Human Rights & Equity, our Office of Aboriginal Initiatives, our chair on Truth & Reconciliation, our Ogimaawin-Aboriginal Governance Council, our Faculty of Law’s Aboriginal Advisory Committee, the President’s Advisory Council on Truth & Reconciliation, Lakehead’s Anti-Racism Committee, Lakehead’s Aboriginal Education department, as well as the Lakehead University Student Union’s Pride Central, Gender Issues Centre, Aboriginal Awareness Centre and Multicultural Centre.”

EagleWoman says she was also the subject of a complaint of reverse discrimination at the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. She hired her own lawyers in February and they had her name successfully withdrawn from the complaint. The university said it “cannot comment on this because the settlement remains subject to confidentiality.”

“That was a cloud that hung over me as I moved forward and tried to stabilize the law school,” EagleWoman says.

She also found herself having to step in to teach mandatory Indigenous law courses since winter term 2017 because of a shortage of resources for the necessary hiring she says should have been in place for the law school.

The full complement of the faculty was to be nine tenure-track professors and the dean, but it never reached that level. Currently, the school has six professors plus a one-year contract person.

“And we have no Indigenous law scholar, with the exception of me, and I will be the third Indigenous law scholar to leave and I think that really signals there are some major issues here,” she says.

EagleWoman says she tried to address those issues by recommending cultural competency training and mediation with elders but wasn’t supported by senior administration to conduct those sessions.

“I came in very enthusiastic. I really cared about what the law school stood for. I created infrastructure the law school didn’t have for developing policies and from day one it was hectic,” she says. “I’m really proud of putting in place a solid staffing structure, which included hiring a director of Indigenous relations and director of student services and skills.” 

She also cited a sit-in protest that took place prior to her arriving at the school in the president’s office over his exclusion of certain Indigenous topics in the law school curriculum.

“I saw my role as really healing and repairing those relationships with the Indigenous community,” she says.

The resignation of EagleWoman is "disappointing," says Naiomi Metallic, a member of the Indigenous Bar Association and assistant professor of law and Chancellor's Chair in Aboriginal Law and Policy at Dalhousie University's Schulich School of Law. "She was a real inspiration. We had her at an IBA conference speaking about what Lakehead was doing two years ago in B.C. I think everyone thought it was inspiring. It's really disappointing to hear she is leaving so soon and under such circumstances."

Metallic says that unless there are people who are "real champions" throughout a university, it can be hard to deal with systemic discrimination. "My experience here over the last couple of years has been really good because I find there are some people in upper administration who are clear champions and you need that leadership. The thing is she was in upper administration."

The teaching load EagleWoman was carrying also shocked Metallic. 

"That's crazy to have that and also be the dean."

EagleWoman says there is a “real need” for students in Northern Ontario to be able to access legal education and it’s one of the things that makes the Bora Laskin Law School so important.

“Because of that there needs to be a welcoming environment for Indigenous students, staff and faculty,” she says, noting that in her time at the university the number of Indigenous students increased every year. There are now 10 Indigenous law students in the 1L program — the highest it’s ever been.

“Each student makes a difference, not just in their lives and their families but for the future generation. This kind of curriculum for Indigenous students and for allies is what will bring about really necessary changes that were called for in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission call for action,” she says. “There is so much potential and promise here, but there has to be the training behind it so that the faculty members and senior administration are all on the same page in terms of what the goals are for the law school and what kind of environment should be here.”

She points out that the university has also had two Indigenous relations directors and is now on its third.

“There is a climate issue here and I felt it was time to say something about it,” she says. “If I simply walked away, I was just leaving a hostile environment for the next Indigenous person who came to this law school and I don’t feel I can do that.”

She also feels there is a lot of denial in Thunder Bay generally and at the university about what racism is and what systemic racism looks like.

“In a leadership position, you have to be open about it and talk about it and that’s what I did, and instead of engaging in that conversation with me, which is the truth part of the Truth and Reconciliation framework, it’s just been a denial. Until you have an open mind and an open heart, you can’t make changes,” she says.

EagleWoman says she will be going on medical leave due to stress at the end of April but will remain in the community until her son, who attends a local high school, finishes Grade 9.

“I’ve been really worried about him since we came. We came right as the inquest for the Seven Fallen Feathers was happening,” she says. “I worry about him walking the streets of Thunder Bay because you hear about random attacks on Indigenous people and men and so that’s been a bit distressing.”

  • Indigenous Law

    ShanLee Mann
    Where are the libraries filled with books containing Indigenous Law? How do we determine the whys and wherefores of cultural justice when there has been no written record? Surely it's not hearsay and platitudes whispered among elders.

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