Saturday, February 8, 2020

UBC's Draft Indigenous Strategic Plan - a real leap forward.

This past week in closed session of the Board’s Indigenous Engagement Committee we were treated to an early view of the draft Indigenous Action Plan that will be publicly revealed at the full board of governors meeting this coming Valentine’s Day.  It’s an impressive plan.

Until the plan is publicly released I cannot speak to details, but I can and will speak to the generalities of the plan. [Note: as of Feb. 9, 2020, the plan has been made publicly available. Read it here. My detailed comments to follow.]

First to note is the amazing work that has been coordinated by Sheryl Lightfoot, Margaret Moss and their team. This work goes beyond the act of writing the plan to the work of collaborative community engagements.  The process has been exemplary – thousands of points of engagement (surveys, one on one meetings, stakeholder meetings, focus groups, student meetings, etc., etc., etc.).  All of this done in the spirit of UNDRIP and guided by the principles of Indigenous governance. While the report summarizes all that work in a very short couple of paragraphs, it could well lay the basis for peer reviewed journal articles on how universities can engage in decolonial and Indigenizing practices. The entire process has been an act of putting words into action.

The draft action plan is built around eight clearly stated goals. Unlike many similar high-level strategic documents, the Indigenous Strategic Plan provides a clear roadmap of action that shows us how we can actually achieve our goals. Furthermore, these goals are consistent with the federal and provincial governments’ commitment to UNDRIP, the TRC call to action, and UBC President, Santa Ono’s Residential School Apology.  

The draft plan also takes seriously our official land acknowledgements by specifically referencing action items to programs that acknowledge Musqueam and Okanagan First Nations. There is good ground to ensure such programs expand to all BC First Nations, but this is a strong step forward putting material weight behind the words used in land acknowledgements.

There is a lot in the plan. Once it is put into the public domain I will have specific comments about the details of the eight goals and forty-three actions. What I will comment on at this juncture is that this plan is ahead of the pack in terms of the post secondary sector and would clearly put UBC once more into the leading cohort within the sector. The process that brings us to this kind of plan is similar to what is going on elsewhere in BC with regard to industry development projects and associated agreements.

Industry agreements, often called Impact Benefit Agreements, are entered into to forestall potential Aboriginal Rights and Title litigation (among other reasons). Furthermore the Crown (federal or provincial governments) have typically delegated the duty to consult with First Nations to industry proponents. While government has the capacity to enter into agreements that acknowledge rights and titles, industry proponents don’t so they instead offer economic benefits through the mechanism of an IBA. The economic benefits include things like, but not restricted to, joint decision making processes, preferential hiring practices, guarantees of sub-contracting rights, direct cash payments, and a range of associated educational and training program funding.

A public university’s strategic plan focussed on Indigenous people is driven and made necessary by a similar underlying process – the reality under Canadian law of Aboriginal Rights and Title. That’s why university boards and administrators find themselves being compelled to create such documents and plans. The people outside of the circles of power, Indigenous faculty, students, staff and our non-Indigenous allies see the creation of these plans differently – they are seen through the lens of decolonization and social justice.  This creates a problem at the decision making table when everyone may be using the same words but having very different ideas in mind about what they are doing and the output they wish to enact.

I fear that when those in power misunderstand the fundamental difference in perspective we will end up with a glossy brochure, with some tokens of good will and economic offers, but very little of substantive change will come. The current Indigenous Strategic Plan offers an opportunity for fundamental change that, while impoverished in terms of the economic offers underlying it, does contain important conceptual frameworks that have a real potential to make a difference.  I hope that my fellow governors can find their way to align with the intellectual traditions of decolonization and social justice and move UBC forcefully into a new period of Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations. I truly hope that they can find it in their hearts to accept this powerful new Indigenous Strategic Plan and not use formalist and procedural mechanisms to deflate and diminish the good work that has been done by Drs Lightfoot and Moss.

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