Colonialism and the University in the Okanagan

The Canadian stretch of the Okanagan-Okanogan is not just the northern tip of a vast intermountain grassland created by the pressure effects of wet air being desiccated on its rise over the Coast Mountains and the Cascade Range to the west, or an endangered environment with aboriginal land abuses stretching back into the 1890s, or even the heart and soul of its children, like me, or like this mariposa lily above Okanagan Lake in Vernon…P1390561


It’s also the seat of a profound form of neo-colonialism, some of which is centred around a Vancouver university seeking to establish itself as a university of this place. Judging by the current excitement the alumni association of this university (I confess. One of my degrees is from this institution.) is trying to whip up…



… it has a long, long way to go. I must have missed something. I thought that universities were about knowledge, research and creativity. I am so behind the times on that, I tell you. A food truck rally? Games? A DJ? A beer garden? A historically ridiculous Hollywood movie? Meanwhile, the grassland is dying, the fruit industry is dying, the lake is in deep trouble, the cities are impoverished, wages are below the poverty line, the schools are on strike, the arts are anemic, the land claims are outstanding, and the history of the place is virtually forgotten. I could go on, but there’s no point. Here’s what the university says about itself:

Purpose-built for the 21st century, the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus opened in Kelowna in 2005. UBC is one of North America’s largest public research and teaching institutions, and one of only two Canadian institutions consistently ranked among the world’s 40 best universities.

…The Okanagan campus is an intimate learning community embracing bold new ways of thinking that attract exceptional students and faculty. More than 8,300 students from throughout the Okanagan region, across Canada and 80 other countries are enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs in eight faculties and schools. Here, students interact with one another and their professors on a daily basis, while becoming global citizens through interaction with their community and the world.


A beer party to celebrate Indiana Jones? That’s a bold new way of thinking for the 21st Century? Here’s the constitution of the alumni association itself. It’s dry reading. Feel free to skip it and scroll down to the important part I’ve placed just below it:



As promised, here’s the important part:


What on earth kind of responsibility is that? Does a beer party full of food trucks and a foreign movie that abuses very real history help with that? Hey, what do I know. Maybe it does. Here’s the vision of the university…



One of the world’s leading universities! I wonder if the Sorbonne engages in the kind of neo-colonialism practiced by the alumni association. I wonder if the Oxford University is showing 1980s American movies with deep Disneyland merchandizing links to bond its current students with its former ones in a larger intellectual community. I wonder if Berlin’s Humboldt University is showing Sleepless in Seattle to showcase its intellectual strengths and achievements or to anchor itself deeply into German culture. The concept is absurd. Here, apparently, it is not. Luckily (or maybe not) the university has values (whew):



Those are nice statements. I wish the alumni association would adhere to the integrity and respect that these statements express, because they are worthy of a world institution. Rather than answer the failures here one at a time, let me just say this: as a citizen of the Okanagan of German heritage (something very common in both British Columbia and this valley) I am deeply offended that my university’s alumni association would throw out scholarship and its expressed collective and social values to show a ridiculous, historically misleading anti-German and pro-American movie, when it could have shown a Canadian or even an Okanagan movie in its place (or heck, even one that treated German or American history with some scholarly respect) and upheld the academic and cultural standards admirably expressed by the university. The culture at play in such an act is one that does not in any way express the expressed vision of the university or the long-standing cultures, histories, or very real social and economic realities of the valley of which the university is trying to make itself a part. What the upcoming event does, perhaps, is express a new colonial culture that has imposed itself upon this place and replaced most of its pre-existing social forms. Well, that’s not new. That’s been happening here for decades. The only thing is, though, we’re running out of time to stop this runaway train. The writing is on the wall:


Cheat Grass and Concrete

The little of the grassland that is left is mostly a garbage dump full of weeds. If the university, which is one of the few institutions with the capacity to do something about very real problems (and which is adept at garnering most of the resources for doing so), fails at returning a much-abused land to abundance, the valley doesn’t have a chance, and if the valley doesn’t have the chance, then the colonial, cultural lie will devour the university’s values from within. There’s only so much hypocrisy even humans can stomach before they start to embody it, even in their research and scholarly and artistic activities. This stuff matters. I went to this university because I believed that words and scholarship and knowledge of tradition matter. I went because I believed that inclusiveness mattered and that by extending my knowledge and my art I could add to the cultural growth of my valley and the province and country that claim ownership over it. At the moment, I am only deeply ashamed. I think that all of us in the Okanagan, alumni or not, should be. The university owes us more than this.


Coyote, Bella Vista

6 replies »

  1. This is extremely sad and discouraging. How can a university have a gathering for alumni which includes not even one intellectual or socially relevant component? Anyone can put on a beer and movie party. (But Raiders of the Lost Ark? Spare me!). I would hope this misguided Summerfest isn’t even a good way to raise donations, presuming that’s one of its objects. Surely graduates and undergrads could protest? Have some fun, yes, but get serious too. It’s well past time.


    • I suggested to them some weeks back that they could show “My American Cousin” as an exceptional Okanagan movie. They promised to put the idea into the hat for future consideration. Interpret that as you wish. Sadly, I think this party will go over well in Kelowna. It fits the contemporary culture of the place, which is as a party destination and retirement stage for a particular (white) retired class for whom regional identity is not an important issue.


  2. Don’t you wonder if “Summerfest” is right in line with the PR efforts of universities right across the continent? University administrations seem to be in the grip of PR staff that are telling them that they have to put on a populist, approachable suit of clothes, no matter how ill-fitting the garments may seem to old folks like ourselves (oops–I’d better speak only for myself).

    Here (you can guess where “here” is) we have “President’s Stampede Barbecue”, which isn’t a barbecue at all because the meat arrives in trucks, in handy little rolled-up portions, to be served on wonder bread-ish buns. The penalty for this free lunch is that you are obliged to listen to a very bad western band which seemed to know about three songs: one about “Alberta Rose” (you could tell the bloom is off the rose from its mournful tone), “Alberta Bound” (the words of which mostly consist of those two words endlessly repeated), and “Hoo–Hoo–Hoo you gonna trust?” The ironies to be extracted from the last two are (1) most of the people who have been “Alberta bound” over the past generation have come to participate in an egregiously destructive extractive industry and (2) we know very well hoo–hoo-hoo not to trust when it comes to oil sands, fracking, pipelines….

    My pet theory about universities and their administrations is that they fear that the whole enterprise is about to be found out and challenged at a basic level. If/when this happens, there will be good and bad consequences and many painful complications. The proverbial cow flops will hit the fan when the preponderance of new grads do not find tickets to the middle class waiting for them on the doors to their bedrooms in their parents’ basements.


  3. Harold, you are right on, about so many things regarding both the ecological and environmental consequences of “civilized” incursions into the Okanagan. This is yet another fine example of neo liberal/colonial practices in the name of social justice, diversity and sustainability. It is demoralizing to see everything that was built (with taxpayers’ money) through the motivation of the BC public toward the betterment of people and place become more and more a privatized corporate profit-grabbing anti-intellectual enterprise that treats young knowledge seekers as clients and customers, that sees industry as the only direction to channel the benefits of research dollars (also taxpayer monies), that develops GMO trees, Sauder-style frosh chants and can be recriminatory against those who speak truth to its power. When experts on environmental issues are asked how we can prevent the almost inevitable and global catastrophe of ecological collapse they invariably say that education and awareness must be our immediate priority, so that people will care enough and be creative enough to make the billions of mundane, daily decisions necessary to stop ourselves from collectively pursuing an irreversible, annihilating destiny. Yet even a (tertiary) education institution like the university cannot see the intrinsic value in providing profound educational leadership as a goal in and of itself. The motto: Drink up and forget about it (the real world, that is…). Unfortunately, even a better movie or eco-friendly horse-drawn organic food wagons or local micro-brewery beer made with homegrown hops sold in hemp sleeves won’t suffice. Cutting into the profits of Peachfest or the myriad BC summer music festivals is just aggressive business practice. From your earlier posts, I gather that turning it into a wine-tasting tour with chamber ensemble and a guest lecturer isn’t much of an improvement either. Let’s rest assured that’s a part of the alumni donor packages. I’ll suggest they ask you to be the guest speaker : )


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