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Canada reaches deadline to respond to UN over controversial telescope

By Matteo Cimellaro, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A UN committee has called on the Canadian government to properly consult Native Hawaiians over a major telescope proposal, which it found is affecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples of the archipelago state.

In a letter dated April 2024, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said it is concerned about the harm that could result from the financing and support provided by the government of Canada, Canadian astronomical societies, and Canadian corporations for the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) proposed for Mauna Kea, the highest peak in Hawaii.

It points to the project’s potential harm to Native Hawaiians, particularly to rights enshrined by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which became law in Canada last year. The act requires every department to integrate tenets of the declaration into its operations.

The UN letter also calls upon the federal government to respond to the letter by June 26. Canada’s National Observer contacted Global Affairs Canada about the deadline but did not hear back at the time of publication.

Uahikea Maile, an advocate and political science professor who runs the Ziibiing Lab, told Canada’s National Observer that Canada is skirting its responsibility to meaningfully consult Native Hawaiians. Maile points to an individualized form of consultation through private conversations and committee hearings in Ottawa that Maile attended.

Maile is Kanaka Maoli, the Indigenous nation of Hawaii, but he says the government, scientific organizations and construction corporations have “individualized the issue to me,” he said.

For example, Maile points to the Canadian Astronomy Long-Range Plan released in 2020, a strategy in which Maile’s name is credited as a consultant despite his opposition to the TMT. The report calls for investment in a “Very Large Optical Telescope” as its top recommendation — specifically, the TMT.

“That’s the kind of consultation Canada has officially done,” he said, noting that’s not the level of “consultation” specified in the UN declaration.

In a statement to Canada’s National Observer, the National Research Council, who is responsible for leading Canada’s scientific contributions to the project, said that it is “committed to listening and learning from the people of Hawai’i, their communities, and to contributing to an open and constructive dialogue about the project.”

The Thirty Meter Telescope is part of a new generation of technology, allowing astronomers to study the cosmos in greater detail than ever before. Mauna Kea, the proposed site for the telescope, is championed by the scientific community for its lack of atmospheric interference when observing the cosmos. However, the oversaturation of the sacred volcanic mountain has engendered fierce local opposition to the project.

The summit of Mauna Kea, which holds great cultural, social and religious importance for Kanaka Maoli, has been developed by industrial projects like scientific observatories, telescopes and road infrastructure to maintain them.

Development has left the fragile ecosystems of its summit desecrated and destroyed, according to Kahea’s website.

For example, there are 21 telescopes and 13 observatories on Mauna Kea’s summit alone. The new telescope’s proposed site is on the mountain’s culturally significant northern plateau, which remains pristine and undeveloped, Maile told Canada’s National Observer in a previous interview.

Opposition to the project has an almost decade-long history. In 2015, the Stephen Harper government invested $243.5 million over 10 years to develop the project. That’s when opposition began in earnest, and ended up in American court in 2016. In 2019, a blockade led by Native Hawaiians led to the arrest of 38 elders. 

There are also concerns over the environmental impact of the project, including emissions, Maile said. The emphasis on the cosmos over environmental impact on this planet amounts to placing a “superior value” on finding another world that humans could one day inhabit due to human-caused climate change, Maile explained. 

“There’s a neglect for humans on this planet versus aliens and possible Earth analogues beyond our solar system,” he added. 

The committee also wrote similar letters to the American government. The National Science Foundation recently announced more than a billion and a half US dollars in funding for one of two telescopes: the TMT, or the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) in Chile.

China, India, Japan and the United States also have stakes in the TMT project.

Maile told Canada’s National Observer that if it becomes the chosen project, it would be the first injection of American dollars into the TMT.

The news that there is funding for only one of two telescopes is “on the cusp of something really important because the truth of the matter is the TMT is a much more controversial project,” Maile said.

The National Research Council said they “will not speculate on the project’s future.”

“We continue to work with the partners of the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory (TIO) and the Maunakea Stewardship and Oversight Authority (which began undertaking shared governance and management responsibilities on July 1, 2023) to address the concerns regarding the site location, in order to determine the appropriate path forward,” the National Research Council statement added.

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Interview 

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