Irony and Ultimatums, Courtesy of Prime Minister Trudeau

September 30th, 2017

On September 6th, 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited our university campus and hosted a town hall, a time for students, staff, and community members to meet the PM, and welcome him to our campus and city. The event seemed to be a time for individuals to discuss issues, ask questions, and engage with the leader of our country, but sadly, that was not the case.

At the event, members of UBCO’s Indigenous Students Association arrived with banners emblazoned with messages such as “STOP SITE C DAM”, “WATER IS LIFE”, and “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women”. IPS is a group whose mission is to “… properly represent the Indigenous student body in a good way while also holding cultural and social events… to be a face for Indigenous presence on campus while extending invitations to join in (their) efforts and events”, and so their presence at the event was with the intent of representing the Indigenous population of UBCO and engaging with PM Trudeau on important Indigenous issues. They were approached by a group of security, who confiscated the banner regarding missing and murdered Indigenous women, subsequently lost it, and then gave an ultimatum to the rest of the group; they could go inside if they gave up the banners. The group decided to stay outside with the intent of showing the banner to the people waiting in line to see Trudeau. Later, when the building was at capacity, Trudeau came outside to shake the hands of those who had not gotten inside. The members of ISA called out to him, and as he walked away, he threw a thumbs up over his shoulder, and said “thanks for the involvement”.

The frustration of the ISA members was obvious. Not only had they not been allowed inside with their banners to a meeting where the intent had seemed to be engagement, but they had also had a banner they had worked hard on taken away. Let me repeat that: at a town hall, which, by definition, is “an event at which a politician or public official answers questions from members of the public”, students from an organization dedicated to Indigenous rights, who had come prepared to discuss and engage with the PM on issues that matter to them, were not even allowed to take their banners into the building and had one confiscated.

Many may claim that the incident was not intended to be discriminatory, but it runs deeper than that. First off, Indigenous students do not have the option to be silent. They enter into a world where it is their responsibility to fight for their land, a land that is unceded and is now facing environmental challenges without consent, such as dams and pipelines. Non-Indigenous people have the option to sit back, but Indigenous peoples do not, which is why having your Prime Minister refuse to acknowledge you is not OK. There’s also the ironic symbolism in confiscating – and then losing- the banner about missing and murdered Indigenous women, a topic that Trudeau says he’s focusing on, although obviously not enough to discuss with Indigenous students. While the symbolism is ironic, the censorship is not.

But most importantly, this is Indigenous land, specifically Sylix of the Okanagan Nation. As a country supposedly in an era of reconciliation, how can our Prime Minister come to someone’s territory and not engage with its peoples unless they don’t bring up the issues they want to be heard? Listening to Indigenous peoples is important as is, considering Canada’s history, but listening to the peoples whose land you stand on, as a leader of our country, is necessary.

The incident was a quick, but damning one. Trudeau, whose hope is re-election, is now facing criticism from UBCO students not only for the way his questions went, but also with who he let in, and his treatment of those he would not engage with. Racism is no longer blatant. It comes in the form of lower graduation rates, of white people who take Indigenous Studies because “it sounds easy”, and in leaders who refuse to listen to Indigenous peoples at a meeting on a university campus that is on Indigenous land. Trudeau, as a leader of Canada, and as a leader that counts tolerance and a focus on Indigenous issues as his strengths, should be more aware, more open, and more accepting of Indigenous students who come with issues they want answers for.

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