Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Issue of the Day: The Musqueam Issue

Now for something a little more controversial. Somebody who I work fairly close with recently questioned my leftist politics. That’s fair – I feel quite comfortable in the bureaucracy of the AMS, and I feel quite comfortable trying to balance the 42 000 different opinions of AMS members, and I even support many CASA policies. But after reading Jesse Ferrara’s post on the Musqueam issue, I agreed that it was something that should get some more discussion in this year’s election. And frankly, at the most recent BoG debates, there are a few things that should be clarified.

More behind the jump...

A History of First Nations Oppression:

There is a certain camp of people, in which I identify, who might describe the history of First Nations people in BC like this:

There were no “signed” treaties in BC that handed the land over to the Crown – in fact, the conditions under which these other “treaties” were signed across Canada are sketchy at best. There was also no war that was won that legitimizes the Queen of England‘s right to let the Canadian government oversee this land. The only thing that did happen was that a lot of Europeans came to this land with racist, imperialist assumptions that the people who lived here were “backwards and uncivilized” and that was some sort of justification for why we could take it over.

Over the years, those racist assumptions permeated into the minds and hearts of almost every Canadian, excusing policies that forced children to leave their homes, renounce their Native identity and stop speaking their Native language. What followed were decades of white people actively destroying Native culture and history, and any of its power and meaning. Families fell apart, survivors of the Residential Schools were taught to hate themselves and histories were not just being lost, but violently rewritten. We built entire institutions that systematically destroyed Native culture and kept the First Nations people down through a reinforcing cycle of economic and social poverty.

Now, people think that we should just forget all that: “I didn’t take over their land, its not my fault.” Well, that’s nice. But I for one feel perfectly capable of taking responsibility for the incomprehensibly terrible things that my ancestors did, and I feel perfectly comfortable doing whatever it takes to rectify the situation, whatever it will take for First Nations communities to heal and rebuild.
Systemic oppression is about systems, structures and societies that are built on keeping certain people down, certain perspectives out, and certain power-structures in place. Accepting the First Nations issue as an oppression issue is about acknowledging the decades of violence that has been launched at Aboriginal communities.

Land Claims issues:

The basic principles to rectifying the relationship between Canada and the First Nations communities are outlined in the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP): recognition, respect, sharing and responsibility. We must recognize that the Aboriginal people are the original inhabitants of this land, and no matter how you want to look at it, that grants them certain rights, and we must recognize them as nations, on par with the nation of Canada. We must respect their tradition, their history, their culture and their wishes, the way they define themselves and the future that they define for themselves. We must share this land. And lastly, we must take responsibility for the years of violent oppression, it is our responsibility for the current relationship and state of affairs.

Understanding current First Nations issues, like current land claims, requires a deep appreciation for these basic tenants. Land claims in BC are about negotiating use of this land on equal terms, land which has never been negotiated fairly up until this time. It is not necessarily about “living off the land” – although most Indigenous cultures have a strong cultural tradition that is linked to particular land. To assume that all Native people want to return back to some sort of pre-Settler lifestyle is racist. Thus, if the Musqueam nation wants to build condos on the Golf Course – by all means, who are we to say what they should do? Land claims are about reconciliation of past injustices – and we need to respect the terms of reconciliation that they define.

The Musqueam Nation and UBC:

We have to recognize the First Nations people as legitimate nations, with legitimate governments. In this sense, why would the Musqueam nation negotiate with UBC? The Musqueam Nation negotiates with the nation of Canada. UBC just happens to be the governmental institution that sits on their land. The notion of putting a Musqueam leader on the Board of Governors is absurd because it is tokenistic. It doesn’t address the heart of the issue at all. It is a false gesture. Until UBC is willing to address Indigenous issues head on, with a serious commitment to change things and rectify things, then a BoG seat is entirely meaningless. A serious approach would question how we perpetuate racist and anti-indigenous assumptions in our institution. It would question how we, as an institution of higher learning that is representative of advances in human society, continue to oppress and colonize First Nations people.

UBC’s current approach is to increase access of First Nations people to the ‘incredible education of UBC’ – aka bringing more FN students into UBC. Education can be one of the greatest tools for empowerment and freedom. It also can be one of the greatest tools for domination and repression. Unless UBC’s educational experience is willing to take on this question, and change to be anti-oppressive, then again, this solution is tokenistic, and side-steps the real issues, and even perpetuates the colonial relationship. What would an empowering education look like for an Aboriginal student? Well, it would be an Aboriginal education, taught from an Aboriginal perspective by Aboriginal people. It would not be a Western interpretation of Aboriginal history. It would force white students to engage in that Aboriginal history from an Aboriginal perspective. It wouldn’t just be a pathetic attempt at being more “welcoming” and “supportive” of First Nations students. UBC’s approach doesn’t critically ask, how does the white institution of UBC needs to change in order to end the oppression of Aboriginal people within its doors, and in society as a whole.

The Issue as it relates to the AMS:

You may have read in a recent issue of the Ubyssey that the AMS failed a motion to support a negotiated settlement for the Musqueam Nation in the recent golf course issue. I think it was a very sad day, and a missed opportunity to publicly support the Musqueam nation. The AMS, like UBC, really has no role in “building relationships” with a nation – would any true representative of the United States come deal with the AMS? But there are things that the AMS can do. Firstly, the AMS can do a better job of publicly supporting the Musqueam nation in their struggle. The other thing the AMS can do is better represent its First Nations students – this would require more Aboriginal representation within the various facets of the AMS, better resources and services for FN students, outreach and relevance. Of course, its a bit of a Catch-22, because there aren't many reasons currently for First Nations students to get involved in the AMS, which makes it difficult to build in those relevant resources and programs. For example, there should be an Aboriginal Student Centre in the Resource Groups. But again, until the AMS is willing to take a critical look at how we actively perpetuate an oppressive relationship, then we aren't doing much better than UBC. The AMS will have to engage in the issue head-on, work with Aboriginal students to define what their needs are and how the AMS can support that, and then help Aboriginal students to make it happen.