Academiology IV: Land

Published on 2024-02-19

Content warnings: genocide, discussion of ongoing conflicts between Indigenous people and the Canadian government

I've mentioned the Wetʼsuwetʼen people at least once before in my series on the university ecosystem. Before I get into our discussion on land I think I should elaborate on their story a bit.

I'm certainly not an authority on the subject. I encourage you to take the time to read up on them yourself; what I'm about to say certainly won't be enough. You'll learn a lot about Canada in the process--things they'd probably rather you didn't know. The CBC wrote a fairly detailed article in 2020 summarizing the conflict between the Wetʼsuwetʼen hereditary chiefs and the Canadian government, although the story is certainly best told by those who've experienced it first hand.

"What you need to know about the Coastal GasLink pipeline conflict" by Chantelle Bellrichard and Jorge Barrera

The gist is that the Canadian government and a handful of fossil fuel companies are trying to build a natural gas pipeline through the BC interior--specifically, the land where the Wetʼsuwetʼen people have traditionally lived and continue to live on today

As you're probably aware, the Canadian government has an extremely complicated relationship with the fact that Indigenous people exist in the land it claims to govern. The colonization of Turtle Island by British and French settlers was and continues to be extremely genocidal. It is hard to qualify exactly how disturbing it is. If you haven't learned the true story, this article from The Guardian (the name of which I've consciously decided to leave out), while only scratching at the surface, makes a point that I feel really illustrates how devastating colonization has been:

Article on European colonization of the Americas by Oliver Milman

It's hard to understate these things.

As time went on, the settlers formed new states, but the Indigenous people never went away. The relationship between the first peoples and the newly formed white states remained volatile at best. Most hoped to be able to launder their reputation through their gradual or abrupt cutting of ties with the empires from which they were born, but to the surprise of nobody, the genocide went on.

Today, the relationship between the modern Canadian government and the nations of Indigenous people who are still there, still living on and managing their land, has become really awkward. Interestingly, the Canadian supreme court has formally recognized the treaties signed between early settlers and Indigenous nations as law. That makes it all the more fascinating when the Canadian government acts like it's above it.

Like many Indigenous nations, the Wetʼsuwetʼen people have not actually ceded their land to the Canadian government. Between the UN's declaration of the rights of Indigenous people which Canada has adopted and the many treaties the Canadian government has signed with Indigenous nations across the country, that makes what the Canadian government is allowed to do in Wetʼsuwetʼen territory a complicated question. Well, the easy answer is that the Canadian government isn't allowed to do anything without the Wetʼsuwetʼen people's permission, but of course, they don't want to admit that--they want to build an extremely unpopular pipeline. It's complicated because doing what they want to says the quiet part loud. It would be to admit that what they're doing is in fact a military occupation of unsurrendered land.

So, when Wetʼsuwetʼen land defenders go out and barricade forest roads and then the highly militarized police show up to beat and humiliate them, it feels a lot like an invasion. And that's what's been happening for the last five years or so.

It's strange, because it is Canadian law to respect those treaties. And still, they do these things that seem to be in obvious violation of the laws they wrote. They act like they're above their own law.

My university is built on the land of the Syilx Okanagan Nation. I make the point to call them a "sovereign" nation in my admittedly kind of milquetoast land acknowledgement in the footer of my capsule and website because that's what they call themselves: they clearly assert they are "a distinct and sovereign Nation."

"Syilx Okanagan Nation"

My university likes to remind us of the fact that the university is built on the land of the Syilx Okanagan Nation, though the topic of the nation's sovereignty over the land is rarely discussed. At least on the surface, the university seems to be very invested in the stories of Indigenous people and their history. Apparently, the Okanagan campus of UBC was founded "in partnership" with the Syilx Okanagan Nation, and they do seem to have a very collaborative relationship with them. But on an institutional level, they don't feel nearly as invested in standing up for the rights of Indigenous people. They tend to be quiet when it matters.

A significant and ongoing issue on my campus is that the university invests a lot of money in companies deeply involved in the pipeline project traversing the Wetʼsuwetʼen people's land.

There is an intellectual inconsistency shared by both the Canadian government and the university-corporation in how they deal with the fact that Indigenous people still exist. Both seem to maintain this romantic image of Indigenous people being our "legacy." Not only does this relegate them to the past, it completely paints over the ways these institutions are continuing to hurt the very real and very present Indigenous communities they occupy.

More generally, a problem I keep running into is that the university seems to like to think that it's a closed system, completely unaffected by the space in which it exists. Even with respect to the students, I feel like there's this unspoken assumption that all those who come here are freshly printed, blank slates. This goes as far as how it makes few--if any--assumptions about what you learned in high school and provides extensive services to catch you up, as though you never studied past the 8th grade. Useful as they are, it frames the relationship between the university and the people it imports in a very interesting way. Even students arriving at the university from the city it inhabits seem to be reborn.

As discussed previously, you can plausibly go four years as a university student without ever having to interact with the space in which it exists.

Academiology III: Investment

Conversely, you cannot live in the space in which the university exists without being affected by it.

I've spent my whole life in university towns. I grew up in one, and when I left I moved to another. As a kid, you could always feel the presence of the university. University students made up a significant portion of the city's population. They played a significant role in our economy and job market. They influenced our housing market, as a reliable source of new renters each fall. The city gives a lot to the university. It wasn't until I became a university student myself that I realized just how little we actually give back.

Little universities often leech off of public infrastructure, and throw their weight around to influence city development. Bigger universities can often be so insular that they seem to become a city unto themselves, offering students private "public" infrastructure, like buses. My favourite example and biggest pet peeve in my own university is how much we seem to rely on the "good will" of the local housing market to offer residence services the university continues to fail to provide on its own, dramatically worsening the living conditions for those who've been here long before it arrived.

The university acts like a closed system because it's convenient. A closed-system university is one that's easy to administer and control. It's one that can easily externalize its problems. My university doesn't need to engage with the sovereignty of the Syilx Okanagan Nation because it doesn't conceptualize itself as being "on" their land. It feels more like a ghost in the machine, forever in it but never touching it.

This is a problem because obviously the university isn't a closed system, and if it isn't giving then it only takes. The relationship between the university and the larger world in which it exists is purely extractive.

A healthy university ecosystem is one that both gives and takes--supports and is supported by the land. That means students standing up for the dignity and rights of the people with whom they share the land, and very importantly, the university-corporation putting its money where its mouth is.

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