Friday, January 21, 2022

Intersections of Indigenizing/Decolonizing and EDI

Universities in Canada are rushing toward EDI (equity, diversity, and inclusion) excellence* and decolonialization of pedagogy, structures, and practices. How these two liberal social justice projects intersect is considered, but often ignored in university governance practices. Primarily, I think, because the underlying rights that support both projects are in some fundamental ways mutually exclusive (though this need not be the case). 

Recently an EDI proposal before the UBC-V senate was referred back to committee as it made no reference to decolonization.  Jan Hare, Dean pro tem of the Faculty of Education raised a series of questions with the proposal: “Senator Hare said that she was delighted to see attention to EDI matters but asked if the Committee had considered critiques around equity being applied to indigenous considerations. She noted that equity did not always make visible indigenous priorities such as indigenous sovereignty. She asked how indigenous priorities and decolonization could be incorporated” (UBC-V Senate Meeting, Oct. 20, 2021).  I also spoke as follows: “Senator Menzies acknowledged what Senator Hare raised and said that it was a sub-theme at the Nominating Committee but that much of the focus had been on the liberal ideas of individual fairness and equity. He said that such silos may run contrary to the Indigenous Strategic Plan (ISP), and it was notable that there was no reference in either proposal [being presented to Senate]to the idea of decolonization. Dr Menzies said that he advised against including indigenous issues in these conversations around EDI due to the focus [of proponents] on mainstream individuality and the[ier] avoidance of addressing the issues of colonization and indigenous spaces. Senator Menzies said that we cannot assume that decolonization will emerge from an EDI process that erases the colonial history [ignores]” (UBC-V Senate Meeting, Oct. 20, 2021). I subsequently seconded a motion by Senator Hare to refer the matter back to the nominating committee and consult with the UBC Indigenous community.

Now the matter is being reconsidered in committee. What is notable is that there is a strong push from proponents of EDI to institute an equity committee.  It does seem that those proponents understand EDI to be fundamental and prior in consideration to Indigenous matters. Their perspective could be understood to position Indigenous matters conceptually as simply one of a suite of intersectional subjectivities, as in the acronym BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) that inherently assumes a priority of concern due to degree of severity of oppressive experience. Some advocates will write it IBPOC, but the predominant form is BIPOC. Considering Indigenous rights as one of a spectrum of oppressions is both reasonable and wrong simultaneously.  

As individuals, Indigenous people often face similar individually targeted acts of discrimination that would be addressed through liberal** EDI provisions. In this regard BC’s human rights code names Indigenous identity as a protected ground. Individuals can seek redress if their human rights have been violated due to their Indigenous identity. Indigenous identity, however,  is legally different than racial or ethnic identity and is based in constitutionally guaranteed rights that pre-exist, and can contradict, the suite of individual rights. 

Part of the problem is that there isn't a lot (if any) writing on the subject of how mainstream institutions accommodate to the intersections, if not contradictions, between the set of individual rights that EDI doctrine focuses on versus understanding the underlying collective rights of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis as established under Canadian law.  This is also complicated by the fact that individual Indigenous people (as noted above) also experience many of the acts of discrimination as individuals that should be dealt with by EDI doctrine and practices.

First the easy items - the relationship with 'host' nations (Musqueam and Syilx).  Here UBC has been making strides working out MOUs and programs that acknowledge the collective entities that under Canadian law are the aboriginal rights/title bearing bodies. In this regard UBC might agree to provide privileged programs/access/opportunities to members of those two nations which might be considered to transgress EDI; however under Canadian law there are provisions that allow for what some on the right call reverse discrimination. 

For example, a few years ago there was a fishing rights case that was provoked by a group of mostly white commercial fishermen against the pilot sales program of the DFO for Aboriginal Fisheries.  The DFO used the Canadian charter provisions to say that when a group of people have a history of discrimination against them special programs that lend them an advantage over other people is permissible. The case, called the Kapp decision, worked its way to the Supreme Court where the special communal licenses afforded to First Nations were found to be constitutional.

This is not to say that we have seen many critiques along the “reverse discrimination” axis, but rather to underly two aspects of host Nations rights to agreements outside the purview of EDI policies – (1) they have an underlying undefined right and title to the lands UBC operates on, and (2) Canadian law has provisions that permit preferential programs that might otherwise be seen to violate EDI practices.  Both situations afford a priority to First Nations.

Second, and slightly more complicated, but essentially using the same principles of above: Indigenous people not members of the two 'host' nations. I consider this similar (under Canadian law) to the above. As Indigenous peoples we belong to rights/title bearing Nations to which the crown has a fiduciary relationship to. Because UBC is a public institution (and I think this might be different if UBC were in fact private) it has an obligation to consider the prior rights of Indigenous Nations and their members.  This involves considering the TRC's calls to action (for example) as a body of the federal crown - here the Indigenous Strategic Plan (ISP) is UBC's attempt to address those rights and obligations.

Then there is the third item that as an historically marginalized community individual Indigenous people can face acts of individualized discrimination that require EDI programs and thus do need to be included in that (again, as discussed above).

How this all works out on the ground in the context of senate governance is a big problem, one of the reasons that I tend to believe a stand alone committee for EDI and/or ISP/Decolonization is a problem as it balkanizes the issue out of the main forum of senate and functionally lets senate off the hook.  For me, at any rate, the real proof in this pudding comes down to how people make decisions at the local level in doing the many small tasks we have in front of us without having some overall arching panopticon making sure we do it. Each person, each unit, each faculty, has to take on personal responsibly to evaluate each action and to open themselves up to self-critical introspection.


* I use excellence here to mark a practice that I am more inclined to label progressive window dressing, than “Inclusive Excellence.” Elsewhere I have critiqued the use of the term excellence as part of the armature of the neo-liberal university. See: “Reflections on Work and Activism in the ‘University of Excellence.’” New Proposals. Vol. 3(2). 

** I use liberal in its classic sense in which fundamental priority is placed upon individual rights.