On Nov. 4, 2020, BIPOC and MacEwan University music student Paxsi Mamar Lariri took to Instagram to enact a call to action to combat racism in the MacEwan music program. In the video Lariri, who began their MacEwan journey in theatre arts, tells their story and asks that students who may have their own stories come forward in an effort to enact change.
This call to action came about after Lariri said they had made several complaints with no resolution. “The complaints have been pretty much a dead end.”
The complaints range from some professors’ behaviour, to material taught or not addressed, to how the professors in question treat BIPOC students. In terms of academic material, Lariri says one professor couldn’t answer when asked how he intended to make the material more sensitive to BIPOC students. Lariri feels voices aren’t being heard, and consequences aren’t happening. “I’m not the only person who has experienced this from the same professor or different professors. Others have written letters with their accounts of racism in the music department.”
Lariri submitted an 18-page report along with 53 letters of solidarity and support on Nov. 30, 2020, to the fine arts faculty dean, fine arts faculty associate dean, music program chair, director of the office of human rights and diversity and the Indigenous centre. In this report, Lariri listed nine demands that they felt were quite justified to help eradicate racism in the program. The report and letters can be found on linktr.ee/listentowarawara with names of both professors mentioned and those who wrote them redacted for anonymity and legal purposes.
Lariri isn’t the only one with stories of racism from a professor in the music program; multiple students wrote letters telling their story but wished to remain anonymous, and Lariri read some of them over Instagram. Although Lariri focuses on the music program’s issues due to their own experiences, another student, Simone A. Medina Polo, feels the problem goes beyond the programs. “My experiences tend to be more broadly about navigating processes in the university,” says Medina Polo.
Medina Polo, who is in the arts and cultural program, acknowledges that her department tries really hard. However, as she has worked with Lariri on her call to action, she feels like the music department is a bit of a different story. “I had a chance of supporting Lariri through letters, as well as with some of the media response, and it has been important to acknowledge, at least from what I can understand, there is something preoccupying at least in (the music) department because it seems pretty overt.”
Dec. 9, 2020, brought Lariri a reply from the dean of the faculty of fine arts. The email said they appreciated the considerable thought and effort that Lariri put in, but they could not consent to the demands. The email also emphasized that complaints like this are taken very seriously, but they have to go through specific channels. Lariri, however, says the channels mentioned by the dean as a way to mitigate the issues had already been taken, but they had all failed and nothing changed. They say that even something as small as adding a course on Indigenous music or adding trigger warnings and providing alternate material for those needing it would have made a big difference.
Madina Polo says due process is often used as an avoidance of issues, and both she and Lariri relate back to a Black Lives Matter Facebook post made by MacEwan where 43 comments were made, most of them by students who were commenting on their concerns about how MacEwan handled complaints and pushing for MacEwan to take action.
One such comment from a student said, “Change the process. Make it easier to file a complaint. Make us not have to go through a court of law. Hire more diverse faculty. Don’t have security call the cops on your students of colour. Stop having meetings between the students that have experienced racism and the professors who dole it out.Believe us. Believe us when we say that we are experiencing racism. We know what it looks like. We’ve dealt with it our entire lives. We are experts on what racism sounds, looks, and feels like. DO SOMETHING.”
Medina Polo also says she has heard others discuss the same issues, saying they complained to the right departments but were often shuffled to a different one repeatedly and little if anything was resolved. “Everyone that has gone through due process that I have seen has come out of it ultimately referred to another due process again.”
Since the call to action in November, Lariri has made several updates, the last on Jan. 8, 2021, where they say, “I am sad to say that to date, MacEwan has continued to remain silent. I have been told that if I have a problem with a teacher, I must make a formal complaint through means which I had already identified as ineffective and problematic in my letter.”
Since then, Lariri was interviewed for an article that came out on CBC on Jan. 15, 2021, all in hopes of accomplishing some change for themselves and their BIPOC peers.
A written media statement from MacEwan University’s Provost & Vice-President, Academic, Dr. Craig Monk on Jan. 15, 2021, said, “We also take complaints against faculty seriously. Professors are hired, evaluated, tenured and promoted through rigorous processes, and they are assured discretion in delivering their courses, in keeping with the Academic Freedom enshrined in our Collective Agreement. Academic Freedom is not absolute, of course, and disciplinary processes are also embedded in the faculty collective agreement. Members who transgress the rules and responsibilities in the collective agreement are subject to discipline, which can go all the way to dismissal even for faculty who are tenured.”
In regards to Lariri’s call to action, the statement also goes on to say, “The university has engaged with the student raising these concerns, and both the dean and associate dean are working to address them. We are also aware of issues raised by other students and alumni. The Faculty of Fine Arts and Communication formed an EDI committee in the past year and, as part of their ongoing work, looks at EDI considerations in curriculum and teaching.”
Since the release of their video, Lariri has continued to gain growing support, receiving 54 letters from students, alumni, and members of the music community, either reflecting their own experiences or showing support for Lariri’s call to action. Lariri is hoping this starts a movement towards real change. “What would make me feel like there is success is if other students start doing what I’m doing, which I completely understand is exhausting.