A student-led PhD-level seminar that I attended included a discussion of population ecology and sockeye salmon. However, midway through the seminar, the facilitators put up a slide with a quote by some academic about “Indigenous North Americans.” This was meant as the subject for the next round of small group discussions, but once others heard and saw my reaction, they wisely pivoted, and returned to discussing wildlife. I was left quietly fuming.

A little later there is a discussion of values related to harvesting. In the reporting back another group says they discussed the values of Indigenous people — yes, singular. Thankfully they didn’t go any further to explain. The last straw was when a woman in another group boldly stated that people that live a subsistence lifestyle just to wipe out populations because of food insecurity, like we all know this to be a truth.

So I quietly exploded, stating that, in fact, that is a fallacy; subsistence populations know the value of caring for the resources — bad word, I know — that they depend on, plenty of literature on that subject. And the real issue is Western capitalism and colonialism — the need for sea-doos, the latest and greatest cell phone, SUVs and McMansions. Global food production is three times the caloric need of every human yet one third of that is wasted and people are left to starve to death and go hungry.

There was total silence.

And then the seminar continues with the discussion. It drags on and on because everyone is vying to talk, simply to earn marks. At this point in the discussion, I’m hoping to leave and there’s no quick way to duck out. I have to disturb half the class to get to the door, which I do. And I don’t care if they heard the expletives that spewed out once I was safely in the hallway.

The first thing I did when I got home was drop the course. I don’t need the course so it is no big deal. What is a big deal, however, is that this experience happens in almost every course.

It did during my undergrad degree — I was exhausted, angry, and disillusioned by the end. I love studying science and I fool myself into believing that I can just be me and do the science. This isn’t enough for me to turn my back on getting what I want from the Institution.

I do think the university is trying and my program, supervisor, and the other students are very supportive, shockingly so, in fact. However, this course is from another department than most of the ones I take. I think that is what I find so alienating — I let my guard down because I actually felt comfortable but, clearly, I shouldn’t have let my guard down.

I have several issues with experiences like this. First, situations like this are not being addressed by anyone but me, and this fact leaves me with anger and alienation. Second, we, First Nations, are always homogenized and treated as if we are one people. The fact that even PhD students are making this assumption is particularly alarming. After all, would anyone suggest that all Europeans are culturally or linguistically the same? What about Asians? How about people from the Caribbean? I’m hoping that you get my point. 

My last question, and the most troubling one: do people see us, First Nations, as people or as just research subjects? I’m wondering why it is that we’re always raised as a topic for discussion. In these types of science discussions, I haven’t heard any other type of people used as a topic for discussion or as a research subject, just Indigenous peoples. 

I sent this letter out of pure frustration, hoping that someone else had pitched something similar to the Indigenous issue. I just want to give others an idea of what First Nations students like me experience. 

Stephanie Allen, of Kanien’keha:ka, Six Nations of the Grand River, is a first-year PhD student in the Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences at UTSC.