Students at the School of Social Work are calling UBC’s commitment to reconciliation and decolonization into question after they did not receive a response from the President’s Office on an open letter sent more than two weeks ago critical of the university’s statements on the mourning of Queen Elizabeth II.
The letter, published on September 16, was authored by “a group of 4th year students in the BSW program in the UBC School of Social Work with support from many students in the BSW, MSW and Ph.D. programs.” The group sent the letter to President Santa Ono's office by email, but say they have not yet heard back.
Sheryl Lightfoot, senior advisor to the president on Indigenous affairs at UBC told The Ubyssey that while she could not comment on the lack of response to the letter, the statement was not meant to conflict with UBC’s commitment to reconciliation.
“We want to express our utmost shock and disappointment in UBC’s statement, which fails to acknowledge the irreparable violence inflicted by the British monarchy, the intergenerational trauma experienced by millions of people around the world during Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, and the colonial ‘legacy’ left behind,” the letter reads.
Published on the The Social Lens: A Social Work Action Blog, a publication hosted on the School of Social Work faculty website, the collaboratively-drafted piece comes as the Queen’s death has sparked conversation globally around the legacy of colonization and its ongoing effects, as well as conversations about the role of the monarchy in Canada.
Days earlier the Government of British Columbia, following the lead of the federal government, established a one-time holiday on September 19 largely affecting the public sector, including public universities. The declaration was met with mixed reactions at UBC.
The letter’s authors set out requests of UBC, calling for a retraction of the statement issued on September 8 and the broadcast on September 13, an apology for “for not including those of us who are directly impacted by colonization in the discussion, decision-making and releasing of these statements,” and provide an acknowledgement of “the harm that has been and continues to be caused by British colonialism.”
In an interview with The Ubyssey, Lightfoot said students had a right to express their opinion, but the letter was not meant to conflict with UBC’s commitment to reconciliation.
“There are a multitude of different perspectives on [the monarchy], and each and every one of those individual perspectives is valid. And I think students have the absolute right to — and should — express their feelings about how these things and how these events touched them and how they experienced them,” she said.
“A statement on the passing of the Queen who is the head of state in Canada is an appropriate step for the president of a major university, and it was in no way intended to detract from or invalidate UBCs longer, broader and much more widely held commitment to Indigenous human rights.”
Autumn Smiley, a fourth-year student in the bachelor of social work program and one of the authors of the letter, confirmed in an interview with The Ubyssey that a copy was sent to outgoing-UBC President Santa Ono’s office by email.
“I don’t think I expected them to just not answer,” Smiley said. “I think that really reflects … their commitments to reconciliation and transparency and integrity. I think that really speaks volumes [as to] where their values lie.”
Smiley, who is Mi'kmaq and Métis Cree, noted after a largely positive experience at UBC thus far, she personally found the university’s statements especially disheartening.
Smiley later wrote in an email that the university’s statements “completely contradict” claims and initiatives toward reconciliation and decolonization, especially when looking at Goal 2 and Action 6 of the UBC Indigenous Strategic Plan.
Goal 2, called “Advocating for the truth,” requires UBC to “Facilitate open public dialogue about truth, reconciliation and the recognition of Indigenous peoples’ human rights.” Action 6 provides that the university must “Complete an institution-wide study, and publish a public report of the findings, that identifies UBC’s participation in the implementation of Crown colonial policies.”
While Lightfoot could not comment on the decision to not respond to the letter up until now, she said UBC’s continued work implementing its Indigenous Strategic Plan was in itself a response to student concerns about the statements.
“UBC’s response is the Indigenous Strategic Plan and its commitment to that plan … [the university is] on a journey to meaningful reconciliation.”
Pam Lozano Fernandez, also an author and editor of the letter and fourth year in the bachelor of social work program, described UBC’s communications as presenting “a very biased narrative” of events surrounding the Queen and colonialism generally.
“I don’t think that this is a message that can be ignored,” Lozano Fernandez, a first-generation settler from Mexico, said. “I also feel like moving forward, depending on any responses, if at all that we get, we’re certainly considering gaining more support from different faculties across UBC, and also across Vancouver, because it is an important issue, and it’s not one that we are willing to let die down.”
Lozano Fernandez and Smiley pointed to statements issued by nearby Douglas College and Simon Fraser University as examples of how UBC could have dealt with things differently. They both described UBC’s statements as having “forced” students into mourning and removing individual agency and choice.
Lightfoot said that Indigenous people do not have a monolithic view on the monarchy, but acknowledged there may nonetheless be more resistance in BC as the crown never established treaties with Indigenous peoples in the province’s territory.
“It is not a universal truth amongst Indigenous peoples across Canada that disavowing the monarchy is the appropriate position.” she said. “We can acknowledge the BC experience with the British crown is much different, and it’s understandable that there is much more resistance to the monarchy here.”
Smiley told The Ubyssey she believes the university’s handling of the holiday represents hypocrisy in the face of claims of working toward decolonization. “I really don’t know how the school intends to backpedal and move forward.”
— With files from Anabella McElroy