Moments of SFU’s history with the Indigenous community

A series of past events that shaped our university’s current relationship with Indigenous Peoples

Frog Constellation, courtesy of Chris Ho.

By: Jonathan Pabico, Peak Associate 

In the 1960s, First Nations were never included in discussions to construct SFU on Burnaby Mountain. To this day, relationships between the university and First Nations communities are still imperfect. In 2017, Sarah Guraliuk wrote for The Peak about the reality of authenticating her heritage with “acceptable proof” before accessing financial aid meant for Indigenous students. While the following events are not an exhaustive list, here are some pieces of the past that illustrate the intricate relationship between SFU and the Indigenous Community.

Editor’s note: If you have any questions, concerns, or feedback about this piece, please email The Peak at  


Building the university on unceded territory

As you have heard from the land acknowledgements at the start of any university event, SFU’s campuses are located on the unceded territories of xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish),  Sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh), and Kwikwəƛ̓ əm (Kwikwetlem) Nations. What’s more, the university is named after an explorer who supposedly discovered the land on which these nations had been living. Within the university’s first five years, SFU students were already campaigning to rename the school “Louis Riel University” in honour of the Métis leader of the 1860s (a proposition which eventually lost support and never took off).  


Opening the ISCH

The Indigenous Student Cultural House (ISCH) was created by the Indigenous Student Centre and SFU Residence and Housing on the Burnaby campus to provide a community space for Indigenous students. Since its inception in September 2016, the ISCH has provided a supportive environment for Indigenous students to live on campus, and made possible opportunities to partake in drum making, beading, and other cultural art forms, as well as develop leadership skills. Students can learn more about the program and eligibility on the ISCH’s website.


The First Nation Studies’ small size

SFU’s Senate expressed concerns about the First Nations studies’ shockingly small 3.5 member faculty during a meeting in early February 2018. The Senate was surprised not only by FNS’s smaller staff, but also by the fact that FNS received no support to develop further following FNS’s status update as a department. SFU Senate reached a shared consensus of increasing Indigenous faculty for FNS, especially since FNS’s low numbers hindered their chances of implementing a graduate program for their department and expanding their Indigenous presence at the school.

Back in 2012, First Nations Studies (FNS) was finally recognized by the SFU Senate as a department. According to associate professor Eldon Yellowhorn, FNS had to steadily grow and expand before becoming a department. Starting only with First Nations Studies courses, FNS eventually created other programs, such as joint majors, eventually garnering much student interest. The hope was to one day create a Graduate Studies program.

Other than educating catering to their own students, FNS plays an important part in public education. In 2015, Dr Marianne Ignace gave a lecture at the SFU Vancouver campus about how First Nations dialects have become endangered languages and about their effects on society — historically, culturally, socially, and even cognitively. As part of SFU’s President’s Faculty Lecture Series, Ignace’s lecture elaborated on the importance of understanding how deeply rooted they are within our own complex world.


First Nations Students’ Association educational and cultural activities

The First Nations Students’ Association has been active since the 1990s, offering personal, academic and cultural support to Indigenous students as well as education to the larger SFU community. They have a common room in the Rotunda.

In February 2018, the First Nations Student Association organized a march on Burnaby campus to pay respects to Canada’s 4000 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. During this march, many members of the SFU Community united in solidarity, congregating at the AQ and the Convocation Mall to hold a solemn vigil. In addition, the First Nations Student Association expressed how touched they were at the impressive turnout of community members that came to support the march, and disappointment that prayer ties hung around campus as an offering to the missing and murdered women were moved by the campus’ population. The march itself brought attention to issues about injustices against Indigenous women and girls that remain a growing concern today.

The First Nations Student Association also hosts Indigenous Day at Convocation Mall: an annual event started in 2013. Last year, the event not only gave Indigenous students the chance to assert their presence within the SFU Community, but also gave the opportunity for non-Indigenous students to enjoy the festivities and educate themselves. Many artists honoured the event with performances celebrating Indigenous heritage and traditions.

In 2013, FNSA organized a peaceful protest at Convocation Mall for the Idle No More Movement. The event was organized thanks to other partners within the SFU community such as SFPIRG and guest speakers. Idle No More is a mass movement within Canada, born in Saskatchewan, educating and recruiting support in regards to neocolonialism and the sociopolitical landscape faced by Indigenous people. The peaceful protest became so impactful to the community that it drew attention from Global TV News and other local media outlets.


Cancelling the Aboriginal University Transition Program

In April 2017, SFU cancelled the Aboriginal University Transition Program, which was designed to help Indigenous students adapt to university, citing low enrollment numbers. However, many faculty and staff advocated for the program by organizing a petition consisting of an overwhelming 885 signatures. Despite the school bringing back this program, SFU received much backlash from staff and other community members, especially since the school failed to consult Indigenous students regarding the change, and the program itself remains imperfect.

It was revived as the Aboriginal University Preparation Program, under the care of the Faculty of Arts and Social Science. The program is still imperfect: costs still remain a prevalent concern, affecting Indigenous students’ choices and ability to enroll in this transition initiative, as well as some Indigenous students’ lingering wariness about attending a Canadian institution period given the interwoven histories of residential schools, colonialism, and the education system.


2017 Witnessing Ceremony : Keeping SFU accountable to the Walk this Path with Us report

Convocation Mall became the venue for a Kwis Ns7eyx̱, or witnessing ceremony led by elders of the Coast Salish First Nations. This event was organized to make public SFU’s promise to honour the Aboriginal Reconciliation Council, or ARC’s, Walk this Path With Us report public, and keep the university accountable.

The ARC report outlines 33 calls to action that will overlook the use of $9 million in funding for community spaces and other necessities for Indigenous students at SFU. Some of these calls include: acknowledging that SFU stands on unceded territories through art and signage, investing in safe and culturally appropriate spaces as well as ceremonial spaces, providing funds for teachers who seek to indigenize their courses, and being mindful of repatriation and culturally appropriate ways to acquire Indigenous items for ceremonial or aesthetic purposes.  


Plans to include Indigenous studies course as a graduation requirement

2016 saw the SFSS and various First Nations groups, such as the Office of Aboriginal Affairs, develop plans to implement an Indigenous Studies course as a new graduation requirement. The course was among three potential avenues to incorporate Indigenous Studies into the school’s curriculum, aiming to be finalized for the upcoming Fall 2018 semester. With the course endorsed by the SFSS (whose board of directors voted unanimously on the subject), it represents a step forward to reconciliation.


Using Summer camps to empower Indigenous youth

In 2014, SFU and the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre (VAFC) collaborated together to provide Indigenous youth with a week-long experience at SFU Summer Camp. During this time, participants were able to have fun exploring university life, partaking in sports, mini-courses, hikes, and other activities. Aside from Summer Camp, SFU also organized other community events, such as the Math Catcher project that used Indigenous culture to help Indigenous children learn math.

With files from The Peak, SFU News, and more.

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