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“Wrong side of history”: U of T criticized for involvement in Hawaiian telescope project

U of T faculty, students in solidarity with Native Hawaiian protests to protect sacred site

“Wrong side of history”: U of T criticized for involvement in Hawaiian telescope project

Protests in Hawaii against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the Mauna Kea — a sacred mountain that Native Hawaiians, known as Kānaka Maoli, regard as their origin site — have made their way to U of T. The university is a member of the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA), an organization that has funded the astronomy project.

U of T faculty and students criticized U of T’s involvement in the project, in solidarity with peaceful Kānaka Maoli protesters who have been occupying the site since construction began on July 15.

Astronomy’s rising star?

The TMT is a project over 10 years in the making, with the promise of enabling astronomers to look far into the past of stellar and galactic evolution. With an area nine times bigger than any existing visible-light telescope, the TMT is designed to identify images with unprecedented resolution, surpassing even the Hubble telescope.

The profound sensitivity of the TMT boasts the potential for observational data to answer questions about “first-light” objects, exoplanets, and black holes in the centre of galaxies.

This potential for furthering astronomy and astrophysics is what makes the TMT astronomy’s rising star.

Why is the TMT being protested?

In July 2009, the Board of Governors for the TMT chose the Mauna Kea as its location. Mauna Kea has long been an astronomical hotspot, serving as the location for 13 observatories. The TMT would be the 14th, standing as the biggest telescope on the mountain.

Mauna Kea is a sacred ancestral mountain, a place imbued with both natural and cultural resources. It is the location of many religious rituals conducted by the Kānaka Maoli, as well as a burial ground of sacred ancestors. Additionally, its ecological value is profound, housing esoteric ecosystems and providing water to the residents of Hawaii.

For these reasons, native kia’i (guardians) and kūpuna (elders) have resisted industrialization on Mauna Kea ever since the first telescope was built in 1968.

Subsequently, the TMT has attracted significant protests, serving as the Leviathan of telescopes. Dr. Uahikea Maile, Assistant Professor of Indigenous Politics at U of T, describes the TMT as a “unique beast” because of its size and location.

The project requires eight acres on the northern plateau of the mauna, which is currently untouched. Maile asserts that the corporation backing the TMT tempts the State of Hawaii into “valuing techno-scientific advances and alleged economic benefits over Native Hawaiian rights and the environment.”

Hence, ever since 2014, kia’i have attempted to halt the construction of the TMT by forming blockades at the base of the summit.

A brief space-time log of events

On July 10, Hawaiian Governor David Ige announced that construction of the TMT would begin on July 15, 2019. Five days later, hundreds of peaceful protestors stood together to form a blockade that would prevent construction crews from ascending Mauna Kea to begin constructing the TMT.

Located at an elevation of 6,000 feet, the blockade is logistically supported by the Pu‘uhonua o Pu‘uhuluhulu, a place of refuge providing resources and infrastructure to sustain all those involved in the blockade, wrote Maile. All people at the pu‘uhonua have access to free housing, food, health care, child care, and transportation.

Maile, who is of Kānaka Maoli descent, spent two and a half weeks at the protests. He recounted that the kia’i were “constantly prepared for the risk of police force and violence.” On the second day of protests, Governor Ige deployed the National Guard, militarizing the once peaceful site of protest.

On July 17, police arrived at the scene carrying riot batons, tear gas, guns, and a Long Range Acoustic Device, according to Maile. The elder kūpuna, many of whom were in their 70s or 80s, formed the central blockade, while they requested the kia’i to stand at the sides of the road.

Thirty-eight people were arrested at the scene, most of whom were kūpuna, but after hours of negotiations “a deal was struck and all police left.”

Numerous sources maintain that U of T’s statement on the Thirty Meter Telescope (artist’s depiction pictured) are not reflective of the views of all faculty members and students.
Courtesy of TMT Observatory Corporation

University of Toronto responds

U of T, a member of ACURA, is involved in the TMT. ACURA has served an advisory role in the estimated $1.5 to $2 billion project. Its members and other Canadian astronomers are planned to receive access to 15 per cent of the telescope’s viewing time.

It is important to note that U of T is not directly invested in the TMT. Nonetheless, Professor Vivek Goel, a board member of ACURA and Vice-President, Research and Innovation, and Strategic Initiatives at U of T, published an official statement explaining that he has been “watching closely the recent events at the construction site.”

He continued by writing that U of T “does not condone the use of police force in furthering its research objectives,” and noted that the university’s commitment to truth and reconciliation impels it to consult with Indigenous communities.

Lack of consensus amongst faculty members

U of T’s official statement has received backlash from numerous sources who maintain that it is not reflective of the views of all faculty members and students.

For instance, Dr. Eve Tuck, an Associate Professor in the Department of Social Justice Education, has written three letters to U of T President Meric Gertler, criticizing the statement for not going far enough in taking action against the TMT.

In an email to The Varsity, Tuck wrote that while the university has no direct funding in the TMT, there are still ways to divest. “There is more than money that can and should be withdrawn in this situation, including support, endorsement, affiliation, reputational backing, approval, and advocacy for the project.”

She believes that it is imperative for U of T to prevent the TMT’s construction, and if it does not do so, it “is on the wrong side of history.”

Moreover, protesters of the TMT have found an unexpected ally in some astronomers who, perhaps counterintuitively, oppose the project. For instance, Dr. Hilding Neilson, an Assistant Professor at U of T’s Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, wrote that “the statement from the university doesn’t say a whole lot.”

He specifically questioned the statement’s assumption that astronomy has a “moral right” to the mountain because it is a scientific field, which supposedly seeks to benefit the accumulation of knowledge for all of humanity.

Power to graduate students

An open letter authored by astrophysics graduate students at the TMT’s partner institutions reinforced this opposition from U of T astronomy professors. The letter, published online, called on the astronomy community to “denounce the criminalization of the protectors on Maunakea” and to remove the military and police presence from the summit.

Two signatories, Melissa de los Reyes and Sal Wanying Fu, wrote to The Varsity that it is “imperative for the astronomy community to denounce [the arrests of kūpuna] and take a stand against the further use of violence in the name of science.”

Reyes is a second-year graduate student at the California Institute of Technology, while Fu is an incoming graduate student at UC Berkeley. Both are National Science Foundation graduate fellows.

The open letter was published despite the risk that it could potentially impact the signatories’ research careers. The signatories include graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and professors.

Signatories from U of T include professors Hilding Neilson and Renee Hlozek, Postdoctoral Fellow John Zanazzi, Sessional Instructor Dr. Kristin Cavoukian, PhD students Fergus Horrobin, Fang Xi Lin, Marine Lokken, Adiv Paradise, and Emily Tyhurst, and undergraduate students Yigit Ozcelik, Andrew Hardy, and Rica Cruz.

Jess Taylor, the Chair of CUPE 3902 and a writing instructor in the Engineering Communication Program at U of T, was also a signatory.

The signatories Reyes and Fu hope that the discussion prompted by the letter causes academic astronomers to “reckon with the ways in which social systems are inextricably linked with the way we do science.”

Neilson commended the bravery of its signatories, writing that “for students to come out and do this, potentially not only against their own research, but against their supervisors’ and departments’ requires standing up to power.”

Activism by undergraduate students

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) and the Indigenous Studies Students’ Union (ISSU) also published a joint statement on August 29 condemning the construction of the TMT at Mauna Kea.

The UTSU represents full-time undergraduate students at the St. George campus, while the ISSU’s membership includes students who are enrolled in the Indigenous Studies program or are taking at least one Indigenous Studies course.

The unions called upon U of T to “cease construction” of the telescope and to relocate it to an “area where its construction would not infringe upon the sacred land of Indigenous peoples or damage land that is environmentally protected.”

Eclipsing Indigenous knowledge

It is important to recognize that the Kānaka Maoli protests are not against science. Rather, they are against a Western ideology of economic development that — in the name of science and objectivity ­­— has historically propagated mechanisms of colonization, slavery, and incarceration. Following centuries of colonial and postcolonial development, the scientific industry today undermines and maligns Indigenous knowledge systems — associating it with primitivity.

Meanwhile, Neilson draws attention to the value of Indigenous knowledge, stating that “a lot of the tensions between Hawaiians and TMT come from the fact that a lot of us are ignorant of Hawaiian knowledge, and what it means for Mauna Kea to be sacred.”

Ultimately it is not a question about science versus culture, but about whether development under the guise of science reinforces a certain hierarchy of culture. It is evident that there is a need for a scientific Big Bang, one where Indigenous cultures is no longer at the bottom of this hierarchy.

Editor’s Note (September 9, 3:26 pm): The article has been updated to reflect that ACURA has funded the TMT, according to a 2013 ACURA report, but does not own a 15 per cent stake. Canadian contributions collectively have a 15 per cent share in the TMT project.

Nothing about us without us

An open letter to the University of Toronto administration on the mental health crisis

Nothing about us without us

Content warning: discussion of suicide.

Dear President Meric Gertler, Vice-Provost Sandy Welsh, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine Trevor Young, and Governing Council of the University of Toronto,

We — the students of the university you serve — write to you publicly, as a last resort, because we are in crisis. In light of the University of Toronto’s ongoing mental health crisis, students are best equipped to advise on and address these urgent concerns, which are matters of life and death — our own. We are writing to demand that you listen to what we are saying.

Since the second student suicide in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology in less than nine months, on March 17, students have sought available avenues to express their concerns and proposals, including reaching out to your offices in various ways, and intervening in Governing Council’s Business Board meeting on March 18. Through extensive consultations since then, students have collectively drafted a follow-up report of over 40 pages titled Nothing About Us Without Us,” which summarizes recent student action, testimonies, and demands arising from the crisis.

Initially, these student-led efforts were met with administrative interest. Janine Robb, Executive Director of the Health & Wellness Centre, arranged for focus group meetings, and President Gertler’s March 28 email stated that “we have listened, we have heard you, and we will continue to do so. We share your concerns, and we are strongly committed to collaborating with you to address them.”

It is not difficult to listen to what we are telling the university. The key student position on this issue has been simple, unanimous, and continuous since March 18: nothing about us without us. Students demand to be included, as a majority, in all aspects of the administration’s plans to address U of T’s mental health crisis.

Unfortunately, the proposed Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health, with only three students slated to represent the collective interests of some 90,000 students, is not the collaborative effort that students were expecting based on the preliminary demands made on March 18 and the Nothing About Us Without Us report. Limited student membership and the vague wording surrounding the task force’s mandate have raised concerns about the lack of transparency, diversity, and accountability mechanisms to ensure that the task force constitutes a meaningful and effective response to the crisis.

There have been prior committees that have clearly failed to bring about the change needed. The university’s refusal to meet student demands — specifically, majority representation within such bodies — will condemn the task force’s work to irrelevance at best, and complacency in the ongoing crisis at worst. As the task force stands, it risks losing any legitimacy with students who have been repeatedly told that their voices are being “listened to,” but who have in fact not yet had their proposed solutions heard, let alone seriously considered, by the university administration.

Students demand once again to be meaningfully consulted from the beginning on any mental health-related efforts and policies. Based upon recent engagement — or lack thereof — with administration, it is clear that student leadership and diverse voices will not be centred in administrative-led initiatives such as the task force. Furthermore, students have received little to no clarification regarding the steps that will be taken in the future by such entities to ensure that there is adequate consultation with diverse stakeholders.

In light of the past inadequacies of presidential and provostial committees and working groups on mental health — failures to which these recent suicides stand as a tragic testament — students demand to know what mechanisms are in place to hold the administration accountable, if the labour and recommendations of another group of experts do not translate into tangible, integrated, systems-level solutions.

In the absence of these preconditions, students wish to make clear that the task force — and any similar efforts — will lack legitimacy, efficacy, and support from students and mental health advocates on our campuses. As is demonstrated by the growing number of student, student group, and union signatories to the “Nothing About Us Without Us” pledge of “commitment to helping hold the University administration accountable throughout the upcoming year on the issues, demands, and recommendations related to the [Nothing About Us Without Us report],” students are committed to continuing the collective organizing that has been spurred by the mental health crisis.

In light of student demands, which have repeatedly been made clear to administration over the past month, we must ask that the task force not advance in its current form. Once again, we ask you to stop and to really listen to what we are saying.

We urge you to genuinely and seriously consider both our concerns and our proposals, along with our welfare and our lives. We call upon you, in good faith, to give us concrete seats at a table for dialogue and negotiation, rather than tokenism — an unacceptable outcome, which we will have no choice but to resist. For the sake of those whose lives still hang in the balance, we cannot and we will not accept it.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Layla Ahmed, Zachary Beich, Sabrina Brathwaite, Catherine Clarke, Sarah Colbourn, Oliver Daniel, Raluca Geampana, Ben Hjorth, Arjun Kaul, Lucinda Qu, Sheila Rasouli, Nouran Sakr, Max Xi, Adam Zendel, Kristen Zimmer


To show your support for this letter, please add your name to the petition.

To commit yourself and/or your student group to helping hold the University administration accountable as student mental health advocates continue to advocate for the reform outlined in the “Nothing About Us Without Us” report, please sign the pledge.

To illustrate the consistent and repeated efforts of students to engage in meaningful dialogue with the university at all levels, and the increasing resistance of the administration to that engagement, here is a timeline of key events in the mental health crisis over the past year. 

  • June 24, 2018: a student died by suicide in the Bahen Centre; students criticized the university’s response, calling for better mental health services.
  • June 27, 2018: Governing Council approves the University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy (UMLAP) as “a non-punitive option” for students struggling with mental health. However, students in the months since have frequently cited the policy as a deterrent to voluntarily seeking help, and as disciplinary in nature if not in name.  
  • March 17, 2019: a second student died by suicide in the Bahen Centre, the third reported on-campus suicide within the past year.
  • March 18, 2019: a silent protest congregated at Simcoe Hall; student protesters later moved to the Medical Sciences Building, where Governing Council’s Business Board meeting had been relocated in reaction to the protest. Student representatives invited into the meeting shared a collectively-drafted statement of preliminary concerns and demands, to which Gertler responded with “an openness, and indeed an enthusiasm, to work with students in good faith and in a very open way to solicit your advice and your ideas on how to do better.” On the same day, a change.org petition entitled Better Mental Health Services at the University of Toronto” was started; it currently has over 25,500 signatures.
  • March 25, 2019: as a result of this petition, students participated in a focus group run by Robb. Students raised various concerns regarding discrepancies in the treatment of students between programs and instructors; UMLAP; the role of campus police in crisis situations; and more. Robb shared an intent to hold a second focus group. Plans are underway to schedule this second meeting for the end of May.
  • March 28, 2019: an email from Gertler was circulated among the U of T community, marking the university’s first acknowledgement of the death in Bahen as a suicide and the first mention of the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health.
  • April 2, 2019: after scheduling a meeting for April 5 with Gertler and other top administrators, a student representative asked if they would be willing to make the meeting accessible to a larger number of students or to livestream the meeting, in order to make the discussion more transparent and accountable. This request was cited by the president’s office as sufficient grounds to cancel the meeting. However, this meeting was later rescheduled to April 10 on the condition that the meeting would not be open to the public.
  • April 3, 2019: the first complete draft of Nothing About Us Without Us was publicized and shared online by students and student organizations. Robb, along with Senior Director of Student Success Heather Kelly and Senior Director of Student Experience David Newman , met with two students who presented this draft to them. A willingness to meet again in the near future was shared by the three administrators. That same day, the nomination process and composition of the task force was publicized, and it was revealed that only three students would be entrusted with the concerns of a student body numbering 90,077 in the 2017–2018 school year.
  • April 10, 2019: a small group of student activists were granted a half-hour meeting with Gertler, Welsh, and Director Office of the Vice-Provost & Student Policy Advisor Meredith Strong,  where copies of Nothing About Us Without Us were shared and key themes and demands were summarized. Students present explicitly asked if they would be meeting again with the president for further discussion; he responded positively, before clarifying that this may not happen before the task force’s first meeting. Students insisted that the lack of student consultation prior to the task force’s structuring, and the lack of diverse representation therein, be recognized as problematic and addressed accordingly. Gertler responded that “our intent is really to keep the group small” and that the task force is meant to solicit input via external consultations.
  • April 12, 2019: after the April 10 meeting, student advocates sent a follow-up email to the president’s office. Students received a response on April 18, stating that Young, who is heading the task force, would be the appropriate figure to contact moving forward.
  • April 14, 2019: a student advocate contacted administration to express concerns regarding a lack of adequate in-person advertising of the counselling services in the Robarts Library; the student had seen only one poster about it. A response was received April 18, stating that the administration believed that the existing social media work and postering at various libraries are adequate advertisement and that the administration would not consider an additional poster. The student advocate in question replied on April 19 addressing these claims, but no further responses were received from administration.
  • April 18, 2019: a student activist reached out to Young requesting a meeting regarding the task force’s composition and mandate. They were informed later that day that “once the task force has been struck there will be opportunities for individuals and groups to participate and submit information to Dean Young and the other members… Until that time Dean Young is not available to meet.” Another student activist independently sent a 1,240-word email to the President, Provost, and Vice-Provost Students, indicating that the task force nominations process was potentially ableist and classist. Gertler responded to this email on April 24, saying that he would share this feedback with his colleagues. Gertler agreed that the administration “should consider ways to create more opportunities for consultation” with students, but also stated that groups like the task force “are intended to be small,” and “members are not expected to come with the ability to speak for all persons of this group, but are chosen for their ability to exercise discretion, listen to various inputs, and collect and synthesize feedback and information.”
  • April 23, 2019: the president’s office replied to student advocates to clarify the administration’s position, stating that “since the President has met with you and heard your views on this important matter, another meeting with the President will not be forthcoming.” Additionally, the president’s office expressed “that there are no plans for a presidential town hall-style meeting” that would allow a broader coalition of students to openly engage with administration on this issue.

If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:

  • Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
  • Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
  • Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
  • Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
  • U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.

Warning signs of suicide include:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.