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Dr. Bonnie Burstow establishes new scholarship for research into violence against Indigenous women

September 25, 2018


Photo courtesy of Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith

A new scholarship has been established at OISE by Dr. Bonnie Burstow. Burstow’s Scholarship for Research into Violence Against Indigenous Women: In Memory of Helen Betty Osborne will be directed to a graduate student whose thesis focuses on violence against Indigenous women. Priority will be given to students who are themselves Indigenous women.

The process of reconciliation and Indigenization in institutions requires commitment from a range of individuals, especially those from outside the Indigenous community. Dr. Jennifer Wemigwans, Assistant Professor in Indigenous Studies at OISE, says that Dr. Burstow’s scholarship is an example of the support that is needed.

“This scholarship is what allyship looks like, finding a real way to support important and significant issues in the Indigenous community,” she said. “All Canadians (settlers) should take note and ask, ‘What kind of resources do I have that I can share?’” 

OISE News sat down with Dr. Burstow to learn more about what motivated her to establish this important scholarship.

The scholarship focuses on research into violence against Indigenous women. Why is this cause important to you?

When I was a teenager in the 1950s I lived in the town of Churchill, Manitoba and at that time, about 90% of our neighbours were Indigenous. I witnessed first-hand the blatant racism against this group, which led me to join protests and later become involved in the Canadian Alliance in Solidarity with Native People. 

Decades later, I taught at a university program called Winnipeg Education Center, where half of the students were Indigenous. As a faculty member in the social work department, I heard in vivid detail the violence and trauma that had been experienced by the students during their lives. The majority of my female students had been raped or sexually harassed, and many came from families whose children had been taken away from them by child welfare. This was the one faculty position that imprinted on my mind and on my heart most poignantly the horror that was happening. 

Can you speak about Helen Betty Osborne and how she has impacted you?

Osborne was an Indigenous high school student in The Pas, Manitoba who was brutally murdered in 1971 by four young white men. The investigation into her murder was marred right from the get-go by a combination of racism and sexism on the part of the authorities. Only one of the four men was ever convicted more than 20 years later. 

I was not living in Manitoba at the time, but when I heard about Helen’s story and saw this violence being swept under the rug as so much of the violence against Indigenous women was, I was outraged, hence my later taking up a faculty position at Winnipeg Education Centre.

This is the second scholarship at OISE that you have founded. What inspires you to continue furthering your impact in the OISE community? 

I have a long history with OISE and a deep commitment to this community. I have been a faculty member here for a long time, and received both a master’s degree and doctoral degree at OISE. I see OISE as one of the stellar educational institutions in the world. It is a place that fights for social justice. It is at a place where education is truly counter-hegemonic, where students and faculty together engage in conscientization—that is, where together we name the world in order to change the world.

I am also aware that there are some areas of research that if students pursue, they have less chance of getting a scholarship despite the pressing need for such research. This has contributed to my decision to fund scholarships and to endow very particular scholarships. I am thankful that I have been able to do this, and I am thankful to the people who got on the bandwagon to make this particular scholarship a reality—to name just a few, Dean Glen Jones, Sim Kapoor, and Dr. Jennifer Wemigwans.  Whenever you are endowing something that you want to ensure remains radical and does not descend into liberalism, there is always a fight.