Three Weeks of Hunger: A Modest, Urgent Appeal to Freedom

Please, hear this out: this letter is written from a standpoint of desperation. Professor Roland Chrisjohn (Oneida) is a man in his late sixties. He has been on a fast of protest (some would call it a hunger strike, though he rejects the label) for over three weeks now. He is a member of the Iroquois Confederacy, and the sole tenured professor at the Department of Native Studies at St. Thomas University, in Fredericton, New Brunswick. For some reason, save for a misleading article by the school’s student newspaper, nobody is talking about it -- let alone doing anything to stop it.

Why has Chrisjohn been voluntarily starving himself for over three weeks? What in the world could compel an elderly Iroquois professor of Native Studies, with a comfortable post at a University department -- he’s the chair!-- to go without food for almost a month straight?

The answer is as simple as it is shameful. It is because, last semester, the Administration at STU violated his academic freedom, and, by all appearances, has done so on racist grounds. The Administration has failed to respond to its School of Social Work's egregious attempt to modify Dr. Chrisjohn's syllabus on Research Methods, a course designed for Indigenous students. If the people at the Social Work school had read a single page of anything that Chrisjohn has ever published, they would have known that this was not the man to hire for the purveyance of idle, status-quo-reinforcing hogwash. But hey, he was the only job-secure Indian working at the Native Studies Department, so he must be good at following orders and not rocking the theoretical boat too much, right? Wrong. After having signed a contract to teach the course, Chrisjohn was called in by the so-called "School" of so-called "Social Work," and asked to change his syllabus.

The employer read his syllabus, and apparently realized -- when it was, legally speaking, too late-- that the contracted employee just wasn't a dumb enough, compliant enough Indian for the job. The so-called "Qualitative Research Methods" based on numerous logical and mathematical fallacies that Chrisjohn himself, to the apparent shock and authoritarian disapproval of the employer, has spent a good deal of his career identifying and scrutinizing, were to be included in his syllabus. The  "Qualitative Research Methods" the social workers were attempting to insert into Chrisjohn’s syllabus included, among others, the fallacy of induction, according to which a 'researcher' is within their rights to generalize from (and to recommend more policies doomed to fail in the future, or to justify the continually failing policies of the present on the basis of) a few interviews with 'those poor Broken Indians.' He refused, as was his right as a tenured academic, and the contract was given (illegally) to someone else. He received no compensation.

Anyone familiar with Dr. Chrisjohn's work with Indigenous communities and his profound philosophical contributions, grounded in his own experience along with the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Marx, and many others, should be especially appalled by this decision on the part of the Administration of St. Thomas University.

Remember Chief Teresa Spence? If not, then you probably should. She was the Cree woman who sat in a tipi on Victoria Island, near Parliament Hill in Ottawa, demanding a meeting with the Governor General of Canada in order to address, at the highest official level possible, the continued crises in both urban and reserve environments caused by the Canadian government's egregious violations of its Treaty relationship with Indigenous peoples. Her hunger strike lasted six weeks. Chief Spence numbered among the many catalysts and public symbols of the Idle No More movement of 2012. In these writers’ view, Idle No More did more to quell the so-called 'mental health issues' it did more to alleviate the so-called 'unfortunate, unintended tragedies' -- often tabulated in our newspapers (in the form of cold, pseudo-moralistic statistics) as "shocking" facts about Aboriginal communities-- than any Canadian State functionary, trained in the seemingly immortal ideological tradition of pseudo-psychological  "Social Work" ever has, ever will, or ever could. This view is grounded in our study of the recent work of Roland Chrisjohn on the Indigenous suicide crisis in Canada, Dying to Please You.

The situation has become urgent. The Administration at St. Thomas University should have acted much, much earlier to resolve this issue. All that Chrisjohn is demanding is compensation for the course that he should have taught.

In defense of principles of academic freedom and anti-racism, this appeal is made to the broader public. It is time that the world learns more about one of our most important, dedicated, and radical academic peers in his disciplined and courageous Fast of Protest, and to pressure St. Thomas University to do something about it.

Please show your support for Dr. Chrisjohn’s cause by signing the ongoing petition (email clinton. debogorski@mail.utoronto.ca), calling the relevant STU administrators by phone, sending an email to the STU administration, or (better yet) doing all of the above.

Again, your help is needed with this. Please, we are desperately asking each and all of my fellow academics, please, to take a couple of minutes from your busy days, to help end the suffering of one of the greatest, though criminally underrated, Indigenous political philosophers of our age:

Share your disapproval of such an unacceptable violation of our academic freedom and our right to a non-racist education!

Please do not hesitate to do this. A three-and a half week fast on the part of a senior citizen means one thing: time is of essence. Help us to help them to make it stop.

First, leave a message by phone or email, demanding compensation for Dr. Chrisjohn to:

Dawn Russell, President and Vice Chancellor Email: president@stu.ca

Phone: 506-452-0537 Fax: 506-452-0633 Margaret Norrie McCain Hall Room 400

And secondly, tell the following person to act fast on the same demand:

Barry Craig, Vice-President of STU’s "Academic and Research" Division: vpacademic@stu.ca

Thank you in advance for your support. We will need a lot of it.

- Clinton Debogorski (PhD candidate, Philosophy, University of Toronto) and

- Shakiness Deerskin (Associate Indian at the Philosophical Department of Indian Affairs, New Brunswick)

 

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