Letter from Forestry’s Associate Dean of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion on the Kamloops Residential School Discovery

Dear Members of the UBC Faculty of Forestry Community,

Over the past few days we have all been following the news about the discovery of the burial site of 215 children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on the lands of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc.  Many of you will have also seen the letter from President Ono and Deputy Vice-Chancellor Cormack. I would like to take the time to address you more directly as members of our UBC Faculty of Forestry community.

Allow me to properly introduce myself. My name is Hisham Zerriffi. I am an immigrant settler from a mixed Moroccan and Eastern European background.  I came to Canada as a child and grew up on the lands of the Mississaugas of the Credit, Anishinabewaki, and Kanienʼkehá꞉ka First Nations (though given the state of the Canadian education system, especially at that time, I did not know what that meant until much later).  I am also a father and a spouse. At UBC, I am the Associate Dean for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion for the Faculty of Forestry, an Associate Professor in Forest Resources Management and a member of the UBC-Vancouver Senate. Today I write to you, as all those identities, from the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Musqueam First Nation.

I recognize that this is a particularly difficult time for Indigenous students, staff and faculty members and their loved ones. On behalf of the Faculty, we want you to know that we are here for you, to support you in any way we can. For those of you who are undergraduate or graduate students in the Faculty, our student services teams are available and can also connect you to resources on campus.  There are also services available from UBC and others. A list of those resources and contact information is appended to this message.

You likely have also been following the news that in 1986 UBC granted an honorary degree to Bishop John O’Grady, a former principal at that very Kamloops school. I have been assured that the appropriate bodies in the Senate, which includes members of our Faculty, are looking into this issue with great urgency and, following consultation with Indigenous communities and academics, will make a recommendation to Senate.

I also want to address those of you that are, like me, settlers on this land. My office in the Faculty of Forestry has a direct view of the Reconciliation Pole. I can see those 6,000 nails in the school building, each one a young life taken by a cruel and unjust system. And it breaks my heart. Each one someone’s little child. Each one denied something my own children get to have. A life and a community and a future. And now I can connect 215 of those nails to that “school.” I urge all of you when you are on campus to really look at that pole if you haven’t already done so. It’s hard to confront these truths and comprehend the lost legacy of generations. Yet we have to.

But that visceral reminder is not needed to know the truth. This was known. It was known by those who survived the schools. It was known by the families of those who survived the schools. It was known by the families of those that did not survive the schools. And it was known by those who ran those schools.

It could have been and should have been known by all of us who live on this land. If nothing else, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report made some of these truths available for all of us to know and it is well past time for any Canadian who claims not to know or not to have known to educate themselves. This is not ancient history. The last school closed in 1996 and the repercussions of that system are still being felt today. This is a legacy of colonialism and genocide that continues to this day. This means it is almost certain that more graves will be “discovered” in the future and we will be ready then, as we are now, to support any and all members of the community who need it.

So I call on all of us in the Faculty of Forestry community, but particularly those of us that are new to this land, to do what we can to advance the cause of Truth and Reconciliation.  The Indian Residential School Survivors Society and others have put forth a number of action points:

  • Learning about the impacts of the Residential School System and supporting the full implementation of the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Only 10 of the TRC’s calls to action have been completed in the past six years. That list of 10 does not include the six that were specifically about documenting the deaths at the schools.
  • Listening to the people of First Nations, Métis or Inuit backgrounds and being respectful towards trauma survivors and elders. This means listening to and amplifying Indigenous voices, as well as doing our homework not placing the burden of explaining what we can do on Indigenous leaders, survivors and community members. Within our Faculty, we need to listen and learn but not demand the lesson. 
  • Having the difficult conversations that reconciliation requires. To acknowledge the past and understand what that means for us as individuals and as an institution of higher learning. What it means for us in the classroom or out in the “field.” For Forestry, it also means having difficult conversations about what it means for land and rights and the decisions being made about the land.
  • Standing up to systemic discrimination, to racism and to prejudice wherever, whenever and however we can.

More concretely, the Faculty has a long-standing First Nations Council of Advisors, and we are working with its members on appropriate next steps for the Faculty. These next steps could include:

  • Educational/action sessions on implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its Calls to Action.
  • Implementation of the new Indigenous Strategic Plan, including the self-assessment toolkit
  • Further incorporation of hard truths regarding the displacement of Indigenous peoples and the dispossession of unceded forest lands within our curricula.
  • Additional actions that are consistent with the above and address the particular dimensions of reconciliation appropriate in a forest and natural resource conservation context.

I will update you as I can regarding these actions.

Yours in sorrow,
Hisham Zerriffi
Associate Dean, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

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