Controversial project has campus connection

Students oppose U of M support of telescope on Indigenous sacred lands

A telescope being built in Hawaii with connections to the U of M has Indigenous students on campus calling on administration to divest its support.

The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project in Mauna Kea has brought out protesters worldwide, who say the mountain the telescope is being built on is sacred land to Indigenous people in Hawaii.

The U of M has a personal connection to the telescope’s construction — the university is one of 20 members of the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA), a research organization actively involved with the TMT project.

Then-prime minister Stephen Harper pledged $243.5 million to the US$1.5 billion project over 10 years in 2015, guaranteeing a viewing share for Canadian researchers.

The University of Manitoba Indigenous Students’ Association (UMISA) and the Indigenous womxn’s council published a letter through social media July 29 expressing solidarity “with our relations who are fighting to protect their sacred lands.”

It also calls on the U of M administration to revoke its support of the project as a part of its commitment to honouring reconciliation efforts, adding that the “sacredness of our land and waters should never be compromised by corporate greed and advancement of western science.”

UMISA female co-president Alicia Kubrakovich said she first heard of the conflict, and the U of M’s connection to it, through social media.

“I was kind of shocked,” she said.

She then brought up the idea of expressing public solidarity to UMISA and the womxn’s council, a decision womxn’s council organizer Amanda Fredlund said was easy to make.

“We obviously supported it,” Fredlund said.

“I think that the movement and the action that the Indigenous people in Hawaii are taking is very similar to Standing Rock, and the Oka Crisis, and all these instances in Canada where Indigenous people and Indigenous women have stood up against institutions that were trying to take advantage of them.

“So there’s a solidarity that’s just kind of inherent.”

“I know a lot of people that are students who have connections with Hawaii, out there, too,” Kubrakovich said.

“It’s all over. We have connections all over the place.”

Annie Beach, a student and UMISA member who shared the letter through social media, said the situation in Mauna Kea “draws pretty close to home for a lot of Indigenous people in Canada.”

“Because even here, there are these projects that have been […] destructive as well, such as the Keystone pipeline, all these other pipeline projects that have been announced recently in Canada.

“So I think there’s similarities not only between our cultures, being Indigenous people, but also this idea of wanting to protect sacred land, and how we see things, are very similar.”

While Kubrakovich said the letter had yet to receive any public support through UMSU or the U of M administration, there have been talks with both groups scheduled to address the issue.

“The womxn’s council and UMISA are hopeful that the U of M and UMSU will both take a stance similar to ours,” Fredlund said.

UMSU president Jakob Sanderson told the Manitoban the executive was “in full support of their efforts” and said there were plans to press administration further on the issue.

Beach said she hopes university administration will acknowledge the letter and that the U of M’s commitment to reconciliation needs to be “reiterated.”

“It’s so easy for the university to invest [in] something like that, and it can easily just get away with it, because it’s so behind-the- scenes that people aren’t going to be aware of it firsthand,” she said.

The letter published by UMISA and the Indigenous womxn’s council says the university’s connection to the TMT project “counteracts their promise to support the Indigenous community and uphold reconciliation,” something Fredlund said was disappointing to the students working to promote those efforts.

“It’s very discouraging at the same time when things like this come to light, where we hear that our institution, which talks a big game, is actually putting money and investments toward a project that is violating the rights of Indigenous people,” she said.

A spokesperson from the U of M was not available for comment by press time.

The University of Toronto published a statement July 23 by vice-president of research and innovation and strategic initiatives Vivek Goel which stated that while Goel understands “the TMT project is committed to being good stewards on the mountain and inclusive of the Hawaiian community,” the university did not “condone the use of police force in furthering its research objectives.”

Both Kubrakovich and Fredlund said they were waiting on UMSU and U of M administration to take the next step and would be meeting with other UMISA members in the beginning of the school year to discuss how the group would move forward.

No matter the response, Kubrakovich said the focus would be on expressing support for other Indigenous peoples.

“We’re still going to continue to fight, we’re going to continue standing in solidarity.”

UPDATE: UMSU shared the letter published by UMISA in a public Instagram story on July 30.