Written by: Karissa Ketter, News Writer
The Aboriginal Steering Committee (ASC) meeting was held over Zoom on November 12, 2020 to update the ASC on the First Peoples’ Gathering House project — which aims to provide a space for Indigenous students, staff, and faculty. SFU previously faced concerns from students regarding the lack of Indigenous student consultation for the Gathering House. The ASC was a closed meeting, and as a result, students were blocked from entering — this raised questions about reconciliation efforts from students who hoped to stand in solidarity with Indigenous students and also concerns regarding transparency from administration. There are three Indigenous students who sit on the ASC committee and were the only students allowed to attend.
Questions about the intent of SFU’s reconciliation efforts have been voiced by First Nations Student Association (FNSA) members Zachery Pelletier, Kali Stierle, and Astrid Wilson. Pelletier and Stierle were two of the FNSA representatives at the meeting, but Wilson was one of many students barred from entering. In an interview with The Peak, Stierle noted that “if the work [SFU is] doing is for Indigenous students then there should be Indigenous student voices represented.”
The SFSS’ VP Student Services Matthew Provost also attended the meeting as a guest as he “usually goes to those meetings because [he was] sitting in the FNSA seat prior to being on the SFSS Board.” He noted his concerns around the decisions regarding who is put on the committee and questioned why a non-Indigenous administrator “gets a spot over an Indigenous student who’s being directly impacted by the choices that are coming out.”
Stierle reflected on an encounter she had with administration, where upon voicing the concerns of the ASC, administration allegedly disagreed with them and stated that they maintained proper reconciliation efforts. She explained that “an ongoing issue with [SFU’s] consultation process is that they aren’t including Indigenous student voices.” Stierle added, “We weren’t able to properly voice our concerns, we really were just like a footnote to their agenda. But this is an ongoing process.”
Provost noted that “ultimately, SFU has taken on the responsibility to do reconciliation. If they want to do reconciliation, then they have to do it in a good way or else it’s meaningless — it doesn’t mean anything, at least to us.” He went on to say, “In my opinion, it doesn’t do anything for myself if it’s not done with good intentions or with the right people involved or their excluding voices.”
Tiffany Akins, SFU Director of Media Relations & Public Affairs, said in an email statement to The Peak that the terms of reference for the committee explain why the committee will only allow three students to be present. She noted that “the First Nations Student Association will nominate two students, one undergraduate and one graduate student if possible, to the steering committee for one-year terms.”
These reference terms mandate how many student voices will be recognized on the council. According to Akins, the “the committee serves as a vehicle for communication across faculties and other units and facilitates liaising with the Indigenous community representatives.”
The BIPOC Committee’s At-Large Representative Marie Haddad noted that she attempted to join the meeting as a “silent protest, just being there and supporting Indigenous students” and expressed that showing support “is so essential when it comes to student presence [ . . . ] Especially since there were so many governing bodies in the meeting and only three students, which is such an overpowering dynamic.”
Haddad hoped to create a supportive environment for Indigenous students to ensure they felt heard. However, she was also removed from the meeting. “When I first got the ‘host kicked you out’ notification I was actually really taken aback.” To Haddad, it shows that being “pushed out as [an ally and] saying we don’t need ally work here” is significant.
Wilson believes that if SFU is “that scared to hear from Indigenous students and allies then [ . . . ] there’s something wrong on their end, there’s nothing wrong on our end.”
Another concern for the FNSA members was the lack of preparation time they received for the meeting. According to Pelletier, they received the agenda the night before. He noted that this caused an issue by stating: “We represent our membership and if we can’t be given that time to speak to our membership we can’t properly reflect their concerns and voices at these committees.” Provost agreed that it indicates that their opinions are not being valued and their time isn’t respected.
The chat feature during the meeting was initially disabled — which was an accessibility and communication barrier. To Provost, “it’s just a way to ensure that there’s a power dynamic there, that they’re setting so that students don’t have the ability, or have the option, to participate properly in those spaces.” He concluded that “that’s not a safe space for Indigenous students.” Provost stated that he received an email stating his concerns would have to be directed to at the time Vice-President, Academic and Provost pro tem Jonathan Driver and Interim Director, Office for Aboriginal Peoples Ron Johnston as they requested that they disable the chat.
Stierle noted that after herself, Pelletier, and Provost asked for the chat to be enabled multiple times, it eventually was. “It was something that could have been done from the beginning. There was no real reason to keep the chat diabled besides the fact that they were scared of what we were going to say,” said Stierle.
Provost reiterated the sentiment given in his statement, and he “would like to see an apology and also an acknowledgment — a statement acknowledging that there has been harm caused by not including [more] Indigenous student voices and excluding keystone community members at SFU from attending these events.”
Provost also noted that the consultation around the First Peoples’ Gathering House “is not adequate” and he would like to see at least one FNSA member be appointed to sit on that committee. From his recollection, SFU conducted one meeting in the Indigenous Student Centre for consultation on the project. Beyond that, Provost has noted they only send updates where he would like to see continued consultation.
In response to student concerns, President Joy Johnson released the following statement to The Peak.
“SFU must acknowledge our role in the harm that has been done to Indigenous peoples through education and research. I am committed to reconciliation as one of my three priorities during my presidency. SFU’s Indigenous faculty, staff, and students are leaders in integrating Indigenous knowledge, methodologies, and learning practices at SFU. The university needs to support and extend that work, which is why the ARC Report was commissioned and delivered in 2019 and $9 million allocated to support its 34 Calls to Action.
“I encourage you to visit SFU’s Reconciliation website to read the report and stay informed of how we are implementing the report. Connecting with SFU’s Indigenous community members is important to me.”
The Peak also reached out to Jonathan Driver — who was Vice-President, Academic and Provost pro tem at the time of writing — in regards to student concerns, however he declined to comment, given that Johnson had already provided a statement.
The FNSA has released a detailed statement outlining the Calls to Action they would like to see from SFU.