If you are reading this, you’ve likely encountered a Land Acknowledgement before. A recognition that we live and study on the traditional and ancestral unceded territories of the Syilx Okanagan people. We’ve heard it from professors at the beginning of class, when giving or attending presentations, and we’ve even seen it in our class syllabi. But, what are they meant to represent?
Land acknowledgements are not only statements that recognize the territorial history. They are a commitment to honour the Indigenous peoples, their knowledge, and practices that have existed since time immemorial.
They draw attention to the ongoing colonial occupation of the Land and are a reminder that the territory where we learn, grow, and thrive is — at the end of the day — unceded.
Similarly, we were made aware from a young age that the planet we inhabit is not an infinite pool of resources, at the disposal of our greed. Because of that, it is our responsibility to take certain individual measures that incorporate that knowledge into our daily lives. At a younger age, this meant taking short showers or separating your garbage. As we grow older, however, we realize an enormous responsibility that has been laid on our hands — mitigating the social and environmental burdens that were left behind by the mistakes of past generations.
We’re made to feel we have a responsibility to heal relationships with marginalized communities and put our efforts into slowing the ticking clock that signals climate disaster, but how? As students, we do a lot of the learning, but only a little of the doing. Many times, it’s because we don’t know how or where to help; taking initiative can be a high hurdle to jump.
Between studying, working, and socializing, students are pulled in many directions. We face exponential hardships as the climate crisis worsens, costs of living skyrocket, and unfettered violence, which harms innocent people everywhere. It is reasonable to feel despair. It is also reasonable to feel unsupported by the decision-makers who are supposed to be looking out for us. The Student Union has decreased funding to student resource centers. UBC has proposed increased tuition costs. The top five banks in Canada have invested $1.1 trillion into fossil fuels since the 2016 Paris Agreement for climate action. While claiming our power as students to name and resist unfair decision-making can feel intimidating, it is necessary for change to occur.
As such, a growing group of UBCO students is calling out the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) for their investments in fossil fuels, violations of Indigenous sovereignty, and deceitful marketing tactics. RBC is the biggest fossil fuel bank in the world. They have invested $252.2 billion into fossil fuel projects over the last 7 years. For reference, $252.2 billion is enough to (1) cover four years of rent in Kelowna for all UBCO students; (2) ensure all Indigenous communities have access to clean drinking water; and (3) forgive student debt in Canada — with $220.2 billion left to spare.
Notable RBC investments include the Coastal GasLink (CGL) Pipeline, which is being built without consent from Wet’suwet’en Nation, and the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX), being built without consent from Tsleil-Waututh Nation, and Stk’emlúpsemc te Secwépemc Nation. These projects directly contradict the Canadian government’s commitment to “renewing its relationships with Indigenous Peoples based on the recognition of the right to self-determination and the rights and principles outlined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
Similarly, RBC has invested in TotalEnergies, the largest shareholder of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), which will displace over 115,000 people across Uganda and Tanzania, and Palantir Technologies Inc., a company providing AI surveillance services to Israeli security forces to identify and target Palestinian people.
While the TV at UBCO’s RBC On Campus displays images of windmills and trees, it fails to communicate that 99% of RBC’s energy finance is invested in fossil fuels. Furthermore, RBC offers consultation, scholarships, and workshops on campus to position itself as an ally to students. As students accumulate debt, RBC accumulates profit. They conceal their investments through greenwashing and buying student support.
As the RBC On Campus at UBCO leases space from the Student Union, their marketing practices conflict with the Student Union principles of Integrity, Respect, Transparency, and Accountability. Furthermore, RBC’s investments in fossil fuels at the expense of environmental and human life fail to resonate with UBC's commitments to Truth and Reconciliation, climate action, global engagement, and equity.
In recent years, UBC has made efforts to show its involvement in fostering relationships with Indigenous communities. As their website cites: “UBC’s overall commitment to meaningful relationships with Indigenous communities and organizations begins with our acknowledgment of the traditional territories of the Musqueam and Syilx Okanagan Nation peoples, respectively, upon which UBC’s Vancouver and Okanagan campuses are located.”
In addition to that, they have included new programs that seek to engage Indigenous students, staff, and visitors in university activities. RBC’s contract for an on-campus branch directly contradicts these initiatives. Are their efforts to uphold Indigenous reconciliation truthful? Or is it another hollow rhetoric?
In a time where political optics matter so much, we must hold institutions, academic or otherwise, accountable. If not, we risk falling into the realm of performative activism.
UBC and the Student Union should support decisions that are consistent with the values that they uphold. Students deserve access to ethical banking services on campus. In an effort to determine a solution, the RBC Off Campus initiative suggested the idea of introducing credit union banks on campus. Whilst big banks allow only shareholders to have a say in decision-making and investments, credit unions are member-owned — each person who has an account has a vote and influence in the union's decision-making.
We might not think that we have power over enormous corporations such as RBC, but students are a key demographic for banks. Once young people join a bank, they are likely to become lifelong customers. The same applies to important institutions such as UBC and their student unions: they depend on their student bodies. This highlights the critical role we have in shaping the decisions that are made around us.
Switching to credit unions and pushing for big bank divestment is a timely issue. Big banks like RBC enable increased emissions through investing in, lending to, and taking on financial risk for fossil fuel projects around the world. These projects rarely receive consent from the Indigenous leaders and stewards of the land on which they are built. RCMP officers have been constantly stationed on Wet’suwet’en since 2019, harassing and assaulting Wet’suwet’en youth, Elders, and Land Defenders who are striving to protect their Land and water from the CGL Pipeline.
Roughly 37% of forest fires that have burned through North America since the 1980s are linked to emissions produced by fossil fuel companies. Exposure to forest fires and smoke puts people at risk of increased mental illness, chronic disease, and premature death. When the UBCO campus was evacuated during the McDougall Creek wildfire, many students, particularly international students, faced extreme distress and uncertainty about where to go. It is also important to remember that it is Syilx Land that is burning at an alarming rate due to the actions of colonialist institutions. Beyond just acknowledging this as a climate crisis that affects us as current inhabitants, it’s imperative that we take action to protect and preserve the ancestral grounds that have been around for generations of Indigenous Peoples.
While some students feel paralyzed by climate anxiety, others have decided to turn their anxiety into direct action: “We support Indigenous sovereignty, climate action, and student wellbeing, and because of that, we are speaking out against our Student Union’s partnership with RBC,” shared one of the organizers of the RBC Off Campus movement at UBCO. “Through financing the Coastal GasLink Pipeline, RBC is enabling RCMP violence, destruction of Wet’suwet’en Land and waterways, defiance of Wet’suwet’en Law, and increased global emissions. The Student Union must recognize and remedy their complicity by cutting ties with RBC and welcoming a credit union to campus.”
The importance of truth and transparency is eloquently described by Chief Na’Moks of Wet’suwet’en Nation during a webinar: “Making those connections with each other, making sure that we’re communicating purely — that is our [Wet’suwet’en] way. And telling the truth should never, ever, be a hard thing to do. Never let your voice waver when you’re telling the truth. The truth is what will move you forward positively. And being together — man, if we get the unity that we know is out there, we can make a huge difference in so many aspects of what we do and how we do it. But it must be together, every time.”
Getting involved in student activism can be intimidating. From signing petitions and sharing posters on social media to organizing actions and starting uncomfortable conversations, there are multiple ways to become involved.
As many of us feel shock and despair in the face of horrifying injustices locally and globally, student activism can also create space for community, connection, and empowerment. Go for coffee with a group of people to get to know each other, share information about the issues you’re concerned about, and brainstorm the next steps. Pushing against the status quo is scary, but it’s easier when you have each others’ backs.
There are also many ways to show solidarity with student activists. Students — consider leveraging your art supplies, graphic design skills, and connections with student clubs. Professors — consider inviting student activists into your classrooms to chat about their work, offer to print off posters and flyers, and share food leftover from the university events you host/attend.
Everyone — amplify and attend the actions students organize. Student activists can do a lot, but they can’t do it alone. We are most powerful when we act collectively.
On September 15, 2023, a local youth-led climate activist group (Fridays For Future Kelowna) organized a community event as part of the Global Climate Strike. Rather than planning a traditional march, Fridays For Future planned a low-barrier event focused on relationship and community building. Local musicians played, artists facilitated a zine-making workshop, members of the Okanagan Transit Alliance invited folks to help build a bus stop bench, and attendees were invited to contribute their feelings and reflections on the recent forest fires to a book.
This event was activism in the way that it carved out time and space for joy, grief, and connectedness; it refused a world that rushes from crisis to crisis, never pausing to feel, reflect, and fight for change.
Taking part in activism events doesn't have to be intimidating. As with many things in life, it's important to take things one step at a time. If you’re new to the action-for-change scene, or you’re tired of feeling helpless and don’t know what to do, consider helping this cause. The RBC Off Campus movement has created a petition to support cutting ties with RBC and welcoming a credit union on campus. So far, they have collected over 250 signatures, but the more support the better; signing and sharing with your friends goes a long way.
If you are part of a student association/group and you would like to connect with this movement, reach out to them in their socials linked below. Student groups are facing a lot of the same institutional barriers and frustrations. There is good reason to find synergy, build reciprocal relationships, share the word, and show up for each other's events.
All in all, it's up to us to build the world we wish to inhabit. Through every action, we construct the foundations of a nurturing community. No matter how small or powerless you feel about the injustices committed on a daily basis, know that there is power in the collective.
To sign the petition, click on the link below:
To know more about the Canada-wide Banks Off Campus movement check out their website below:
Follow UBCO RBC Off Campus’ Instagram: @rbcoffcampus_ubco