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Angelique EagleWoman, shown teaching a class at the University of Idaho College of Law, became the first Indigenous dean of a Canadian law school when she was appointed to Lakehead University’s law faculty in 2016. Less than two years into the job, she has resigned, alleging systemic racism. 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 […]

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