‘Very much a white space’: Indigenous students call attention to lack of representation in AMS

On October 2, the AMS held a discussion circle to hear First Nations, Métis and Inuit students express their feelings about Indigenous representation on campus and in student government.

AMS President Marium Hamid opened the meeting with a statement of apology that was later published by the society in full.

“The AMS should have long ago begun to meaningfully address relations with Indigenous peoples,” said Hamid. “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.”

The meeting facilitated by UBC’s director of dialogue and conflict engagement Dr. Aftab Erfan attracted nearly 40 people, including 11 AMS members and 11 Indigenous students alongside students from the Social Justice Center, the Sexual Assault Support Center and other community groups. The small number of Indigenous students present highlighted one of the central challenges of the night: the lack of representation in the AMS.

“The AMS is very much a white space,” said Laura Beaudry, a Métis and Cree student from Alberta. “It’s a big responsibility to represent every Indigenous student on campus tonight.”

Other students highlighted the lack of Indigenous spaces on campus, particularly in the Nest.

“I don’t feel included in the Nest ... I often have to leave campus to feel part of my community,” said Verukah Poirier, who is of Maskwacis Cree and Métis descent.

“It is not up to us to force ourselves into your space,” said Hailey Matheson, from the Peguis Nation.

Kavelina Torres, an Inuk student from the Yup’ik, Inupiaq, Athabasca and Seminole Nations in Alaska with black ancestry from the Carolinas and Bermuda, was very firm when voicing her concerns.

“1,700 students between two campuses is not a lot — have you done enough recruitment?” said Torres. “Why am I the only Inuk here?

“If education opens doors and this school being in the top 30 universities in the world, why are there so few Indigenous peoples here? Why aren’t those doors being opened for us?”

Some students proposed encoding Indigenous cultural practices into university custom to make it a more welcoming space for Indigenous students.

“Why isn’t smudging codified in the UBC codes?” said Torres. “We cannot smudge in our rooms for fear of being kicked out, fined or ostracized.”

Some Indigenous students did thank the AMS for its efforts in reforming the current structures, but others were hesitant to extend thanks until something is done.

“Acknowledgement is only the first step in healing and building a path forward, and it seems that AMS has felt for too long that acknowledging the problem equates with solving it,” said Noah Schlager, an Indigenous student from the United States on exchange from Yale University.

One student made a point that it often feels like “settler universities want our ‘stuff,’ like our totems, art, clothes, language, greetings and proof of approval, but they don’t want us.”

Rodney Little Mustache, a member of the Piikani Nation of the Niitsitapi confederacy who has been vocal about his criticism of the AMS’s lack of Indigenous representation, responded with a call for reserved seats for Indigenous students on university governing bodies.

“The oppression of Indigenous students can end tonight with a stroke of a pen or a few click on a computer by adding two seats on the AMS and Senate, and the formation of volunteers in this room to start work on our Indigenous committee,” said Little Mustache.

President Hamid concluded the three-hour long discussion by sharing her thoughts on how to move forward and re-affirming her commitment to see change take place, starting with the creation of an Indigenous AMS standing committee.

“Thank you for reminding us that learning from our mistakes is not a thing to do, but it is the only thing to do,” said Hamid.

This article has been updated to correct Kavelina Torres’ name. The Ubyssey regrets this error.