Jennifer Yang, The Star, April 11, 2018
In 2016, Angelique EagleWoman packed up her life in the United States and moved north to Thunder Bay, where she became the first Indigenous dean of a Canadian law school. Her appointment at Lakehead University’s law faculty was celebrated as “historic” by the Indigenous legal community and felt particularly poignant in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In Thunder Bay, where race relations are particularly fraught, it was a hopeful moment.
But less than two years into the job, EagleWoman is quitting, alleging systemic racism at Lakehead University. Writing to the law faculty’s Aboriginal Advisory Committee on March 7, she said her efforts have been “thwarted” by the university, which “systematically sought to minimize” her work as dean.
EagleWoman said she also faced allegations of reverse discrimination. In November 2016 — just months into her first year — a former employee filed a human rights complaint against EagleWoman and Lakehead, accusing the dean of bullying and firing her because she is a “young blonde Caucasian woman.”
EagleWoman says there is “no truth” to the allegations and she was removed as a respondent to the complaint in March. The case was recently settled by the university, which does not necessarily mean the allegations were substantiated but that a negotiated deal was reached between the parties.
“I have been the victim of systemic discrimination at Lakehead University,” EagleWoman wrote in her March letter. “I have felt constantly challenged by a lack of funding, a hostile environment, and other negative actions directed at me as an Indigenous woman. It has reached a point that I am under such mental and emotional stress that it is untenable for me to stay.”
The rupture between EagleWoman and Lakehead University underscores the entrenched difficulty of making systemic changes, even when everybody shares the same overarching goal. “It’s a tragedy,” said Celina Reitberger, former executive director of the Nishnawbe-Aski Legal Services who worked closely with EagleWoman. “It’s going to leave a huge gap.”
When the law school’s first dean quit in 2015, EagleWoman — a respected Indigenous legal scholar and accomplished lawyer — seemed an ideal replacement.
The Bora Laskin Faculty of Law was founded in 2013 with the backing of local communities like Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which pushed for the creation of a law school that emphasized Indigenous people and law.
This was particularly needed in Thunder Bay, a city with acute problems of anti-Indigenous racism. The faculty’s Indigenous mandate became all the more timely after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which called on law schools to offer mandatory Indigenous courses.
In emailed statements, Lakehead University emphasized its “unwavering” commitment to its core pillars, including Aboriginal and Indigenous law. The university said it makes “exceptional efforts” to foster an inclusive culture and was committed to ensuring EagleWoman’s success.
“The university worked hard with the dean to address matters she brought to our attention during her employment,” read the statement.
But in her first interview about her resignation, EagleWoman said meaningful change requires “deliberate efforts” and “systemic racism doesn’t magically disappear by bringing in the Indigenous person, even in a leadership position.”
“I knew there would be challenges,” she said. “What I didn’t expect was lots of resistance and a sense that my opinions as dean coming in were not going to be taken seriously or valued. Right from the beginning, I was putting out fires constantly.”
EagleWoman said she was accused of focusing too much on the Indigenous mandate and often felt targeted as an Indigenous woman.
Her repeated requests to provide cultural competency training for law faculty and administration “fell on deaf ears,” she said. In the last academic year, she also taught all of the mandatory Indigenous courses, working seven days a week to juggle her significant course load with the demands of being dean.
Before resigning, EagleWoman said she offered mediated conversations to both senior administrators and the law faculty but her requests were denied.
“I’m very exhausted,” EagleWoman said. “It’s been a difficult decision (to resign). However, I have to put my health and my family first at this time.”
Lakehead University does not comment on personnel matters so could not answer questions about EagleWoman’s departure. The university declined to share their response to the human rights complaint or answer questions about it, citing settlement confidentiality.
The complainant Amanda Trevisanutto, a former office administrator with Lakehead University’s community legal clinic, also said she could not speak about her complaint. But her filing with the tribunal, obtained by the Star, illustrates some of the issues that simmered during EagleWoman’s tenure.
In her complaint, Trevisanutto said she always received “stellar” performance reviews but within five weeks of EagleWoman’s arrival, she was terminated with “no justification.” She alleged that five out of seven administrative staff were fired or had their employment status “adversely impacted” by September 2016, “representing over 70 per cent of the wholly Caucasian female administrative personnel.”
“Meanwhile, Ms. EagleWoman and Lakehead University had been busy procuring the services of Aboriginal employees to join the university,” she wrote, referencing two Indigenous people appointed as director of Indigenous relations and the university’s chair on Truth and Reconciliation.
She added that “while there is nothing inherently wrong with these appointments, a closer look at the recruitment process brings to light discriminatory elements in hiring.” She said the job posting for her replacement called for “cultural competency” — something she interpreted as discriminatory towards her as a non-Indigenous person who does not have “knowledge of specific cultural practices gained through immersion within Aboriginal culture.”
Trevisanutto further alleged that EagleWoman bullied her and once made a sexist remark, commenting in a “condescending tone” that she looked like a “supermodel.”
“Ms. EagleWoman had already concluded that because Ms. Trevisanutto is a young blonde Caucasian female that she must not be very smart, she must have obtained her success based on looks, and that she is not deserving of her job,” she alleged. “These types of assumptions continue to plague Ontario workplaces and are precisely the type of assumptions that perpetuate inequality.”
EagleWoman said she did not renew Trevisanutto’s contract because she was concerned about her professionalism, “especially since she was the administrative assistant for a low-income clinic where the majority of clients were Aboriginal.” She declined to comment further on specific allegations, which her lawyers said were “all unfounded, which would likely have been the finding of the (human rights tribunal) had the matter proceeded.”
In her complaint, Trevisanutto described EagleWoman as “curt,” “dismissive” and “aggressive” — descriptors echoed by another former employee, who declined to be interviewed on the record.
That employee identified Gilbert Deschamps, the law faculty’s former director of Indigenous relations, as someone EagleWoman “berated.” But Deschamps said he found the dean to be a “very kind woman.”
“Hearing people say she was cold … she was extremely busy. She didn’t have a lot of time to sit down and chit chat,” said Deschamps, who now works at the University of Ottawa. “If a man had been in that role, they would have said he’s hard driving and focused … but for an Indigenous woman, people have different attitudes.”
To Karen Drake, one of Bora Laskin’s founding Indigenous faculty members, EagleWoman was “incredibly smart” and “inspirational.” “It was really powerful to have her as a dean,” said Drake, who left Lakehead last year for a job with York University. “It’s a real loss for the faculty.”
The Indigenous Bar Association, which trumpeted EagleWoman’s historic appointment in 2016, is now in shock over her resignation, said president Scott Robertson. (His law firm, Nahwegahbow, Corbiere, is representing EagleWoman but Robertson said he has no involvement with her case.)
Robertson said the circumstances around EagleWoman’s departure are “murky” and he doesn’t want to fault Lakehead University without knowing any specifics. But he emphasized that law schools are conservative spaces that are stubbornly resistant to change.
“Any time you challenge establishments, you get pushback,” he said. “My question is … what was the university doing to help? What were they doing to facilitate and what were they doing to frustrate?”