A Brief Decolonized History of SFU
Being the Department of History, we in particular believe it is important to acknowledge SFU’s own history on these lands and the role of the institution in their colonization, beginning with its namesake.
Simon Fraser was a fur trader and “explorer” who, as a partner in the Montreal-based North West Company at the turn of the nineteenth century, was given the mandate to build trading posts and take possession of the lands west of the Rocky Mountains. The goal of this westward expansion was twofold: to increase profits by finding new areas rich in furs, and to find a workable travel route to the Pacific coast to facilitate this trade. Beginning in the far northeastern interior, in 1808 Fraser and his party descended the river that would later bear his name by canoe and on foot.
When Fraser reached the mouth of the river he was unable to enter the Strait of Georgia. The Coast Salish people at the river’s end—likely the Musqueam—greeted Fraser and his party with suspicion and then hostility, forcing them to hastily begin their retreat back up the river as they pursued them in their canoes to the eastern end of the valley. Despite the brevity of Fraser’s visit to the valley and his disappointment in an expedition he deemed a failure—the river proved to be neither the Columbia as he had hoped nor navigable—the acts of possession he made began a colonial process of dispossession and resettlement in what is today the mainland of British Columbia. If, as one biographer asserts, Fraser deserves to rank as the pioneer of this process, today we understand it to have negatively transformed the relationships that First Peoples had with the land, air, water, non-human beings, and Spirit of this place.
Yet in the early 1960s naming a new public university in honour of such a pioneer was a natural choice for the province’s minister of education, Leslie Peterson. The decision was also a tribute to another Simon Fraser, the British officer and World War II hero Lord Lovat. Although a distant relation of the fur trader, Lord Lovat as head of the Fraser clan was approached by Patrick McTaggart-Cowan, SFU’s first president, for permission to use the Fraser coat of arms and the Fraser motto for the new university, which he granted. At the opening-day ceremony in the mall Lord Lovat was a featured guest, having been flown in from Scotland by the university to be presented with one of its first two honourary degrees. Lord Lovat in turn provided the university with a distinguished heritage, a connection to the past, however questionable its relation to the Pacific Slope.
When the Legislature of British Columbia gave formal assent for the establishment of a new university in Burnaby in 1963 several sites were under consideration for its location. The school’s first Chancellor, Dr. Gordon M. Shrum, recommended the top of 390-metre Burnaby Mountain be selected for the placement of SFU because of its breathtaking views of Burrard Inlet (səl̓ilw̓ət), the North Shore Mountains, the Fraser River and more. While recognizing the power of this auspicious location, the decision to build the university here was made without proper consultation with local Indigenous peoples. When it opened in 1965, SFU welcomed 2,500 students to begin a tradition of learning as uninvited guests.
The Squamish name for Burnaby Mountain is Lhuḵw'lhuḵw'áyten which means “where the bark gets peeled in spring.” When remembering SFU’s presence on the land it occupies as a colonial institution, it is important to recognize the intimate and interconnected relationships this land shares with First Peoples and non-human beings. Today, we can see various construction projects continuing to reshape the land. As historians, we believe it is our duty to recognize SFU’s connection to the First Nations who have been and continue to steward and defend the land while highlighting the colonial presence of SFU and its namesake. We encourage everyone to research and learn about SFU’s history in order to make meaningful efforts to decolonize and Indigenize our Department and SFU as a whole.
-- Zaina Khan and Nicholas May
Johnston, Hugh J.M. Radical Campus: Making Simon Fraser University. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2005.
Lamb, W. Kaye. “FRASER, SIMON.” In Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. 9. University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–. Accessed May 12, 2022. http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/fraser_simon_9E.html.
“Lhuḵw’lhuḵw’áyten - Burnaby Mountain, Burnaby, British Columbia.” The Bill Reid Centre. May 12, 2022. https://www.sfu.ca/brc/imeshMobileApp/place-names/lhukwlhukwayten.html.