The UBC First Nations Longhouse

An Introduction to Settler Colonialism at UBC: Part One

This three-part series on settler colonialism is co-authored between two people: one who identifies as a michif (Métis) man from Saskatoon, the other who identifies as a racialized, non-Indigenous female settler. As co-authors, we are speaking from our own perspectives as an Indigenous person (Justin) and as a settler (Kay).

This series is informed through an anti-colonial, anti-racist, and intersectional feminist lens. We have tried to make it as accessible as possible, but fully acknowledge that we were not completely successful. We have attempted to frame it as a discussion as much as possible, and have embedded links for further learning and hope this can make the piece more accessible and informative. We hope this article can serve as an introduction to some important (and complicated) issues; in our opinion, an understanding of settler-colonialism, and our complicity in it, is essential to building a better future.

The University of British Columbia is built on stolen land.

To clarify: UBC’s Point Grey campus is built on the traditional, ancestral, occupied, and unceded lands of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) people – the People of the River Grass. The Musqueam are a self-governing nation of traditional hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ speaking people who are descendants of the ethnically and linguistically related Coast Salish peoples. These lands have never been ceded.

Settler colonialism, a specific form of colonialism, is based on ‘genocidal appropriation’ – the idea that Indigenous people have, and will continue to, disappear, making it seem as though non-Indigenous people are the natural owners of Indigenous land. In other words, it is the ongoing displacement of Indigenous peoples from their lands and resources through an influx of permanent settlers. (For more on settler colonialism, read here and here.) In what is now called Canada, assimilation has been imposed on Indigenous communities through an endless list of genocidal, forcible, racist, and heteropatriarchal actions and policies. This has taken, and in many cases continues to take the form of violence through forced sterilization, cultural theft, residential schools, the 60’s scoop, intergenerational trauma, cultural appropriation, land dispossession, and environmental racism and destruction – to name a few.

Here at UBC, settler colonialism is continually reinforced. Here is one of three observations of how it is perpetuated and normalized on our campus.

Example One: Erasure of Indigenous students

Justin:

The struggle of Indigenous students in universities is, well, real. Whether it’s meeting stringent entrance requirements, dealing with racism in the classroom, or completing the required courses to graduate, university can be a difficult place for Indigenous students. Even after that, Indigenous students on campus are often rendered invisible. I can only speak from my own experience as a Métis person who, on numerous occasions, has had my identity reduced to nothingness. I recall an assignment that asked several questions about my family history. One of the questions asked when did your family come to Canada? Although on the surface it may appear as a simple question with a simple answer, it was anything but that. I could talk about my Ukrainian and German family, but how was I supposed to talk about my Métis family? The underlying assumption behind the question was obvious: there are no Indigenous people in university – to which I answered, we’ve always been here.

This is just one example, but it illustrates how something as simple as a question can deny my entire existence. The project What I Learned in Class Today: Aboriginal Issues in the Classroom, developed by the First Nations Studies Program at UBC, discusses similar difficult experiences. They write:

“(Indigenous) students frequently report troubling and sometimes traumatic discussions of cultural issues in class.  These situations often affect their ability to function in their coursework, and even their ability to return to class. The project looks at how the challenges around talking about race work as an educational barrier at the classroom level.  This is something that has not been sufficiently addressed in educational institutions, and yet, is something that desperately needs to be discussed.” 

The idea that universities are places where Indigenous peoples are studied, but cannot come to study, is still held in institutional memory. I cannot count the number of times my friends and I have been subjected to experiences of erasure. However, things are changing – albeit at a snail’s pace – and it is Indigenous peoples who are leading these changes. We are increasingly attending university and working hard to make it a more welcoming and inclusive place. Indigenous scholars are undertaking groundbreaking research, and Indigenous graduates are doing important work throughout the country.

Kay:

One of my favourite pieces I’ve read in academia is Decolonizing Antiracism by Mi’kmaq scholar Bonita Lawrence and South Asian scholar Enakshi Dua. In the piece, Lawrence and Dua discuss how racialized non-Indigenous people of colour (PoCs) like myself are complicit in settler colonialism. Although PoCs face our own experiences of racism in Canada, we are also part of the Canadian colonial project that aims to eliminate Indigenous communities.

In the academic context, I have frequently noticed non-Indigenous professors and students, both people of colour and white folks, negate the existence of Indigenous students. This is particularly evident – and ironic – in spaces led by non-Indigenous people that posit themselves as ‘anti-colonial’. For example, when speaking about anti-colonial politics, some of my non-Indigenous professors have addressed their classes in a manner that presumes that everybody is a settler. This is problematic because it assumes that Indigenous people do not exist in the classroom – or anywhere at all.

I have also noticed this occurring in discussions of race and racism. In these discussions, racism is often framed from the perspective of PoC communities, and not Indigenous communities. This invisibilizes the fact that Indigenous peoples were/are racialized through colonization and have/continue to experience various and violent forms of racism. As well, it is usually white folks or PoCs (such as myself) who dominate these conversations, therefore taking space away from Indigenous voices. Yes, people of colour experience racism; many of us have complex experiences with colonization, forced migration, and land dispossession – but our presence on this land means that we benefit from the oppression of Indigenous communities. We too, contribute to settler colonialism. Though PoC settlers have faced, and continue to face, forced segregation, sterilization, discriminatory policies, and countless other experiences of institutional (and interpersonal) racism, we are ultimately settling on, occupying, and benefitting from the land dispossession of Indigenous communities across Turtle Island.

These situations are just some examples of how settler colonialism operates in the classroom, and how non-Indigenous students like myself are complicit in it. In perpetuating settler colonialism, we feed into the Canadian colonial project, which works to extinguish the existence, culture, survival, creativity, sovereignty, and resistance of Indigenous communities.

In parts two and three of the series, we look at the tokenization of Indigenous students and critically discuss territory acknowledgments.

  • Vivian Hui

    Thank you for this article! Indigenous issues, post-colonial colonialism and land claims are topics that definitely need to be brought up more often.

  • Zoë DiCaprio

    excellent piece, thank you for sharing. looking forward to parts II and III.