Flags reading “Yukon University” hang from light standards leading up to the school in Whitehorse on May 26. A Yukon First Nations instructor at Yukon University has penned a letter to the school’s board of directors and president calling for immediate action to address systemic racism within the institution. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

YukonU instructor pens letter urging immediate action to address systemic racism

A Yukon First Nations instructor at Yukon University has penned a letter to the school’s board of directors and president calling for immediate action to address systemic racism within the institution.

In a letter sent and shared publicly online on June 22, Lianne Marie Leda Charlie, an instructor with the university’s Indigenous governance program and of Tagé Cho Hudän (Big River People) heritage, called on leadership to undertake four key measures “to the elimination of racism, discrimination, and oppression at YukonU.”

Those measures include the university acknowledging and beginning to rectify how post-secondary institutions are “complicit in systemic racism, discrimination, and oppression that disproportionately affects the lives, careers, and educational experiences of Black, Indigenous, and racially minoritized people;” collecting and distribute statistics on how many leadership and senior management positions are held by Black, Indigenous and racially-minoritized staff; making “a series of immediately actionable commitments” to address the underpresentation of Black, Indigenous and racialized staff and students; and supporting the “creation of Indigenous-centered, anti-oppressive frameworks of education that create the conditions to allow diversity and inclusion hires to participate freely and fully in their leadership roles at YukonU.”

“While I understand the impulse to respond to this letter by highlighting what YukonU is already doing to confront systematic racism, discrimination, and oppression within the organization, perhaps by highlighting YukonU’s reconciliation and indigenization efforts, I want to reiterate here that this is not the ask,” Charlie wrote.

“I am calling on the institution to provide an actionable plan that reflects the ongoingness of the violence entrenched in the experiences of previous and current Black, Indigenous, and racially minoritized faculty, staff, and students, particularly those who identify as Black.”

In an interview June 29, Charlie said she was inspired to act after feeling a “personal impetus to respond to the Black Lives Matter uprisings taking place across Turtle Island,” and also as a woman of the Wolf Clan on whose territory the university’s Whitehorse campus sits.

“Just working there, I know that there are very few Black, Indigenous and racially-minoritized staff. I know just by being there, so I saw that as a foundational element to begin this work,” she said.

As of the morning of June 30, nearly 200 people, including other Yukon University staff, have added their names to the open letter.

The chair of Yukon University’s Board of Governors David Morrison, outgoing president Karen Barnes, incoming president Mike DeGagné and executive director of external and government relations Jacqueline Bedard have since responded. In separate letters dated June 23 and June 26, Morrison, Barnes and DeGagné and then Bedard thanked Charlie for raising the issues and acknowledged they needed to be dealt with, but said work wouldn’t begin until DeGagné arrives on July 2.

Charlie, who has penned a reply and plans on writing another, said she didn’t think that response was acceptable and that the university was using delay tactics. Several members of YukonU’s senior management and executive have signed on to her first letter, she noted both in her interview with the News and her reply letter, and work can immediately begin with them.

Outgoing president Barnes, Charlie told the News, had about a month left in leadership as Black Lives Matter protests began to spread internationally and could have made a statement acknowledging YukonU’s complicity in holding up systemic racism, like other institutions have. She also could have began work with her team that could have carried over to DeGagné taking over.

“I understand we’re going through a leadership transition, but this is bigger,” Charlie said.

“I feel like the issues that are happening around in … Black, Indigenous and racially-minoritized communities, there’s no more time to wait. And I struggle with this … but I witnessed the university maneuver in really innovative ways in response to the pandemic and then stall and be silent in response to state and policing violences and an increase in awareness of this reality that has persistent for a long, long time and do nothing.”

In an email, Yukon University’s vice president of academic and student services Janet Welch wrote June 29 that DeGagné, once he starts as president, will “lead the development of such plans.”

“We believe that developing a meaningful plan to address these issues should not be done in isolation, nor in unreasonable haste,” Welch wrote. “We want to get it right … The fact that senior leaders at this institution signed Ms. Charlie’s first open letter in support demonstrates that we are committed to doing so. Proceeding without our partners, the new president and our students to create plans has the potential to exacerbate the very challenge we are trying to acknowledge and change.”

Charlie said she plans on continuing, with the support of a collective made up of people both connected to and unaffiliated with the university, to hold YukonU to account.

She acknowledged the work was “risky,” even with the privilege of having a permanent position at the school, but important.

“I think the fact that I did write this letter and have dedicated so much intellectual and emotional labour to its distribution … I think that speaks to the faith that I have in my colleagues,” she said. “We are calling out the systemic racism, discrimination and oppression within the actual infrastructure, the system, and the structure of an institution… that I don’t trust, obviously, if we’re trying to call attention to the fact that it’s built on systemic racism and the like, but I have faith in the people to take up responsibility to change it, to make something better.”

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

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