Students meet with admin over Thirty Meter Telescope

U of M among Canadian universities involved in controversial construction project

U of M students who recently met with administration officials to discuss their concerns with the university’s involvement in the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project have called the conversation “kind of useless.”

The TMT is being constructed in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, and has activated protesters worldwide who say it is being built on land sacred to Indigenous people in the area.

The U of M is one of 20 members of the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA), a research organization actively involved with the project. In 2015, the Canadian government committed more than $240 million to the US$1.4 billion project, giving Canadian researchers 15 per cent of viewing time once the telescope is complete.

Some students at the U of M have criticized the university’s involvement in the project, saying it conflicts with the university’s commitment to reconciliation.

Members of several groups on campus, including University of Manitoba Indigenous Students’ Association (UMISA) and the Canadian Federation of Students, met with VP research and international Digvir Jayas and several members of faculty and staff Sept. 6.

Some of the students involved in discussions reported that the meeting did not fully answer the questions they brought to the administration.

There was a request made that the university release a statement on its involvement in the TMT project, something the UMISA co-president Alicia Kubrakovich said was not taken seriously.

“I know I asked the question, ‘When’s the university administration going to release their statement?’ and he kind of brushed it off,” she said.

“He didn’t have the answer for that.”

Kubrakovich said the university did not agree to issue a statement.

U of M spokesperson John Danakas said in a statement sent to the Manitoban that a statement would be coming from VP research “in due course.”

“The university takes this matter and the concerns raised by students and others very seriously,” he said.

“As the [U of M]’s involvement is not direct but rather as part of a research association and the project is taking place in an environment with which the [U of M] has only limited familiarity, the focus now is on ensuring the full context of the situation is understood and on encouraging respectful dialogue to lead to a positive outcome.”

In July, the University of Toronto — also a member of ACURA — released a statement supporting the telescope’s construction but condemning the use of police force against demonstrators in Mauna Kea.

The UMISA and the Indigenous womxn’s council released a statement, in July, condemning the TMT’s construction and called on the university to divest its support in the project.

Executive-at-large for the Canadian Federation of Students Alannah Mckay said the recent discussion amounted to “pretty much a meeting to have more meetings in general.”

“We’ve had meetings with admin multiple times and then they’ve said that, but [Jayas] was not direct, and it was just kind of very broad,” Mckay said.

According to several students in attendance, much of the discussion centred around reiterating that the Hawaiian government and Indigenous communities are currently engaging in discussion.

When students criticized this position, saying there had been reported cases of Indigenous Elders being arrested, Jayas said he was not aware of this. In July, it was reported that more than 30 Elders had been arrested after blocking a road at the base of Mauna Kea.

A point of concern for faculty of education council senator and Miskofest co-ordinator Kristin Flattery, who was in attendance, was the promise of further discussion, something she said was not fully possible under the circumstances.

“We can’t have discussions when there’s a power dynamic issue here,” she said.

“And like so many of us say — the community doesn’t want it. I don’t know how to make it any more clear that they don’t want it there, I don’t know why it’s not blatantly obvious to [Jayas] that the community does not want the telescope.”

Mckay said the U of M administration should follow the U of T’s approach and condemn the use of police force in Mauna Kea.

“If they wrote a statement saying they respected Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty and that Indigenous people shouldn’t be being arrested,” Mckay said.

“That they don’t condone that kind of behaviour toward Indigenous people over there.”

Qudus Abusaleh, the racialized commissioner for the Canadian Federation of Students and former reporter at the Manitoban, said he will push the federation to continue pressing administration on the issue and hopes to plan a follow-up meeting.

“When all of this is happening, and then we learn of the university’s involvement in this project, the troubling deduction here is that the principles of reconciliation are being manipulated,” he said.

Flattery said students will be waiting to see how — and if — the university decides to respond before taking further action.

“Are we going to have a rally? Are we going to make some art about this? It’ll be based off of whatever happens, their decision.”