No official acknowledgement of UBC’s physical placement on traditional Musqueam land was made at the presidential search committee’s town hall held in January.
This would have passed off unnoticed by most of the attendees if a woman had not come up to the microphone and said, in a voice void of emotion, “I would like to acknowledge that we are seated on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Musqueam nation.”
She did not hesitate or wait for a response before moving on to ask her question, but throughout the room there was a ripple of discomfort, shame and awkwardness in the wake of her words.
Someone thanked her for the acknowledgement and her question. Committee members began to speak and the rustles died down. The moment passed.
But this is not an uncommon occurrence at UBC — neither the acknowledgement or the lack thereof. No one purposely did not make a land acknowledgement at the commencement of the town hall, but no one purposely made one either.
Compare this with the UBC Okanagan campus.
“It is an extraordinary thing the way that campus and our Aboriginal host community and our host nation are connected,” Deborah Buszard, deputy vice-chancellor and principal at UBCO, told The Ubyssey.
The biggest difference between UBCO and UBC Vancouver is that from its very inception, the former had a clear, written understanding with the local Indigenous community.
“The fact that [UBCO] came into being with that [memorandum of understanding] set an expectation of the partners,” said Buszard of the agreement. “For me, that sense of partnership on the Okanagan campus is something very special.”
The connection between the Indigenous groups connected to UBCO and the university administration there has been noticed in the past as being one of particular strength and trust — words not often used when referring to the relationship between Indigenous peoples and institutions in the rest of Canada.
“Part of our ability to do what we do is because we’re brand new,” said Ian Cull, associate vice-president students at UBCO, from Anishinaabe Ojibway in the Lake Superior area. “We didn’t really have a colonial relationship with the Indigenous people whose territorial land the institution sits in. The fact that we were able to start brand new without a set of preconditions … helped us a lot.”
This is not something that can be said of UBC Vancouver. Linc Kesler, director of the First Nations House of Learning and senior advisor to the president on Aboriginal affairs, points to the shared history of the university and the Musqueam. While the land had been set aside by British colonialists since 1867 for a military encampment, the Musqueam were able to continue living on the land as they had done for thousands of years due to the lack of active usage — that is until the university began to be built. As the campus grew, the Musqueam were slowly pushed out.
“In that sense, the story of the rise of the university is a story of loss for the community,” said Kesler, who is from the Oglala-Lakota nation near Chicago, Illinois, on his mother’s side.
UBC Vancouver has begun a concerted effort to include Indigenous communities within the institution only in the last five to eight years. That commitment to not just accommodating the presence of Indigenous communities within the university, but actively incorporating them into the institution is something UBC Okanagan takes very seriously — starting with incoming students.
“Most institutions, if they deal with Aboriginal institutions or Aboriginal communities, their focus is on students’ shortcomings. They take students who might be underprepared and they try to provide them with resources so that the students can be successful, but mostly the requirement is on the student to change and be different,” said Cull.
He explained that this is something that UBCO does too, providing extra support and services so that they can help underprepared students to be successful at university. However, he said they’ve also spent a decade preparing the institution to welcome these students.
“The institution has had to change too, which is something that most universities don’t endeavour to do,” he told The Ubyssey. “They expect Indigenous students would have to change in order to have a relationship with them and our expectation was different. The university also had to change in order to welcome and educate Indigenous people and that’s somewhat unique to us.”
The positive trickle-down effect this has on Indigenous communities, the institution, other UBCO students and Canada as a whole are huge. “[There is a] need not only to prepare students to be successful at UBC, but the need to prepare UBC to successfully receive the students,” said Buszard.
She points to the nursing program as an example, which has a 20 per cent enrollment rate of Indigenous students.
“That really starts to make a difference when there’s not an extreme one student in a program, but rather it’s an expectation and a norm that there will be Aboriginal students across campus,” she said.
Kesler agrees. “If institution changes their tone and the practices of what they’re doing, I think that affects everybody who passes through the institution,” he said.
According to Kesler, this shift of tone happened at UBC Vancouver in 2011 when the First Nations House of Learning organized a community event aimed at campus leadership for a dialogue on the residential school system and its after-effects.
“As we gave people ways to understand the issues and a way to think about them and some opportunities to do that. Things began to change in the institutional culture,” he explained. “The whole problem before was [that], for the majority of people, they just didn’t have a way to think about it in a way that made sense to them and it was hard to talk to them.”
The effects of this were seen at UBC Vancouver in 2013 when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came to campus. When Kesler first pitched the idea of cancelling classes for the day to allow students to attend, he expected a lot of pushback from deans and faculty. Instead, he said, he was pleasantly surprised by how open everyone was.
But keeping this dialogue open is crucial.
“All of that [awareness] could go away pretty quickly, if people stopped thinking about it,” said Kesler. “They have to be thinking about it to be thinking about it. So keeping people’s understanding and focus is important.”
The lack of land acknowledgement at the town hall in Vancouver in January is not limited to that event — Board of Governors meetings that take place on the Point Grey campus don’t traditionally include a land acknowledgement either.
For Lindsay Gordon — chancellor, board member and chair of the presidential search committee — this is not a conscious choice, but a symptom of systemic biases.
“We all have biases,” he told The Ubyssey. “In my case, I am in my early sixties, but I am who I am and who I am is a reflection of all the experiences I’ve had over those years. But one of the things I feel very strongly about … is about Aboriginal engagement — and yet we forgot it.”
Although he admits that the land acknowledgement is something that often gets pushed to the sidelines in board meetings and other public events, he said this will soon change.
“It has actually come up recently and I think that’s part of the answer of why it hasn’t it been done — because times are changing. The fact that it hasn’t been done on the board of governors historically, so what? We should be looking at this on a forward facing basis,” said Gordon. “I do believe it would be absolutely appropriate to start off each public session of the board governors with an acknowledgement of the Musqueam unceded and hereditary land.”
Celeste Haldane is currently the only Indigenous member of the Board of Governors. Although she grew up in Port Moody, her family is Musqueam.
“For me, when I sit in Vancouver being a member of Musqueam, I’m already home,” she said in an interview with The Ubyssey. “So I don’t need to acknowledge my own territory. When we’re in the Okanagan for instance, and we have board meetings there once a year, I always acknowledge the territory we’re on … recognizing that I’m another Indigenous person from a different community going into another.”
At the Board of Governors meeting in September which took place in Kelowna, then-member John Montalbano said that he felt the land acknowledgement made on that campus felt much more genuine than those made at the Point Grey campus. He asked Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff members present why this was.
Kesler is often asked the same question. “My reply is always really simple,” he said. “It’s always, ‘Well, it’s as sincere as you make it.’ If you’ve just recited it as a formula … that accomplishes very little, but if there’s an actual acknowledgement that there is a history and you know what the history is and you acknowledge all of the ways in which that history has affected people very differently, then there’s nothing nominal about it.”
Cull agrees. “Really, it’s about acknowledging the experiences that Indigenous people have had … it’s acknowledging that education really is the hope for Indigenous people. Education will allow them to look after their families and participate in the greater Canadian society. It’s an understanding that Indigenous knowledge is also knowledge and valuable and has a place in the academy,” he said. “It’s being able to address instances of bias or prejudice or bigotry when they occur in a quick and meaningful way. It’s not any one thing, it’s a constellation of good things.”
This is something UBCO does in a very proactive manner, said Buszard.
“We can’t wait for the playing field to be levelled … at the other levels of education. In order for us to positively engage is I think what’s really been a breakthrough of understanding for me,” she said. “For a long time, we said, ‘Well, you know it’s not working because —’ and pushed it back to other levels, whether it’s early childhood or elementary or high schools. We’d love to see those things solved. But meanwhile, we’re going to facilitate and open up some other doors.”
For Kesler and Haldane, the trajectory of engagement is on the right path. Gordon remains committed to expanding UBC’s engagement with the Indigenous communities “on whose land we sit,” he said.
“The things that we’re doing now and the relationship we have with the Musqueam … is on a very different footing at this point — actually, it looks pretty good. [The bar was set] really low with taking the land and the things we’re doing now look better by comparison,” said Kesler, referring to the colonial roots of UBC Vancouver. “So I think it closes a happier story.”
Haldane points to the new Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre being built on campus as well as the role played by the First Nations House of Learning as being strong components of increased education and engagement. She also said more emphasis can always be given to ensuring Indigenous perspectives are included in students’ education and faculty orientation when they arrive to Vancouver.
“An educational institute should be at the forefront of all these issues and we should be the place for having this robust dialogue around what is reconciliation. How do we position ourselves to be leaders in the country and globally to actually truly, meaningfully, reconcile with Indigenous people?” asked Haldane. “I think that is the importance of our university and I think we are playing a role in it and we’ll continue to play a leadership role in it.”
A previous version of this article stated that Celeste Haldane grew up in Richmond. This has been corrected.