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Past participants of the UCalgary Cares Indigenous Engagement program are speaking out

By Julieanne Acosta, June 30 2021—

A petition is circulating about the University of Calgary’s treatment of the UCalgary Cares Indigenous Engagement and Leadership program leads.

Despite the hard work and dedication that is put into their projects, the program leads are not compensated for their work. A petition, entitled “Hold U of C Accountable: demand fair pay for UCalgary Cares Indigenous program leads” currently has 477 signatures and is aiming to reach 500. 

The U of C offers a program called Indigenous Leadership and Engagement as a part of their community engagement programs and is noted as one of the most popular co-curricular programs on their website. The program is advertised as a way to learn more about the history and culture of Indigenous peoples. U of C students who attend the program will learn from Indigenous Elders and “honour Indigenous peoples’ stories, knowledges and traditions.”  

Problems arose when it was brought to light that the university had considered the program leads to be volunteers and refused to compensate them for their efforts. The petition discusses the injustices against program lead Tessa Bailey, an Indigenous person.

In late March of 2021, Bailey posted on her Facebook and outlined how she had not been paid for her efforts the past five years. According to Bailey, one year, she had to take time off work in order to run the program and was still denied pay from the Leadership and Student Engagement Offices.

Bailey not only organized group interviews and workshops but also organized five years’ worth of 10-day trips for U of C students in the program. Each year she would take 10–15 U of C students to her home in the Yukon while teaching them about Indigenous culture. Bailey would be with participants for 13–16 hours a day while being responsible for the students 24/7. 

The work Bailey put into the program was never financially compensated for the time she spent with the students in the Yukon Territory or the mandatory workshops for participants that were organized and facilitated by Bailey, often featuring heavy topics such as colonization and structural racism. In Yukon, the participants learned from volunteers with whom Bailey or her family knew and cultivated relationships. 

The Gauntlet had the opportunity to interview Jaime Wood, a student at the U of C who participated in the program in the summer of 2019 — in the year Bailey was a program lead. Wood was also the one who created the petition. 

“Her role in the program, I think, is very much essential,” said Wood of Bailey. “The program would not have been what it was without the connection that she had and had cultivated in her community.” 

Wood noticed that the Office of Leadership and Student Engagement gave honoraria to the community members in Yukon that they learned from. Yet, the two Indigenous people who worked for and ran the program weren’t being paid. 

The program is noted on the university’s Indigenous strategy and Wood urges the university to execute it in a much more equitable way than they are. 

“It had never once crossed our minds that Tessa and the other team leads weren’t being paid for this because it just seemed so obvious that they would be because it is a full-time job,” Wood said. “It completely shocked us and I think we all felt a little bit — not quite shame — but something similar to know that we had gotten so much out of it and Tessa and the other team leads had gotten so little when they gave us so much.” 

The petition states: 

The UCalgary Cares Indigenous Engagement and Leadership program is cited as an example of ‘Transforming Ways of Connecting’ in that section of the university’s Indigenous strategy, in which the university expresses a commitment to supporting ‘the Indigenous principle of community reciprocity.’

“There is nothing reciprocal about expecting Indigenous people to work for free,” said Wood.

Wood, along with other past participants, have been emailing those in charge of the UCalgary Cares program and many in the Office of Student Engagement. Susan Barker, vice-provost of student experience, emailed back to Wood stating it may not be a viable option to pay team leads in order to keep costs low for student participants. However, Wood never received an email back from the UCalgary Cares program manager. She also stated that program leads were participating in this program as a professional development opportunity and that volunteer work was key to the UCalgary Cares program identity. 

“[This] certainly does not remunerate, especially if you consider the power dynamic between Indigenous peoples doing the emotional labour to teach a group of mostly settler students in a program run by a settler institution,” said Wood on behalf of herself and other former participants.

Next year, another Indigenous youth will run the program for free. Wood and other former participants are defining their demands to the university in a new set of emails, which Wood said they have already sent out, to the university President Ed McCauley and Melinda Smith, the vice-provost of the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Micheal Hart, the vice-provost of Indigenous engagement. 

“First of all, people should be paid for their work and paid fairly, and secondly, Indigenous people should not be expected to provide free labour on behalf of the settler institution,” she concluded.

In a statement to the Gauntlet, Susan Barker, vice-provost student experience, said that the university has responded directly to these concerns, and will continue to make improvements to the program when necessary. 

“Each year, the entire team involved in the organization, planning and delivery of UCalgaryCares Indigenous Leadership and Engagement program, which is a collaboration between Leadership and Student Engagement and Writing Symbols Lodge, works tirelessly over several months to provide students with a quality experiential learning program with rich, cross-cultural learning opportunities,” read the statement. 

“We are unable to comment on specific details of one person’s volunteer experience due to privacy reasons. However, the costs of participating for leaders are covered, and each program is revenue neutral to keep costs down for participants,” the statement continued. 

“We have previously responded directly to the concerns raised and will continue to do so. We take all concerns seriously and continue to learn, reflect and make improvements where we can, and appreciate all those who have joined and contributed as participants, staff, or volunteers. These programs are extremely important volunteer experiential learning programs. We want to ensure we are transparent and respectful in all that we do and reduce barriers to make participation viable for all who are interested.”

To read more about Bailey’s experience, click here

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