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Classroom lessons on racism
Apr 29, 2019, By: Erica (Samms) Hurley
classroom full of desks

Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, the shows I watched (Degrassi Junior High, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) often dealt with sensitive topics including racism and bullying. As a young Mi’kmaw girl in Newfoundland, the unedited reality I lived in was rarely as pleasant as the outcomes that played out on TV. I am fortunate that the Mi’kmaq values and teachings that were part of my childhood taught me to cope with the racism and bullying directed at me.

Recently, I thought about experiences in my journey through the education system that had a negative impact at the time but ultimately allowed me to grow as a nurse educator.

I am 10 years old and smiling broadly as I wait for a big announcement, one I am so proud for the teacher to make. “We will have a special guest joining us next week,” she says, “for our heritage unit on the Mi’kmaq of Newfoundland.” I continue to smile as she tells my classmates that my grandfather, the band chief, will be visiting the school.

Only a day after his visit, I hear pointed racist comments. “Aren’t you special…no taxes to pay.” “Will you do the rain dance next week?” I am called “Pocahontas” and “squaw.” Sure, I have heard such words before but not in this kind of setting: I am with my peers, whom I am forced to be with almost every day, and there is no escape. Perhaps the teacher did not hear the comments, but something inside tells me she did. My heart is racing, and my palms are sweaty. Am I not safe here?

As I entered my pre-teen and teenage years, the comments became nastier, more frequent. I wanted to decrease the pain and fit in, so I withdrew from my culture, no longer participating in traditional practices and avoiding gatherings and events.

A decade passed, and I enrolled in nursing school. I reconnected with my culture when I realized how much it means to me. Though older and (somewhat) wiser, I remained cautious about sharing my thoughts and knowledge in class, out of fear that my Indigenous perspective will not be valued or understood.

The discussion this day turns to Indigenous health and housing. One of my classmates says, “It’s hard to feel bad for people who rip apart the homes built for them; some even beat down the walls.” “Sorry, Erica,” she adds, as she turns to acknowledge me.

Once again, I experience a racing heart and sweaty palms. I try to ignore the looks and disconnect from the discussion. Suddenly, words flood out of me like a dam has broken:

“Were those people forced into residential schools, where they may have been abused? They may have had their land taken — no longer able to live as they once had — and been forced to try and change their whole way of life. Maybe the house wasn’t what they wanted or needed.”

“That was years ago,” comes the reply, “and those people have to move on if they want things in this day and age. You can’t help people who don’t want to help themselves.”

No one challenges her. I am shaking — not because I have raised my voice in class but because this stereotyping and the lack of knowledge about Indigenous history fills me with sadness. Am I not safe here?

The professor moves on, explaining that we must acknowledge our own beliefs and values but not allow them to hinder our ability to provide nursing care. I sit there and wonder how many of my peers actually think that way. Is this how they will practise?

I was able to glean many positives from my time in the baccalaureate program, but what happened that day was not an isolated incident.

Eventually, I became a nurse educator, working first as a laboratory and clinical nursing instructor and then as a lecturer.

I am leading a review of Indigenous history, with a class of third-year students, focusing on the impact of residential schools, life on reservations and the Indian Act. Someone says quietly, “I didn’t know all that.” I can see that some of the students are visibly uncomfortable. I remember feeling that way — and the reasons why — and stop to point out that I don’t want to blame or shame anyone. The point is to use every opportunity to try to eradicate stereotyping, be open to learning about one another and establish respectful dialogue. And then we talk. I want them to feel safe here.

In my journey from Indigenous student to Indigenous nurse educator, I have learned the necessity of engagement, the importance of not minimizing thoughts, ideas and feelings, that it is OK to ask questions. I address conflict and allow for difficult conversations, but in a respectful manner. And I also now better understand some of the Mi’kmaq teachings about forgiveness that were provided to me long ago.

In nursing, every moment is a teachable moment. I hope to be known as the educator who turns negative comments into learning opportunities, who doesn’t simply ignore the comments, regardless of where they are directed.


The author was inspired by an address given by Sarah Anala, an Inuk elder and activist, who was awarded an honorary doctorate from Memorial University in 2015. She would also like to acknowledge her grandfather, Wilson Samms, and other founding members of the Federation of Newfoundland Indians.