AMS apologizes to Indigenous peoples for not making ‘serious efforts to advance reconciliation’

Following an Indigenous student discussion circle on October 2, the AMS has apologized for its sluggish efforts to engage Indigenous students and communities on campus and “advance reconciliation.”

The society issued a statement today acknowledging that its organization is comprised primarily of non-Indigenous people — this year’s Council has no Indigenous members — and that it has “not made serious efforts to advance reconciliation or recognize Indigenous rights.”

In particular, the apology touches on the AMS’s failures to strongly advocate for Indigenous communities’ academic and financial support.

“For most of the AMS history, we have not been a strong voice for augmenting Indigenous enrolment, for increasing scholarships to Indigenous people, and for expanding curricula to include Indigenous content and epistemologies,” reads the apology.

“It’s a first step”

The apology gives a breakdown of the AMS’s multiple unsuccessful efforts to include Indigenous representation in its Council and broader organization since the 1990s.

In 2014, the society created an Aboriginal Commissioner position, but it was removed in October 2017 due to “difficulty reaching out to groups on campus” and lack of projects.

In September 2017, GRSJ mature student and member of the Piikani Nation of the Niitsitapi Confederacy Rodney Little Mustache — whose traditional Niitsitapi name is Maistoo'a waastaan, or “Crow Flag” —helped lobby the AMS to create a standing Indigenous committee which it was initially slow to implement.

“That’s part of reconciliation: honouring our past and what we’ve been through, and we can honour you in certain ways as well,” said Little Mustache at the time.

Little Mustache would subsequently advocate for better Indigenous consultation with his March 2018 bid for AMS presidency, which he ultimately lost to current AMS President Marium Hamid.

Minutes from the June 12 meeting of the AMS Advocacy committee then indicate that Little Mustache, as a member-at-large, encouraged the society to draft an apology for the society’s failure to engage Indigenous students and make it public via Hamid.

“Today, with the AMS apology I feel that is a good start, to uniting the space we are in and the spaces we as students and alumni can make better by accepting each other and showing that respect and inclusion are worth fighting for all over the world,” he wrote in a response to The Ubyssey.

Hamid added that since March 2018, the AMS has had an Indigenous Advisory Group that provided feedback to the AMS VP Academic and University Affairs Office on expanding Indigenous representation inside the AMS — but it was largely ad hoc.

“It was an informal group. … But now that we have heard our community [we] realize that a standalone would be a more engaged option,” said Hamid.

She confirmed today that a number of students at the discussion circle expressed interest in joining a formal Indigenous advisory committee. They aim to develop and present the committee’s terms of reference at the next AMS Council meeting on October 10, but Hamid said this process is a “formality of sort” as the work has already begun.

“The convening of the committee is our first priority right now,” said Hamid. “Everything we do from now on in our organization should be from the standpoint of the community itself.”

Beyond establishing the committee, individual AMS executives will work to make the society more inclusive through initiatives within their own portfolios. For example, VP Administration Chris Hakim is looking to secure a central space in the Nest for Indigenous students, according to Hamid.

“Every single portfolio — whether it’s university affairs, whether it’s government relations or just looking at the budgeting we have to support Indigenous initiatives — is being looked at to see ways ... [that] we can make a permanent structure, framework or just a reminder within our work that this has to be taken care of,” she said.

Little Mustache said the inclusion of a space for Indigenous students and the formalization of the committee are part of Indigenous students “finally being recognized” on campus.

“Seeing the apology, and learning today that the AMS is letting us choose a space within the AMS, and then giving the soon to be formed Indigenous Committee startup funds is a moment that should make all Indigenous students feel more at home and part of the UBC family,” wrote Little Mustache.

Beyond the AMS

The apology specifically references the society’s failure to communicate with the Musqueam Nation, on whose unceded and traditional territory UBC sits.

“The AMS has not significantly engaged with the Musqueam Indian Band; nor have we spent much time reflecting on what territorial acknowledgment means,” reads the apology.

On August 1, AMS Council passed a revised communications policy mandating that the society “promote a good ongoing relationship with Musqueam.”

Hamid said that the society intends to communicate more regularly with the band on issues like the use of Indigenous art and symbols on campus, including the UBC Thunderbird.

“There is a lot of imagery, a lot of art and culture that symbolizes [the campus’] location and its link the Musqueam nation and other nations across Canada,” said Hamid. “But is not sufficient for us to have these symbols without reflecting on what it means and what it means to be not Indigenous.”

In his written response, Little Mustache personally thanked the Musqueam and the Squamish and the Tsleil-waututh Nations for their hospitality.

The AMS statement comes just months after UBC President Santa Ono made his own apology on behalf of the university for its role in the residential school system, which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) referred to as part of a “cultural genocide” against Indigenous peoples.

At the same time, UBC’s newly-created Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre — which was opened in tandem with Ono’s apology — has been criticized for being severely under-supported.

When asked how the AMS would ensure adequate support for its Indigenous advisory committee, Hamid said that alongside space and money, the AMS has planned to hire dedicated personnel within its budget.

The idea is that we totally understand and we recognize that it is a lot of work for a committee to do by itself and they should not be put in the position where they have to,” she said.

Moving forward, the AMS hopes that strong relations with its Indigenous members and stakeholders become a reality.

“The AMS should have long ago begun to meaningfully address relations with Indigenous peoples,” reads the apology. “This statement of apology is intended to be an inflection point from which the AMS commits to genuine reconciliation, respect for Indigenous rights, and recognition of our position as guests on this land.”

Little Mustache said the apology is a landmark decision for all students at UBC.

“The AMS and UBC are at a turning point in history,” wrote Little Mustache. “We are setting the stage so that these types of actions are worked on and never forgotten.... I cannot find the words for the happiness I feel for the present students and the future students of the University of British Columbia.”