Magazine Perspective

A Spirit of Humility

Colleges and universities have a historic duty to take the lead on Indigenous rights

By Santa J. Ono

Winter 2023

For millennia, the Musqueam people have passed down their culture, history, and traditions from one generation to the next in British Columbia, Canada. But in the 1880s, British settlers began assuming Musqueam ancestral territory without a treaty. The University of British Columbia (UBC) is part of this history; in 1920, the province of British Columbia established the original campus on Musqueam land in Vancouver. In 2005, UBC founded its second main campus in Kelowna, in the BC interior, on unceded territory of the Syilx (Okanagan) peoples. Neither the Musqueam or Syilx peoples have ever signed a treaty with the British, British Columbian, or Canadian government.

To address this past, as president of UBC—a role I had the honor of serving in until recently—I led the creation of UBC’s Indigenous Strategic Plan. Demonstrating a spirit of humility and a willingness to learn, the plan assists UBC in engaging with Indigenous partners to focus on issues such as Indigenous students’ access to higher education and UBC’s obligations toward Indigenous peoples and the lands our university occupies.

Indigenous peoples like the Musqueam people have been stewarding the land on which they depend for more than ten thousand years. They were living the principles of conservation, sustainability, and respect for the environment long before modern society recognized these ideas. So, it is important that colleges and universities not see themselves as “empowering others” or any other expression of a savior complex in which higher education institutions simply download their knowledge to Indigenous peoples and expect them to be grateful. Those of us in higher education must understand that colleges and universities are meritocratic, credentials-based institutions where access is disproportionately tied to wealth, formal education, and the region’s dominant ethnicity, all of which rest in part on the exclusion of the less privileged. Our role should be to work directly with Indigenous partners to apply our campuses’ expertise—such as in the fields of medicine and education—to take on such challenges as increasing levels of education and health and reducing unemployment, addiction, and suicide rates among Indigenous peoples.

Prominent in the late nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth century, Canada’s justly notorious Indian residential school system removed more than 150,000 Indigenous children from their homes to remote boarding schools. There, the children’s Indigenous cultures were effectively annihilated in favor of Christian, Canadian values. Universities, including UBC, supported the ideology behind the system and produced policymakers and administrators who helped create and perpetuate it. The last school closed its doors in the late 1990s, and since 2015, thousands of unmarked children’s graves have been discovered at the sites of the schools. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, established to “facilitate reconciliation among former students, their families, their communities and all Canadians,” described the school system as “cultural genocide.” The commission also stated:

Much of the current state of troubled relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians is attributable to educational institutions and what they have taught, or failed to teach, over many generations. Despite that history, or, perhaps more correctly, because of its potential, the Commission believes that education is also the key to reconciliation.

The Indian residential school system will forever be a stain on Canada’s history, but UBC has a duty to address the effects of the devastating damage that has already been done. The only way we can stop history from repeating itself is to use it to build a different future. To that end, in 2018, UBC established the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at its Vancouver campus. The centre aims to address the colonial legacy of residential schools and ensure that this history is acknowledged, examined, and understood within the UBC community.

In 2020, UBC rolled out its Indigenous Strategic Plan (ISP), outlining actions such as establishing research chairs for faculty who are experts in Indigenous ways of knowing and developing Indigenous recruitment, retention, and advancement policies to increase Indigenous faculty and staff numbers. More than 2,500 students, faculty, and staff across both campuses—including Indigenous students, faculty, and staff—contributed to the ISP. Other contributors included members of organizations from the Musqueam community and the Syilx Okanagan Nation Alliance. We built the ISP around the themes of research, service, and learning and teaching. These themes inform eight goals:

1. Prioritize Indigenous peoples and Indigenous human rights at all levels of UBC’s leadership and accountability structure.

2. Advocate for the truth. Create open public dialogue about truth, reconciliation, and the recognition of Indigenous peoples’ human rights.

3. Support research initiatives that legitimize Indigenous ways of knowing and promote Indigenous peoples’ self-determination.

4. Indigenize our curriculum. Include Indigenous ways of knowing, culture, histories, experiences, and worldviews.

5. Enrich the UBC campus landscape with a stronger Indigenous presence.

6. Recruit Indigenous people! Make UBC the most accessible large research university in the world for Indigenous students, faculty,
and staff.

7. Forge a network of Indigenous peoples’ human rights resources
for students, faculty, staff, and communities.

8. Create a holistic system of support. Provide exceptional and culturally supportive services for Indigenous students, faculty, staff, and their wider communities.

Lofty goals indeed, but our constituents also specified forty-three concrete actions to put these goals into practice. These actions range from engaging with our Indigenous host nations regarding the design and development of UBC facilities to increasing Indigenous student needs-based financial aid for tuition, childcare, and housing. We want to support Indigenous students in every way possible throughout their UBC experience.

We also built an interactive online ISP self-assessment tool so that any unit—from a small faculty department to a large administrative office—can find suggestions for actions to take. The assessment is based on these questions:

→ What are we currently doing as a unit to advance the goals and actions of the ISP?

→ What can we be doing more of?

→ What are we doing that we can change?

→ What can we start doing?

The self-assessment tool then selects which of the ISP’s forty-three actions might be most appropriate.

For example, one action involves supporting research opportunities for students to become global leaders in the advancement of Indigenous knowledge systems incorporating Indigenous worldviews, Native ways of knowing, cultural and intellectual property rights, and traditional ecological knowledge.

Another action is engaging with the Musqueam people, the Okanagan Nation, and other Indigenous host nations regarding the development of UBC facilities as physical connections between the university and its Indigenous partners.

UBC’s ISP is not a top-down, prescriptive undertaking. It is a living document that the university will review every three years in consultation with the UBC community and its Indigenous partners. The ISP is not intended to be a panacea for all the complex relationships between a university and its Indigenous members and partners, but it is intended to, at the very least, provide definitive steps toward a meaningful and lasting reconciliation. Only then will we be able to say as a university that, together, we have fulfilled our higher purpose of building a world based on deeper, mutual understanding.

Photograph: A 1925 view of the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver campus, which sits on Musqueam land. (Courtesy of University of British Columbia Archives, Royal Canadian Air Force [UBC 106.1/196])


  • Santa J. Ono

    Santa J. Ono

    Santa J. Ono was president and vice-chancellor of the University of British Columbia from 2016 to 2022. He is currently president of the University of Michigan.