Sunday, January 8, 2023

Time for another UBC apology.

Its’ time UBC’s senior administration apologize for claiming Indigenous ‘identity’ had no role in Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond’s appointment. Even if they might ‘technically’ be correct that it wasn’t a specific criteria for hiring, Turpel-Lafond very clearly appeared to have been directly targeted to lead the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre BECAUSE they were Indigenous and so very prominent.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond (Aki-kwe), a renowned Indigenous Canadian judge, lawyer and advocate for children and Indigenous restorative justice, has joined UBC as the inaugural director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre (IRSHDC) and as a professor with the Peter A. Allard School of Law.

This was a project that was closely aligned with the president’s office and President Ono’s subsequent apology about UBC’s involvement in Residential Schools. 

The Media Relations statement that has remained the only official public statement from UBC has to be apologized for. 

Indigenous identity was not a criterion” for the positions Prof. Turpel-Lafond held at the university, said Matthew Ramsey, UBC’s director of university affairs. 

It’s instructive to reflect on Dr Kim TallBear’s response to this issue. TallBear was interviewed on CBC Vancouver's afternoon show, On the Coast, on Friday January 6, 2023.

CBC host Gloria Macarenko said that when the story first broke CBC asked UBC about Turpel-Lafond's Indigenous identity. UBC said identity had nothing to do with this hire. TallBear responded by explaining how and why universities want to hire Indigenous peoples and that while non-Indigenous people can do some of this work, Indigenous peoples bring a specific expertise. So of course universities pay attention to this, so of course a university would consider a person's Indigenous identity as relevant. She then closed by saying "I don’t believe [UBC ignored the Identity claim], does anybody believe that?" (CBC interview, Jan. 6, 2023. min 3:39-4:43).

That's the thing, none of us really believe the putative identity of the individual had nothing to do with their hiring. 

As much as I am taken aback by the story about this individual, my disappointment rests with the senior administrators who did the hiring and recruitment. My disappointment extends to the ones who okayed a statement that is hard to believe, especially when read against the statements announcing the appointment (which so clearly foreground Indigenous identity).

There is another issue here, the conceptual focus on individual identity. This mistaken focus misunderstands Indigenous sovereignty and citizenship and confuses it with settler society's fetishization of the individual. To focus on identity makes being indigenous ‘just another’ ethnicity, when it is not that at all. We need clear university processes to validate membership and citizenship in Indigenous Nations, especially in cases where jobs, awards, or student placement are linked to being a member of an Indigenous Nation.

Being Indigenous is to be connected, committed, and claimed. That is, a person is related in some manner through their own family and their own history to an existing First Nation. This person is involved in their community (or some part of it) and maintains active linkages. Their community of account itself acknowledges them as a member and claims the person as their own. People outside that intersection of 'c's might have Indigenous 'heritage' but, by this model are not Indigenous qua Indigenous. A non-Indigenous person may even be 'adopted' into a community, but they remain non-Indigenous. Neither is this about self-identification.

Would anyone take me seriously if I started wearing kilts and said I was Scottish (even if my last name is Scottish). Would they accept if I claimed to be Quebcois since my great grandfather on my mother's father's side came from Trois Rivieres. I might colour my past with stories of those origins but would it make me Scottish or Quebecois? I don't think so.

Through all of this UBC's leadership needs to to set aside their PR script writers and strategic communicators – none of whom seem to have a good understanding of Indigenous issues or realities- and speak with UBC's Indigenous community publicly and honestly without the protection of a scripted statement. They need to take on the institutional responsibility for what their predecessors did and atone for it. It's time they paid attention to their very own Indigenous Strategic Plan. We need an Indigenous-led process to ensure we never walk this particular path again.

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