Lawyer, professor, Mi’kmaq woman: Equity matters in my experience

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Patricia Doyle-Bedwell, Dalhousie University
Guest Contributor

This blog post is part of the Federation Equity Portfolio’s ‘Equality Then and Now’ series, marking 40 years since the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. Look for more on this topic in upcoming posts and at Congress 2010.

I am a Mi’kmaq woman who also holds an academic post and, to many, it appears that I have succeeded in the mainstream educational system. I have pondered the issue of equity.  I have tried to wrap my head around the abstract notion of equity within my own experience and work. I also direct the Transition Year Program (TYP) at Dalhousie University, a preparation year for African Nova Scotians and Aboriginal – Mi’kmaq – students.  I am a firm believer in what I call the Nike school of equity, “Just Do It.”  But just doing it seems to be more difficult than ever.

As a law student, I asked a constitutional expert (naively I know now) why the Canadian Government does not ensure all laws meet the standard of equality as set out in the Charter. He stopped short and looked at me with surprise. He sputtered an answer about keeping lawyers employed. I never understood why a country such as Canada did not have equity/equality as foundational qualities of lawmaking and power sharing.  I never received an adequate answer. Equity matters because equity means respecting our fellow humans, regardless of colour, creed, religion and race. To only talk about equity while refusing to implement equity measures due to the difficulty of unmasking one’s own limitations reduces equity to a simple vacuous concept.

In this blog, I hope to explore the meaning of equity in my life and work. As Director of TYP, I have implemented equitable principles in our program to ensure that accommodation of difference receives respect and acceptance. First, TYP’s vision has remained unchanged: to increase the number of Aboriginal and African Canadians in university. Prior to 1969, few African Nova Scotians and Aboriginal students gained entry into Dalhousie. Community leaders advocated for the inclusion of those students. When Dalhousie, in response, relied upon “we only accept the cream of the crop” argument, TYP became the program to ensure students met the academic standards of admission to Dalhousie.

Prior to TYP, students did not have a means to obtain the academic requirements to gain entry into university. Residential schools, segregated schools, and a racist school system that refused to see African Nova Scotians and Mi’kmaq students as anything but domestics and labourers prevented students from studying academic courses.  Subsequently, students often graduated from high school (if they did) without the courses needed for university admission. Far from being the fault of the individual, the systemic racism and segregation actively stunted or ignored the academic potential of students. Yet the failure of students to attend university became one of individual failure, not systemic racism. Thus, TYP became the vehicle to better the individual.

Over 1000 students have passed through our doors.  At the beginning, students from both communities had deficits because of race that had to be remedied. The course load hoped to fill in some of these deficits such as lack of writing and reading skills, in order to ensure their preparedness for university.  But race could never be overcome.  No one asked students if they wanted to overcome their race, the institution assumed that was the appropriate course of action. Students maintained connection to their communities within an institution that refused to acknowledge that link.

Underlying the need to prepare students for university lay a twisted logic, a logic that led to educational policies of focusing on a strict and limited standard one had to meet to prove one’s ‘fitness’ for mainstream education: to ‘overcome’ race. In other words, students had to effectively promise to allow mainstream education to assimilate you into a nice white person. That twisted logic permeated all affirmative action programs at university. That somehow, students from minority communities could leave those communities behind and assimilate seamlessly into the majority culture.

Equity in Canada has always meant accommodating difference. I interpret that as allowing diverse cultures to adhere to their own ways of doing, knowing, speaking and living.  However, moving into the monolithic university culture left no room for difference or the other. So TYP hoped to change students and encourage them to leave their souls behind for the sake of mainstream success. But students did not go gently into that dark night of assimilation. Students held onto their culture and identity while resisting the pressure of the mainstream. TYP students have gone on to become social workers, lawyers, teachers, nurses, RCMP officers (to name a few), while maintaining their connection to community. Yet with each person who managed to succeed, a few left the path, unable to bridge the cultural divide and either unwilling or unable to negotiate the cultural chaos within themselves. At the same time, mainstream institutions blissfully continued their culturally hegemonic ways.

I also directed the Program for Indigenous Blacks and Mi’kmaq (IBM) at Dalhousie Law School.  Here, the law school expected students from both communities to assimilate into the mainstream. The focus always remained on the student’s ability to succeed within an environment that expressed at best, little or no respect for their culture and at worse, total contempt. The institution did nothing to accommodate difference, even going so far as to say that speaking in one’s native tongue was a disability.  So while they held the door open, none of us could change the very attributes that led us to law school through an affirmative action program: our race, and more importantly, yet unspoken, our culture.

I remember reading old documents about the Indigenous Blacks and Mi’kmaq initiative that spoke of our cultures as a deficit, a disability, a disadvantage. The question remained: a disadvantage for whom? At the law school, the admission of students through a program, initiative or whatever they defined it, meant “less than.” Instead of seeing diverse students bringing unique skills and talents to the class room, the law school did not want to acknowledge any positive attribution we possessed. As one dean said to me, “we never had these [racial conflict] problems until we had the program.”

Cultural conflict begins when the institutions refuse to acknowledge the continued connection to culture and community that students maintain while studying. I have discovered that interwoven into equity issues, the issue of culture, gender, race, and the accommodation of difference remain elusive. The simplicity of “equal means the same” belies the complexity of accommodation of difference that the mainstream prefers to ignore. Accommodation of difference continues to suggest “less than” and unequal treatment. The mainstream institution has refused to critically examine issues of knowledge, relevance, and retention of minority students, instead seeing student failure as a personal one, rather than one that may be based upon the inflexibility of mainstream norms.

Because of my experience at law school and as director of the IBM initiative, I approached TYP with a vision, not unlike the original vision of preparing students for university. How to accomplish that goal meant more than reading and writing.  First and foremost, TYP had to acknowledge and respect community connection. To respect community connections means involving community members at all levels of TYP programming. We need to accommodate difference, in real terms. That meant exploring learning styles, and respecting the communities that all students called home.

Implementing real change calls for bold leadership and the ability to encourage others to feel part of the whole. Many times the decisions I have made prove to be unpopular with the mainstream.  I do not see my students as “less than,” but instead acknowledge their contributions to the courses based upon their experiences and culture.  Most importantly, we teach students to negotiate that cultural divide while advocating for change in the larger university structure.  I cannot say that I have fully succeeded. Equity matters because universities must accommodate a wide variety of students. Most often our students may fall off the path, and do not complete a degree in four years.  I have strongly argued that completing a degree in four years may not be possible for many of our students due to barriers such as poverty, family responsibilities, racism, and conflict. The fact that we have students that graduate within five-six years does not show a lack of skill but instead illustrates perseverance and how effectively students handle the complexity of managing family and studies.

But the diversity tide (or tsunami) has begun to shift. The population has begun to shift in favour of minority populations. Soon, in my lifetime, visible minorities and Aboriginal people will begin to outnumber the mainstream. Universities have seen the writing on the wall at least in terms of declining enrolments and subsequent lack of tuition money. As a result, universities have begun the tenuous journey of self-reflection, to delineate the institutional barriers that limit diverse populations from participating fully in the university experience. Institutions have also begun to realize the essential need to include community members and leaders in their journey to make university a fulfilling experience.

How do we measure equity and progress in discernable ways?  By offering evidence-based research that shows types of degrees, jobs, and curriculum changes that reflect our students’ ways of knowing. We offer relevant courses that teach the history of each community, allowing students to have a more holistic understanding of current social issues that impact them. Understanding our history gives students a strong sense of self, by discovering the resistance of our ancestors to colonialism and the resilience we relied upon to keep our communities strong. Negative stereotypes become debunked and students understand that the mainstream has used our peoples for wealth, land, and labour. Students begin to accept themselves and their communities with a fresher understanding of the social forces of racism and discrimination. We hope to build strength and resilience in our own student body that will serve them well as they continue their education in an environment that barely accepts their presence.

At TYP, we understand that curriculum development must reflect the diversity of the student body.  For over twenty years, TYP taught the only courses on African History and Aboriginal studies, and for over forty years, those courses did not have credit. TYP has faculty members from both communities that teach our history courses. Today, we need more courses in African Canadian studies, Aboriginal studies, taught in ways that reflect the students’ learning style and knowledge. The need for academics from diverse cultures has increased while the actual numbers of faculty remain low. The need for courses relevant to our communities taught by members of those communities currently occupies the administration.  How do we increase the number of faculty members from diverse communities?

To make equity relevant requires concrete action. Hiring people who represent our communities remains a significant hurdle.  The limitations of institutional vision hinder the hiring of diverse members of faculty because, again, those in power only see race and the negative stereotypes of our communities. Even when we have succeeded by their terms, those in power will seek to devalue that accomplishment either through the negative assessment of “affirmative action” or the application of standards (i.e. complete a degree in four years) that do not fit our experience.  Scrutinizing research and writing to ensure “objectivity” flies in the face of our culture that demands we seek truth from within.  Most often  non-Aboriginal peoples teach Aboriginal issues in their “objective ways “ and bring in a speaker  (me) who might be able to talk about the experience of living in Canada as an Aboriginal woman in an hour and a half.  “How cute, storytelling is a value of Indigenous cultures and here we have our own little storyteller,” does not move equity forward, as we become little more than circus performers instead of valued teachers.

One day, after hearing about another suicide in the Mi’kmaq nation, it suddenly occurred to me that our youth must learn about resilience and action to understand where we come from.  The strength of our own ancestors and the reliance on our elders reignites the fire within each of us, to be proud, to be free from colonial constructs such as racism and discrimination. If the concept of equity continues to underpin our legal philosophy, it must find expression in our everyday lives. Universities educate the leaders of our society. To ignore equity and the principles of respect and accommodation of difference will turn our society into unrecognizable chaos of unfairness. To achieve equitable principles requires the participation of all members.

At one time, I could not be a lawyer, a professor and a Mi’kmaq woman. Today I am. Universities must incorporate practices that reflect diversity and accommodation so that both become possible in an environment that supports and encourages the whole person.

Patricia Doyle-Bedwell is an assistant professor and Director of the Transition Year Program (TYP) in the College of Continuing Education at Dalhousie University and the Past Chair of the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women.


Equity Matters



My Name is Michelle Herbert and I am Cree from MB, and AB. I am wanting to apply for this program. I have my BISW from FNU/Uof R and also this degree has transfer credits from Lakeland College and UofC.
I chose the SIFC campus over UofC for a more cultural perspective to sw from a FN point of view. I find this article very interesting and I would like to see if I can make an app't to get academic counselling in regards to this. I have possible funding from my Band and I am also a single mom of 1.

Thank you , michelle l. Herbert

hi everyone, michelle please email me. i am glad to hear that you are interested in pursuing law. Law was my dream too, and I am happy that i had the opportunity to study law despite the difficulties I face as a single mom as well.
please keep in touch