Truth and Reconciliation at UBC: Confronting Our Legacies

Vancouver has just declared June 21,2013 to June 20, 2014 as the Year of Reconciliation. What is our role? What legacies have each of us inherited from Indian residential schooling in Canada? Sarah Ling shares her reflection on the UBC Truth and Reconciliation Student Conference held on April 5, 2013 as a student and presenter…

By Sarah Ling

April 5, 2013 marked the last day of classes at UBC-Vancouver. This was not just a day of celebration however, but one of critical reflection and visioning learning opportunities for the next school year at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Student Conference. Students from an array of cultural backgrounds and academic disciplines filled Sty-Wet-Tan hall at the UBC First Nations Longhouse, committed to open dialogue about the history of residential schools in Canada and our relationships to it.

In preparation for the West Coast National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Vancouver from September18-21, we discussed the significant decision UBC has made to “suspend” classes on September 18 so that students, faculty and staff may meaningfully participate in events regarding this commission. This day should not be treated as a suspension of learning, but a restructuring and relocation of learning. Several events will be taking place at the Pacific National Exhibition (the central location), on campus, and across the city. This is a refreshing opportunity for learners and educators at UBC from all nations and disciplines to learn about and think through the colonial structuring of this land and the communities we work within.

At the start of the conference, Chief Robert Joseph, Executive Director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society and Special Advisor of the TRC, asserted that we – as students of UBC – are “inheritors of this time and place”, and that this reality is an “inescapable truth.”

What is Our Inheritance?

What does it mean to inherit an institution and its living history on unceded xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) territory? Dr. Linc Kesler, Director of the UBC First Nations House of Learning and Senior Advisor to the UBC President on Aboriginal Affairs, deconstructed the two overarching horrific legacies we must confront as individuals living in Canada:

  1. What the residential schools did to Indigenous students and their families
  2. What all of the other schools did to students in Canada and their families.

I would like to take this opportunity to speak to the later, and share some reflection on my inheritance as a 4th generation Chinese-Canadian. Like many of my peers, I have long been denied information not only about the living Indigenous roots, histories, languages, and cultures of the lands I have been raised and educated on. I was taught a skewed version of Canadian history produced by dominant narratives that continue to plague our public education system and reek of white supremacy.

As a former undergraduate at UBC, taking courses through my minor in the First Nations Studies Program equipped me to confront the holes of my prior education in British Columbia and begin to fill them with a deeper understanding and appreciation for Indigenous history, languages, cultures, arts, politics, and activism. Continuing my studies through graduate school allowed me to take additional enriching courses like the introductory level hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ (xʷməθkʷəy̓əm language) courses taught in the First Nations Languages Program.

xʷməθkʷəy̓əm-Chinese Elder Larry Grant has taught me that my role as a non-Indigneous student in language revitalization is also embedded in a process of reconciliation. As I learn hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ in classes that are held on the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm Reserve in their Elders Centre, I am helping to reconcile the complex relationship our institution has had with the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm Nation. By learning about xʷməθkʷəy̓əm language, culture, and history and sharing what I’ve learned, I’m also helping to mend some of the knowledge gaps that exist in our institution.

At UBC I’ve become passionate about learning and teaching the rich history of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm land UBC is situated on and its relationship with local Indigenous nations. My learning process today as a researcher begins with confronting, decolonizing, and transforming my own knowledge, understanding, and ways of learning about Indigenous topics and issues. However, it does not end with myself.

Decolonizing Knowledge at UBC

In 2010, Spencer Lindsay and I founded a project called Decolonizing Knowledge to mobilize knowledge beyond the walls of our classes in First Nations studies as 4th year undergraduate students. After realizing that we had a common connection to Totem Park Residence on campus, we decided to respond to the instances of cultural misrepresentation and appropriation at this dormitory that we were in a position to help change. We have never claimed to be experts in Indigenous studies, but we do have our own experiences and knowledge bases to draw upon to help create social change.

When Totem Park Residence first opened in the 1960’s, six broad B.C. First Nations linguistic and cultural groupings were appropriated for use as building names. Since then, generations of Totem Park residents have come to identify with the Haida, Nootka, Dene, Salish, Kwakiutl and Shuswap house names. There names were chosen without Indigenous community consultation, and the anthropological terms Nootka, Kwakiutl and Shuswap are not names that the First Nations associated with them use to describe their communities. Rather, these first peoples are known as the Nuu-chah-nulth, Secwepemc, and Kwakwaka’wakw respectively.

Without access to immediate and meaningful educational resources about their house names and the history of their residence, many students remained ignorant to this knowledge and publically represented Indigenous peoples in stereotypical and disrespectful ways. For instance, students who lived in Dene House with Spencer entered UBC’s Day of the Longboat race as the “Dene Savages” and dressed up as “savages” too. Unfortunately, there were never confronted about their actions that year. Such acts create inequitable and alienating environments for Indigenous students on campus, demonstrate ignorance and perpetuate stereotypes.

After identifying and discussing these issues at Totem Park Residence, Spencer and I responded by working with Student Housing and Hospitality Services to begin disseminating information to Totem Park residents about their house names and the history of the space they live within. We also co-chaired a community-centered naming committee for the two newest buildings at Totem Park Residence, which are now named after two significant xʷməθkʷəy̓əm place names, həm̓ləsəm̓ and q̓ələχən.

As the graduate academic assistant for Aboriginal Initiatives at the Centre of Teaching, Learning and Technology, I’m leading a project to create a series of short films about each of the house names and developing an educational resource guide about the area we know as Totem Park Residence today. Multi-media resources, especially the use video, are effective tools that can be used to more fully express and bring alive stories and histories. Moreover, based on surveys from working with first-year students in the Co-ordinated Arts Program this year, I have learned that a large number of this student population lives in Totem Park Residence, and that they felt a stronger connection to the land and its layered histories after learning more about UBC’s relationships with local BC First Nations and going on place-based campus walking tours facilitated by Decolonizing Knowledge.

My vision is that these kinds of educational materials will become incorporated in the regular rhythm of orientations in student housing as well as classroom curricula. They should be accessible for all future generations of UBC students, residents, staff, and faculty. It is important we reciprocate our learning and the knowledge we’ve been gifted with at UBC. Each generation of UBC learners needs to critically discover its inheritance on xʷməθkʷəy̓əm land and act responsibly based on the teachings of this knowledge.

Finding and Employing Our “Deepest Excellence”

I would like to close this reflection by sharing a visual expression of a quote that resonated with me from the video called “A Dialogue on the History and Legacy of the Indian Residential Schools: Oct.31-Nov.1, 2011” which I watched during the TRC student conference:

“Call upon whatever high power it is that takes you to your deepest excellence.”

– Chief Robert Joseph

“Ohe Kapala: Bamboo Prints in Hawai’i” by Sarah Ling

This is a bamboo print I created at the “Living Our Indigenous Languages Gathering” about a week after the TRC student conference on April 13, 2013. In a session called “Ohe Kapala: Bamboo Prints in Hawai’i” led by Tayanie Kealakeakawailani Kuhaulua & Makanamaikalani Poepoe. Ohe Kapala is a bamboo stamp carved with Hawaii tribal symbols and Kapa is a type of clothing that is commonly used beneath the stamped symbols. Each symbol bears a meaning and a finished print can be used to describe oneself and one’s family/community:

  • Lehua (Hawaiian Flower): Excellence
  • Makaihe (Spear Point): Warrior, Strength
  • Mountain: Stead-fast, Strength
  • Ocean/water: Vastness, Flowing

My strength and process of striving for my deepest excellence has been sustained by learning from and with the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm community and their land that I am a guest on, exploring and sharing my own family history and process of decolonization, and inviting others at UBC to do the same. A picture of this print is now the screensaver of my Blackberry. It is a daily reminder of how and why I must continually search and work from a place of “deepest excellence”, and how our institution is striving to do the same. Participating in the West Coast Truth and Reconciliation Commission is one important step towards in this process.

Sarah Ling is the Graduate Academic Assistant for Aboriginal Initiatives at UBC’s Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology.  She was born and raised as a 4th generation Chinese-Canadian in Prince Rupert, BC, the traditional territory of the Tsimshian people. Chinese-First Nations relationships are an integral yet hidden part of B.C. history that Sarah helps expose through her research and community-driven initiatives. She is a Master’s student in the UBC Interdisciplinary Studies Graduate Program. Grateful to be learning on the unceded territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm people, she works with the nation to remap the intercultural history of Chinese market gardening on Musqueam Indian Reserve 2 and helps to revitalize the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm language, hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓.
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