As It Happens

Indigenous Hawaiian protester calls on Canada to stop funding giant telescope

Protesters on Hawaii's Mauna Kea will continue "standing on the mountain" until the construction of a giant telescope is shut down, says Noelani Goodyear-Ka'ōpua.

Professor says Canada should divest to 'prevent what could be major violence against the Indigenous people'

Noelani Goodyear-Ka'ōpua, left, is one of a growing group of Indigenous Hawaiians protesting the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on the sacred site of the dormant Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii. (Submitted by Noelani Goodyear-Ka'ōpua)

Protesters at Hawaii's Mauna Kea will continue "standing on the mountain" until the construction of a giant telescope is shut down, says Noelani Goodyear-Ka'ōpua.

The political science professor is one of hundreds of Indigenous Hawaiians who have been been demonstrating since July 15. That's when the state closed the road to the summit of Mauna Kea to allow equipment through to begin construction on the $1.4-billion US Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). 

Astronomers say the mountain is the best site in the world to study the stars and the beginning of the universe, but Native Hawaiians say it is a sacred site that must be protected. 

In 2015, former prime minister Stephen Harper pledged $243.5 million over 10 years toward the development of the telescope. The protesters are calling on Canada's Liberal government to pull that funding. 

The National Research Council of Canada said the TMT development team spent five years consulting with community members, including Indigenous Hawaiians, before choosing the site.

"Great care has been taken to identify the best location for the TMT, to have minimum impact out of respect for Mauna Kea's rich ancestral history and the spiritual beliefs of native culture," the federal research organization said in an emailed statement.

"Canada will continue to work with partners in the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory (TIO) to find a shared path forward and peacefully engage as we are committed to the benefits of the project, of the work, and to Hawaii."

Goodyear-Ka'ōpua, an associate professor University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, spoke with As It Happens guest host Robyn Bresnahan on Friday about why she and other protestors won't back down.  Here is part of their conversation. 

How would you describe the mood of the protesters there?

People are tense, but at the same time under the kapu aloha — this command that guides people with a deep sense of commitment to peace and non-violence and aloha, or you know, love, for one another as well as for our opponents, who are in many cases our families — is guiding the actions.

Protesters block the road leading to Mauna Kea on Monday. (Caleb Jones/The Associated Press)

Why are you and others so opposed to this telescope?

What we're opposed to is the industrial development on a sacred summit that is also the top of a watershed area and conservation land. Whether that building was a telescope or a store or whatever it might be ... the function of that building is not important.

We're not against astronomy. We're not against science. We're not against telescopes. We're against the siting of industrial development on our sacred mountain.

I understand, though, that there are 13 existing telescopes on the mountain. So how come it is so important to you that one more not be built?

The final environmental impact statement for the ... Thirty Meter Telescope acknowledges that substantial cultural, environmental harm has already been done by all of the construction of telescopes on the mountain. And what it argues is that one more would just be incremental harm on top of already existing harm.

And we're at the point where we're saying no more harm.


You mentioned the governor of Hawaii, David Ige, signing this emergency proclamation [Thursday]. What is that going to mean for you and for your fellow protesters?

It draws county-level powers to him so he can directly command police forces from the different islands, the different counties that comprise the state of Hawaii, as well as military. We have already seen a massive buildup of military and armed police force on the island.

People exercising their rights to protest, to practice the Indigenous culture, is not a state of emergency. That's democracy. That's aloha ʻāina, what we call the love for the land.

So what are you going to do?

Continue standing on the mountain.

You know, there are Canadian institutions that are part of funding this project — the National Research Council of Canada [and] ACURA, the Association for Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy.

So we are just imploring the investors to divest and to prevent what could be major violence against the Indigenous people and other residents of Hawaii. 

This undated file artist rendering made available by the TMT Observatory Corporation shows the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope. (TMT Observatory Corporation via AP)

And when you talk about major violence, it almost seems hard to square that with some of the elders — dozens of elders who were arrested, ticketed on Wednesday. What was that like to witness?

It was both incredibly sad and very inspiring. Our elders commanded us to stand down, to stand on the side, to be witness in silence to them sacrificing themselves.

So to see them, at this stage of their lives, being willing to lay themselves down like that was both incredibly inspiring, but also really sad.

The other side, kapu aloha teaches us, is not our enemy. So we try to treat those who have come to arrest us with respect and compassion even as we stand firm.

Written by Sarah Jackson and Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.