Our Campus: A champion for Indigenous peoples at UBC, Linc Kesler looks back

When Dr. Linc Kesler was growing up in Chicago, he was told to hide his Indigenous identity.

One day, he slipped up.

“I was in grade school [...] and I said that my grandparents lived on a reservation,” said Kesler.

“The reaction I got was not curiosity, it was not positive. When I went home and I told my mother, she just about killed me.”

Kesler’s mother was Oglala-Lakota, a survivor of an Indigenous boarding school not unlike Canada’s Indian Residential School System (IRSS). Living in a white neighbourhood in a city dominated by racial conflict, she was adamant that their Indigenous identity remain a secret.

“It wasn’t a place where you really wanted to bring attention to yourself, or be different in any way,” Kesler remarked.

Now, Kesler sits in the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, a building dedicated to discussing the legacy of schools like the one his mother was forced into. It’s a building he played a fundamental role in bringing to UBC as director of the First Nations House of Learning and senior advisor to the president on Aboriginal affairs.

Kesler is very much done hiding.

A clean run

When Kesler arrived at UBC in 2003, he was the first to helm the First Nations and Indigenous Studies Program and the department’s only Indigenous professor.

The faculty and programs were “extremely capable,” he noted — but UBC was not a welcoming place for Indigenous students and scholars.

“I think Indigenous students were finding it a pretty alienating place,” he remarked.

Over the next decade and a half, Kesler worked to change that. When he became UBC’s first senior advisor to the president on Aboriginal affairs in 2009, one of his first decisions was to go against the trend set by other Canadian universities by refusing to set a “target” or “quota” for Indigenous enrolment.

“It made much more sense to focus on the things we can be doing to make our systems better than worrying about meeting a target,” said Kesler.

It worked. UBC’s Indigenous enrollment has increased dramatically since the start of Kesler’s tenure — from 719 students in 2009 to 1,540 in 2017. Part of that is because of better support for Indigenous students in high school — but the other part is Kesler’s insistence of quality over quota.

“In the last plan, whatever target we might have set we have exceeded it,” said Kesler. “But we exceeded it by not setting it.”

Kesler advocates a similar mindset to hiring Indigenous faculty, focusing on making Indigenous faculty both represented and respected as opposed to ‘performative’ hiring.

“You’re grabbing people in a sense to meet a racial target as opposed to building the faculty,” said Kesler. “[When] people can see that happening they presume that all Indigenous faculty are here in that way and that they’re not ‘serious scholars.’”

What Kesler has done instead is work to make UBC a “desirable” place for Indigenous scholars doing research on Indigenous issues, which he noted has encouraged them to seek out UBC instead of the other way around.

Done hiding

Kesler, in a sense, has been preparing for his role for most of his life. He grew up in the midst of the American Civil Rights movement in Chicago, a city that he said at the time was “the most segregated city in the world outside of South Africa.”

One night, Kesler said he woke up to the sound of a Black family’s home being bombed. During Kesler’s undergraduate studies at Yale, Black Panther member Bobby Seale was being put on trial in New Haven, just a short walk away from the Ivy League school.

“You tend to think of a place like Yale as being quite removed from the real world,” he said. “Nothing could be farther from the truth.”

At the time, Yale was experimenting with its own admission process through need-blind applications, which aimed to admit traditionally disadvantaged students. Still, Kesler remained very aware of where he was from — and the legacy of the boarding school system his mother was placed into.

“I understood the kind of thinking that emerged for her in this place where her identity had to be submerged,” said Kesler. “It was a reaction to the racism that she experienced in the school.”

Kesler said he hears similar stories from Indigenous families in Canada, as the impact of the IRSS continues to spillover into younger generations.

“For people who are growing up in families where they are experiencing the effects of those things but don’t have a way of understanding why, I think a centre like this,” — he gestured to the Dialogue Centre — “would be quite helpful.”

In some ways, Kesler acknowledged not much has changed.

“The schools were a particular manifestation of a system, and that many aspects of that system are still here and they’re still doing what they did.” said Kesler. “The reservation my mother comes from — at the time of the Bill Clinton presidency, it was the poorest county in the United States, and I’m sure it still is.”

But after working under four different UBC presidents, Kesler is optimistic — not about where we are, but about where we are going. He noted the evolving approach to conducting research in partnership with Indigenous communities, the renewed focus on Indigenous student experience and a “broader awareness” of the legacy of the IRSS as steps — small ones, but steps nonetheless.

As he leaves UBC to pursue some of his own research— which he joked is “long, long neglected”— Kesler thinks the key difference may be hope.

“Many of the students here came from high school feeling alienated and defeated, and feeling like nothing they could ever do would change it,” said Kesler.

“I think the difference now is that people will still encounter those kinds of circumstances. But the sense that there’s nothing they can do is not what it was like then.”