Letter: UBC needs a settler strategic plan

In a time of progress in the public discourse about systemic racism, perhaps UBC’s leadership is ready to hear how UBC’s practices persist in anti-Indigenous racist assumptions regarding settler relations toward Indigenous people.

Focusing specifically on the soon-to-be-launched UBC Indigenous Strategic Plan (ISP), which the UBC community has been invited to provide feedback on, UBC continues the legacy of systemic racism in Canadian institutions by implying that UBC can play a benevolent type of ‘helping, including, and making spaces’ role toward Indigenous people, rather than a ‘taking our foot off their necks’ approach in which we as settlers soberly reflect on how our institution holds a responsibility to relinquish settler control over land and authority.

I urge UBC’s leadership: rather than launch the ISP, consider reconceptualizing this plan instead as a “Settler Strategic Plan” where the explicit onus of responsibility to change behaviour and relinquish illegitimate authority is squarely placed on UBC’s settler leadership.

This ISP has been pitched, in part, as responsive to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report’s calls to action. But the TRC report, while discussing atrocities perpetrated against Indigenous peoples across Canada, is not actually about Indigenous people, nor is it about anything further that must be done to them. Rather, the TRC report is about settlers, settlers’ violent and racist actions, and the responsibility of settler Canadians to cease those actions and to behave and think differently going forward.

The Canadian residential school system, advanced by the Canadian government and supported by churches, universities and settler Canadian society in general, assumed Indigenous peoples’ way of life was inferior to that of settler people, that their lives were inferior. Building on those racist assumptions, the perpetrators then justified their own dismissal of Indigenous peoples’ refusals of consent as settlers carried out what many believed to be benevolent actions to generously guide young Indigenous people into dominant settler society and teach them a ‘better way.’

The faulty logic and faulty assumptions are what the TRC exposed and challenged.

Unfortunately as settler Canadians we still don’t seem to grasp that central point of the TRC, even years later. Instead, we interpret the atrocities through an unaltered lens of settler Canadian excellence and benevolence. This is particularly true at UBC with our institution’s stated purpose and values centring belief in our own exceptionalism and a compulsion to spread it.

When settlers hear about residential school atrocities with a benevolence and excellence lens still on, the response is, generally, one of shock, then sadness or anger, and then — and this is the key — as settlers, we erroneously deepen our resolve to help Indigenous people even more through acts of benevolence, through acts of ‘workplace diversity and inclusion’ and through greater application of what we still believe to be our exceptionally excellent expertise and skills as settler Canadians.

Through this error, settler Canadians make relatively marginal adjustments and tweaks to settler institutions and practices rather than reimagining a settler role from the ground up, rather than letting go of settler entitlement to the land and settler entitlement to authority within institutions.

UBC’s ISP, as is, does not shake fundamentally racist beliefs that Indigenous people in Canada need more benevolence from settlers. Instead, it outlines what UBC will do for Indigenous people by providing Indigenous folks with more educational tools, by hollowing out spaces for Indigenous research methods and knowledge systems within the settler-dominant system, by including Indigenous people more, by branding settler-controlled land in a more Indigenous-friendly way (e.g. flags, totem poles), and by making sure staff and faculty are sensitive about “Indigenous issues” and aware of Indigenous culture so that settlers make Indigenous people more comfortable within a settler-dominant system.

Isolated from the pattern of paternalistic benevolence these gestures seem kind, but fall far short of relinquishing stolen land and authority.

UBC’s settler President Ono says the purpose of the plan is to guide UBC toward the goal of becoming a leading voice, “across Canada and the world,” in the implementation of Indigenous peoples’ human rights. Indigenous peoples don’t need settlers or settler institutions to ‘implement’ their human rights for them. What many Indigenous people in Canada have been saying for a long time that they need from settler Canadians, to paraphrase Lee Maracle in the documentary Colonization Road, is for us to “get the f**k off” their necks, so that their human rights aren’t being systemically abused by our relentless refusal to even consider returning land and authority.

As a settler institution still trying to ‘help’ Indigenous people, UBC falls into what author Teju Cole has described of “white saviours.” We are an institution that “supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.”

At UBC, we are not heroic leaders for ostentatiously trying to fix the very problems, such as mining policy and practice, that we remain complicit in creating. Yet we are on track to repeat the pattern with our current plan, absent a fundamental transformation within settler people.

Bjorn Stime is a white settler Canadian and a PhD candidate in UBC's School of Population & Public Health.