President’s Message

By Chris Wilson (CASCA President)
(Cassiopeia – Autumn 2022)

The summer is generally a quieter time for society business, as many of us take the opportunity for some vacation and to attend conferences and (dare I say it) do some research. Many of our committees do not meet unless something urgent comes up. The Board skipped its July meeting but had a productive meeting on August 17.

As a regular feature of these reports, I plan to provide a short summary on the steps that the Board is taking to improve and clarify CASCA procedures and governance, for itself, for its committees, and for the membership as a whole. Over the past 3 months, the Board has re-constituted its Action Items list and is starting to work its way through items systematically. There are a lot of items, many of them simple housekeeping, but everything takes some time and attention. The Vice-President and I are each circulating a written report to the Board ahead of the monthly Board meeting, so that the meetings themselves use less time for simple reporting of events and have more time for discussion. CASCA committee membership is now mostly complete, with just a few members remaining to be finalized for LCRIC and CATAC.

The Coalition for Canadian Astronomy has been fairly quiet over the summer. We took the opportunity of the extensive media coverage around the JWST early images to send LRP2020 and a cover letter to about 40 ministers, staff, and department officials in July. As we do every year, we are working on a 2023 pre-budget submission, which is due October 8. When Parliament resumes Sept 19, I expect Coalition activities will ramp up; we had no meetings with government over the summer.

In TMT news, the National Science Foundation announced the beginning of the scoping process for the TMT project. To quote from an AAS email August 22, “The scoping process is a public comment period for identifying issues to be analyzed during the creation of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and for consultation under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act to evaluate anticipated effects on historic properties on the summit of Maunakea, Hawaiʻi Island, Hawaiʻi. While the scoping process is a standard procedure for all NSF large facilities construction, NSF is also working to implement the community astronomy model outlined in the most recent decadal survey. To that end, NSF also invites the public to comment on NSF’s plans to engage the public in its EIS and Section 106 compliance processes through review of and comment on NSF’s Draft Community Engagement Plan.”

Other reports on progress with our major new initiatives (TMT, SKA, CASTOR, etc.) can be found elsewhere in this issue (or the 2022 Summer Solstice issue).

I want to close this article with a few thoughts on the subject of land and consent, a topic that is the focus of Recommendation #1 from LRP2020 and was the focus of a policy document that the LCRIC shared with the membership in advance of the May 2022 CASCA AGM. It is important to acknowledge my own settler background, as that background affects my perspective on this topic.

LRP Recommendation #1 states (in part): “We recommend that the Canadian astronomical community (e.g., ACURA, CASCA, and NRC-HAA) work together with Indigenous representatives and other relevant communities to develop and adopt a comprehensive set of guiding principles for the locations of astronomy facilities and associated infrastructure in which Canada participates. These principles should be centred on consent from the Indigenous Peoples and traditional title holders who would be affected by any astronomy project. “

In thinking about the topic of land and consent in the context of LRP Recommendation #1, probably the most important question that arises is who gives consent for a new facility to be built on Indigenous lands.

UNDRIP, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, gives the answer: Indigenous peoples and communities. This is admittedly a very general answer and does not attempt to answer questions such as: which Indigenous peoples and communities; who speaks for those Indigenous peoples and communities; what to do if there are disagreements between the groups who are asked to consent to a project; etc. But it is appropriate that UNDRIP does not address these details: it is up to the Indigenous peoples and communities to decide if and how they wish to give consent.

A secondary question that follows from the question “who gives consent” is who decides/judges/acknowledges that “free, prior, and informed consent” has been received from Indigenous peoples and communities for a new facility to be built on Indigenous lands.

In Canada, the act that established the National Research Council (NRC) mandated that NRC should “operate and administer any astronomical observatories established or maintained by the Government of Canada”. So, for projects in which Canada is involved at a national level, the decision on whether consent has been given belongs with the Government of Canada and its agencies such as the NRC.

So you may ask, what is our role, as Canadian astronomers, in the process of land and consent? Personally, I feel that it is important that Canadian astronomers be reasonably confident that consent has been given for a new facility. This confidence helps to ensure that Canadian astronomers continue to support the facility that is being constructed. Confidence can be gained by educating ourselves: by reading reports and emails shared by the facility, by CASCA and its committees or by NRC; by attending informational webinars; by participating and asking questions; and so on. As a community (through CASCA and its committees, for example), we also have a role to play in working with Indigenous peoples and communities, as well as other organizations such as NRC, ACURA, etc., to help develop the guiding principles called for in LRP Recommendation #1. The policy document circulated by LCRIC in spring 2022 is an example of the type of work that is required from our community.

But ultimately it is not up to us as individual astronomers to make the call that consent has been given. We don’t have the necessary expertise (social, political, etc.) or resources. We don’t have the connections with the local Indigenous people and communities, certainly not for new telescope facilities that will be based in distant countries.

I think the important point is that we, the Canadian astronomical community, have said through LRP2020 Recommendation #1 that it is essential to obtain consent from Indigenous peoples and communities for new facilities that Canada is involved in. The Government of Canada, through NRC and other avenues, is taking this statement from our community very seriously in evaluating potential new national telescope facilities. Our role as individual Canadian astronomers is to stay informed about what is going on, to participate and ask questions, and to continue to educate ourselves.

Wishing you all a safe fall semester,

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