The grand opening of the redeveloped Merchants Corner in Winnipeg’s North End in April 2018. (University of Winnipeg/Flickr), CC BY-NC-ND

Murray Sinclair, who was chair of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has made clear the importance of “forging and maintaining of respectful relationships” in the process of truth and reconciliation.

At the department of urban and inner-city studies at the University of Winnipeg, we aim to create a safe and supportive space for Indigenous and other structurally disadvantaged learners who would otherwise not attend university. We also aim to build trusting relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. These aims are central to our decolonizing approach.

Although remote learning has been necessary during COVID-19, it has disrupted our ability to engage students in the kind of meaningful, often uncomfortable, dialogue that is critical to moving from truth toward reconciliation and action. Our research is ongoing, but initial surveys sent to students confirm that the majority of students want be back in class at our unique location.

Heart of Indigenous activism

We are located in Winnipeg’s North End, a largely Indigenous neighbourhood that has long both struggled with and resisted the devastating effects of colonial policies.

Our building sits on a corner where an old vacant hotel, the Merchants Hotel, was repurposed into a multi-generational learning building in response to the wishes of the local Indigenous community. Today, our campus is known as Merchants Corner.

We have learned that welcoming students who wish to learn about inner-city issues in an inner-city space with individuals experiencing poverty, racism and oppression is an important part of reconciliation in a city that is infamously known for its anti-Indigenous racism and north/south geographic divide.

The Merchants Hotel in July 2015. (University of Winnipeg/Flickr), CC BY-NC-ND

The North End neighbourhood has been the heart of Indigenous activism in the city. We share some stories of this resistance in a forthcoming book which we will use as a textbook in a course we will offer at Merchants Corner. Far too many people aren’t aware of the history of Indigenous resistance and development in our city. Kathy Mallett, book co-editor, Indigenous activist, knowledge keeper and one of the authors of this article, shares:

Many Indigenous people have worked tirelessly, with passion and commitment, to resist systemic racism and colonization. We have made progress, standing on the shoulders of our ancestors. The North End campus at Merchants Corner is one of many organic developments in Winnipeg’s inner city, advocated for by the Indigenous community for many decades.

Post-secondary education has been on the agenda of Indigenous activists since the 1960s. In those early days universities and colleges did not make space for Indigenous peoples. Our children and grand-children must now stand on our shoulders to challenge oppressive systems and reclaim our space. Sharing our stories — our truth — in the North End, with Indigenous students and their non-Indigenous allies, is the best way to ensure that our work continues. Reconciliation begins here.

A woman drums while a young man writes on a chalk wall.
People at Merchants Corner in September 2015. (University of Winnipeg/Flickr), CC BY-NC-ND

Transforming for students

Research informing the development of our program shows that structurally disadvantaged students thrive in physical learning environments where they feel safe to openly question and actively challenge oppressive systems and structures. Indigenous students tell us that university learning environments, with large class sizes and where racism, discrimination and cultural insensitivity continue to be a reality, typically don’t work well for them.

For non-Indigenous students, learning in the inner city with people for whom the inner city has long been home — many who have known poverty and racism as everyday experiences — the meaning of being an “ally” begins to become more than a concept learned from a textbook. This is particularly true for non-Indigenous students who benefit from the privileges of being white and middle class.

Learning at our campus in the North End has been described by students as transforming the way they understand the social, economic and racial divides in our city. Moving from in-person learning to remote learning presented a philosophical and teaching challenge for our department.

An elder and a young man are seen wearing hard hats smiling and swinging a hammer against a brick wall.
Elder Ann Callahan and student Kevin Settee swing the first hammer at the demolition of the old Merchants Hotel in September 2015. (University of Winnipeg/Flickr), CC BY-NC-ND

What students have said

Adapting to online learning was difficult for many of our students. Some found it sufficiently challenging that they chose not to take courses remotely and this has left them further behind.

In their survey responses, students described barriers including inadequate access to technology, lack of child care and crowded living spaces with nowhere quiet to participate in synchronous online courses. But the biggest concern noted by students is missing the interaction with teachers and peers.

A common theme was that online classes were “less engaging and personal.”
Among student comments were:

“I enjoy in-person classes at Merchants Corner because it is really inviting and it is nice to talk with different people.”

“ … online, the sense of community is lacking … urban and inner city studies courses benefit from being based on personal stories shared by peers …”

“There is a level of diversity at Merchants Corner that just doesn’t exist at the main campus … I’m so much more comfortable” [there].

“You can’t build meaningful relationships online.”

Younger and older people mill about in a lobby with large glass windows facing the street.
People gather at the Merchants Corner building at its grand opening in April 2018. (University of Winnipeg/Flickr), CC BY-NC-ND

Comfort zones, support

Our preliminary findings tell us that remote learning as we have been able to offer it is not an ideal space for reconciliation. It doesn’t permit North End residents to enter a physical space where they can focus on studies; it doesn’t promote the kind of relationship building that we know to be important for reconciliation; it doesn’t encourage non-Indigenous students to remove themselves from their physical comfort zones and be present in Indigenous spaces, actively listening, learning and hearing hard truths from their peers.

Having difficult conversations through online platforms can be particularly problematic for students who are triggered from those conversations and want to debrief with peers, instructors and others they have grown to trust. At Merchants Corner, it isn’t uncommon for students to seek out supports after class.

A three-storey building on a city corner seen from front and side angle.
The redeveloped Merchants Corner seen in 2018. (University of Winnipeg/Flickr), CC BY-NC-ND

Online learning, decolonizing and reconciliation?

As we transition back to in-class learning, there has been much talk about the benefits of remote learning. Some suggest that remote learning could be the future of post-secondary education or that emergency remote teaching in the pandemic can’t be compared with online learning led by experts in online teaching.

Post-secondary institutions and educators committed to reconciliation and indigenization should be wary of these claims. We need to hear more from other programs founded with Indigenous participation and partnerships.

Reconciliation is hard work. Post-secondary institutions have a responsibility to create safe decolonizing spaces for this work. These are spaces where painful truths can be shared, relationships developed and nurtured and a process of genuine reconciliation can emerge.The Conversation

Shauna MacKinnon, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Urban and Inner-City Studies, University of Winnipeg and Kathy Mallett, Indigenous activist and community research partner

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.