Students in the Algonquian Peoples [FPST: 211] course at Concordia University walked out of a guest lecture delivered by former McGill anthropology professor Toby Morantz on Oct. 28. Morantz was invited to discuss her 2002 book The White Man’s Gonna Getcha: The Colonial Challenge to the Crees of Quebec, which addresses the complex history of Indigenous–Euro-Canadian relations in northern Quebec.
The students who walked out, most of whom were Indigenous, took issue with Morantz’s alleged suggestions that the Cree community suffered less than other Indigenous Peoples in residential schools established in the James Bay Cree territory, and that their attendance at these schools was of their own volition. Terrence Duff, one of the Indigenous students who walked out, shared his experience with The McGill Tribune.
“It was discouraging, it was upsetting, especially when I raised my hand to speak and tell her that my great-grandparents didn’t put my grandmother voluntarily in residential schools, and she said, ‘no no no, that’s not correct,’” Duff said. “I decided to walk out because […] my grandmother and my mother didn’t have a chance to walk out of a class in residential school, [but] I did.”
On Nov. 1, eight students who attended the lecture sent a letter to Christopher Manfredi, McGill’s provost and vice-principal academic, calling the lecture offensive and factually inaccurate. The letter alleges that Morantz used derogatory terms such as “drunk Indians” in the lecture and also described herself as a “dying breed,” stating, “they’re only hiring Indians to fill these positions now.”
In an email to the Tribune, Morantz stated that there were miscommunications in her lecture, specifically surrounding her description of Cree residential schools, but ultimately defended her academic research. Morantz said that she regrets these miscommunications and that students’ reactions were their prerogative.
“In my book, which the students had read, I stated that these schools were ‘less brutal,’” Morantz wrote. “I should have stuck to the terminology, but I was extemporizing [….] It is important for Canadians to know that parents had to make the horrible choice of continuing to live off the land and send their children away to residential school or abandon their way of life and live in the village so the children could attend the elementary schools, built in the late 1940s.”
On page 247 of her book, Morantz states that “the Crees of James Bay were, comparatively speaking, spared these tragic consequences.” A few sentences later, the text reads that “their attendance at the schools was voluntary; they had been sent there by their parents who wished their children to be educated while they themselves wanted to continue hunting and trapping in the winter rather than take up residence in one of the villages.”
Catherine Richardson, the director of Concordia’s First Peoples Studies program, released a statement on Oct. 29 responding to, and apologizing for, Morantz’s lecture, referring to her lecture as “racist, hateful, and inaccurate.” The statement also reads that Morantz was “improperly vetted” and Richardson said she was “mortified” that “people in positions of institutional stature can abuse power so unethically and destructively.”
Morantz told the Tribune that she was unhappy with Richardson’s statement, and that she sees it as an issue of academic freedom.
“[Richardson] was not in the room, did not speak with me and I am sure has never read anything I have written about the history of Indigenous-EuroCanadian relations in the north of Quebec,” Morantz wrote. “I am disappointed that we are further losing the University as a place of open discussion.”
The Tribune reached out to the McGill administration for comment. Frédérique Mazerolle, a McGill media relations officer, did not address Morantz or the lecture, but touched on the university’s concurrent commitments to reconciliation and academic freedom in an email to the Tribune.
“The simultaneous pursuit of these commitments may at times appear difficult to reconcile,” Mazerolle wrote. “While McGill extends robust protection to academic freedom, each of us is expected to abide by responsibilities set within University policies and regulations established through collegial governance processes. We, therefore, underscore McGill’s firm commitment to ensuring an equitable and inclusive campus climate for all.”