‘A shifting landscape’: Amidst understaffing and policy changes, Indigenous Strategic Plan is further delayed

The new Indigenous Strategic Plan continues to be postponed, with the “action-planning phase” lasting throughout the rest of 2019.

The plan will guide UBC’s approach to Indigenous engagement over the next several years and replace the 2009 Aboriginal Strategic Plan. An initial draft was presented for feedback in June 2018 to the Board of Governors (BoG). But in May 2019 “the decision was made to take a step back” and postpone its timeline, said Senior Advisor to the President on Indigenous Affairs and Professor at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, Political Science and First Nations and Indigenous Studies, Dr. Sheryl Lightfoot.

She attributed the delay to a transition in leadership and adjusting to the ever-changing landscape of Indigenous issues.

Lightfoot took over from Dr. Linc Kesler who served as the senior advisor to the president on Aboriginal affairs and the director of the First Nations House of Learning (FNHL) from 2008 to 2018. He is currently on leave in Ontario and no longer involved with the plan.

When he left, his roles were given to two different successors. Lightfoot currently holds the senior advisor position and Dr. Margaret Moss is the new FNHL director as well as a professor in the School of Nursing. But when Lightfoot was appointed in August 2018, her first task was to assemble a whole new staff.

“There was a gap because they hadn’t hired anyone yet,” she said.

Lightfoot said the team was in place by the early part of 2019, half a year after the end of Kesler’s term in June 30, 2018.

Early challenges

The state of Indigenous issues has changed drastically in 10 years.

“[A] major challenge has been the shifting landscape and increased expectations that come with the findings of each new commission and inquiry,” Lightfoot said.

After a provincial mandate in fall 2018, Lightfoot began a second action plan that would implement the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC).

In May, Lightfoot told the Board that while her team had an “overarching philosophy,” coordinating two action plans simultaneously was overcomplicated. In order to prevent confusion and implementation issues, she recommended to the Board that they create a single plan that encompasses both.

“Our suggestion was, and the Board accepted this, that we take the rest of this calendar year to work on that streamlined action plan,” Lightfoot said. “So that’s what’s currently underway.”

In addition to the TRC, the new strategic plan will also consider the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the final report of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls National Inquiry (MMIWG) that was released in June.

But beyond its challenging content, the strategic plan has also had to overcome a transition in leadership.

When the existing Aboriginal Strategic Plan was written in 2008, Kesler was at the helm. In the last year of his leadership, he also completed a first draft of the new Indigenous strategic plan to pass on to what he called the “new cast of characters.”

But Lightfoot said that dividing Kesler’s work between herself and Moss was difficult. According to her, advising the president made up 20 per cent of Kesler’s work, and Moss took on the other 80 per cent as director.

“While it was clear from the outset which one of us should take certain duties and responsibilities, others required more discussion,” Lightfoot said. “... I think by the end of this calendar year we should have it sorted.”

At a BoG Indigenous Committee meeting in May, Lightfoot added the development of the plan has also been delayed by “unexpected staffing changes at the First Nations House of Learning.”

While she did not specify what those changes were or why they occurred, Lightfoot said that they’re currently being addressed.

“We expect vacant positions should be filled by September.”

‘Decision-makers at the table

Lightfoot believes the plan is an opportunity for UBC to lead in bringing Indigenous policy into the modern age.

This country [is] being called into account on its 19th century structures and institutions that we still have,” she said. “This is now the 21st century and we need to revamp and revise all of them.”

But Judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, head of the Residential School History and Dialogue Centre and a professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law, said that from what she knows of the plan, she thinks it lacks detail and needs “substantial improvements.”

“It’s got to be more than words on paper ... It can’t be vague.”

She believes that part of the problem is that as senior advisor to the president, Lightfoot does not have the decision-making capacity to accomplish her goals and can only do so by gaining favour with administration. To address this, Turpel-Lafond thinks creating a Vice President Indigenous Affairs might be the best solution.

“I continue to see the need for an Indigenous Vice President whose focus is exclusively on bringing coherence across the university and, as opposed to just giving advice to decision-makers at the table, to become one of the decision-makers at the table,” she said.

Tarpel-Lafond clarified that this is “respectful feedback” and that the people leading this work have “enormous personal skill and competency,” but she thinks they need administrative power to “tie it all together.”

“We have a lot of business to be done to make the university function in a way that really walks the talk of Indigenous values and the TRC Calls to Action. At this point, I would say we’re not there. We need a very coherent plan,” Turpel-Lafond said.

When contacted by The Ubyssey for comment on the possibility of a VP Indigenous Affairs, the President’s Office did not acknowledge the idea.

“The Indigenous Strategic Plan is one of the President’s and Board of Governor’s top priorities. Discussions will occur to consider optimal support to move the Indigenous Strategic Plan forward,” wrote the President’s Office in an emailed statement.

Despite these challenges, Lightfoot said that UBC leadership has been supportive throughout the process.

“UBC has provided significant resources this summer to help us remedy the staffing challenges and expand our capacity,” Lightfoot said.

“It’s an ambitious goal, but we’re hoping and expecting to have a finalized university-wide Indigenous Strategic Action Plan by the early part of next year.”

— With files from Bridget Chase and Sonia Pathak.

This article was updated to include the faculty positions of Drs. Sheryl Lightfoot and Margaret Moss.