Saturday June 10, 2017

Appropriation on campus: Illustration leads to reconciliation between student association, Haida First Nation

Severn Cullis-Suzuki is an environmental activist and author.

Severn Cullis-Suzuki is an environmental activist and author. (Twitter)

Listen 8:15

When Severn Cullis-Suzuki started grad school at the University of British Columbia, she was excited to learn things that would help solidify the work she had been doing for years. 

Cullis-Suzuki moved to Haida Gwaii 10 years ago when she married her husband, and in doing so became a member of the Skidegate community. She got involved with the movement to protect and revitalize the endangered Haida language, learning from the few remaining elders, and teaching the language to her two children and other community members. She loved the work, but lacked the foundational knowledge.

On her first day at UBC, she was given her orientation package, which included a bunch of schwag like sunglasses. 

"I came home with all this stuff, and didn't really think about it, and later on that day my husband came home and he picked up the sunglasses and he said 'hey, that's our crest!'"

The university's grad student society's logo was the sea monster, a five-finned illustration of a culturally significant supernatural being, which also happened to be her husband's family crest. 

 University of British Columbia Graduate Student handbook

The UBC Grad Student Handbook, with the appropriated 'sea monster.' (Severn Cullis-Suzuki)

GSS president Genevieve Cruz realized this was an issue that deserved to be talked about, even if she didn't know where to start.

"Many of us admitted that we didn't know what to do, but there were many of us who were willing to sit down and talk about it, and Severn was that person who was willing to sit with us, also, and just get into our level of ignorance, if you will, and tell us this history," she said. "I didn't know about this history, so I'm one of those people who learned a lot."

For Cullis-Suzuki, this specific conversation around appropriation and reconciliation speaks to her view of reconciliation as a whole. 

"It is labour, it's a lot of work and it's not comfortable, but it is worthwhile and it is something that we have to do in order to move together as a family, and that's what we think this country is, it's a Canadian family."

Read Severn's thoughtful blog post about this experience or click Listen above to hear more.