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UBC faculty's responses to racist first-year chants 'good starts': prof

Thanks to a racist chant recited by business students during University of British Columbia's business school orientation week last September, the business school is making a greater effort to educate their students about aboriginal cultures and issues.

UBC's Sauder School of Business highlighted the changes today in a Vancouver campus press conference and subsequent press release. They include covering ethics, responsibility, and diversity issues, including aboriginal topics, more broadly in the curriculum; educating Commerce Undergraduate Society (CUS) leaders on aboriginal issues and history in Canada; and ongoing engagement between the faculty and UBC's First Nations Studies Program.

The announcement follows the release of the school's fact-finding report on Oct. 15, which traced the origin of the "Pocahontas" chant -- so named because of its basis on the 1995 Disney film of the same name -- to a few leaders of the CUS FROSH orientation events.

Further changes to orientation week programming will also take place, partially inspired by another Sauder students repeated about sexual violence against women.

"It's very important for us to try to create future business leaders who have relatively sophisticated sense of cultural issues and stereotypes and norms, and (focus on) how decisions or actions that they might make or take influence other people, including people in particular groups," said Robert Helsley, dean of the Sauder School of Business, to The Tyee.

Helsely added it's important to introduce students to members of the aboriginal community as members of the business community, too.

Daniel Justice, chair of UBC's First Nations Studies Program, said what made the chant so disappointing was it took place during the university's Truth and Reconciliation events, designed to educate students, faculty, and staff about the horrors that residential schools inflicted on the country's First Nations population.

He says the changes to Sauder are "good starts."

"I would like to see much more curriculum in Sauder on aboriginal issues, and not just about business practices, but also about indigenous peoples maybe different approaches to business, and maybe some critical questions about business and indigenous communities."

Justice says this isn't just an issue at Sauder or UBC as a whole, noting the students caught in red-face at the University of Montreal earlier this semester.

But it still needs to be addressed at UBC, in all faculties, through long-term conversations about indigenous content and representation in everything from curriculum, to hiring faculty and staff, to recruiting students, he said.

"I think this is something that everybody can be educating themselves about and learning about," said Justice, adding the responsibility for educating people about indigenous issues falls on every individual, not just indigenous people.

Last year, self-identified aboriginal students made up just over two per cent of the UBC student body. The numbers are even lower at the Sauder School, with only 20 students out of 5,374 self-identified as aboriginal.

Helsley says the low aboriginal student population was just one of the factors that prompted Sauder to review the indigenous content at the school; a review he says would have happened even if the chant never came to light.

"These issues would have come up, but as [UBC president] Stephen Toope said a long time ago, 'We're very sorry that this has happened, but we're not sorry that it's come to our attention because it does give us a chance to address them.'"

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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