UNB has awarded an honorary degree to a real estate magnate whose company has made headlines in Ontario for substandard housing and the alleged harassment of tenants.
On May 26, during its graduation ceremony for the faculties of Arts, Law, Renaissance College, and Interdisciplinary Studies, the University of New Brunswick awarded an honorary doctorate to Wayne Squibb, co-founder and CEO of Realstar, a privately owned real-estate investment and management company with $9 billion in assets. Wayne Squibb has served on the UNB Board of Governors since 1994.
For many of the university’s students and faculty, the move to celebrate Squibb raises questions about UNB’s tenuous relationship with the unceded Wolastoqey land upon which it is located.
I graduated that day, and while I walked away from the Currie Center with a feeling of pride in my heart, I was also left with a bitter taste in my mouth.
The flavour was a familiar one.
The University of New Brunswick is home to a series of contradictions, each tied to Canada’s history as settler colonial state and the consequent violence, dispossession, subjugation, and murder faced by Indigenous peoples.
Much of this history was absent from the event’s proceedings. Instead, following a land acknowledgement—trite in and of itself—the university chose to celebrate the achievements of a land developer.
At the beginning of the ceremony, a Christian prayer was offered to attendees, followed by a traditional Wolastoq Honour Song. Next Imelda Perley, UNB’s former elder in residence, welcomed the university’s graduates.
The school’s land acknowledgement came in at just under eighty words.
“I want to begin by respectfully acknowledging that UNB stands on unsurrendered and unceded traditional Wolastoqey land,” UNB President Paul Mazerolle began. “The lands of Wabanaki people are recognized in a series of peace and friendship treaties to establish an ongoing relationship of peace, friendship, and mutual respect between equal nations. The river that runs by our university is known as Wolastoq, along which live the Wolastoqey, the people of the beautiful and bountiful river. Wolastoq is also called the Saint John River.”
Today, the beautiful and bountiful Wolastoq is under threat. Industrial development has impacted the river, its watershed, its water quality, and its wetlands.
Later in the ceremony, an honorary doctorate was awarded to Wayne Squibb, the co-founder, president, and CEO of the Realstar Group.
What is Realstar?
It’s record as a landowner is mixed at best.
In the summer of 2017, protests broke out in Scarborough, Ontario as tenants grappled with Realstar’s management practices. Tenants demanded answers, alleging bed bugs had infested their units, stoves and appliances were turning on by themselves, and that break-ins had become a fact of life, according to a piece published by Toronto.com. Protestors alleged that staff had begun harassing tenants, creating a “war” wherein tenants were explicitly “targeted” by management. The company’s senior vice president Mark Hales told CBC that they had not been “aware of any issues of significance.”
It might seem puzzling that the CEO of a company with such a middling reputation would receive such a prestigious honour from UNB.
But Squibb has a special relationship with the university.
During the address, Squibb was thanked for securing “the enhancement of responsible management of UNB’s property holdings, to support the financial stability of the university.”
Shirley Cleave, UNB’s Vice President, facilitated the award process. New graduates and their families learned that Squibb’s expertise had been instrumental “in crafting a stewardship strategy for our off-campus holdings, ensuring a balance between responsible development within strict parameters and designating ecologically significant properties to be held as nature trusts in perpetuity.”
Listening to the address, it seemed Squibb’s most important contributions had to do with securing capital investments.
“The university now receives approximately 1.9 million dollars in annual revenue from our university lands. This land revenue supports annual investments to improve accessibility, sustainability, and environmental compliance, and to maintain campus infrastructure.”
Although the statement was short, stuffed amidst celebratory language, its meaning was powerful.
Approximately 1.9 million dollars in annual revenue from our university lands.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised—UNB also has a mixed history as a landowner and developer.
In 2007, UNB faced resistance for its handling of land development in Fredericton. The university faced protests as it plowed through wetlands at Corbett Brook Marsh, converting a rich, ecologically diverse habitat into the Corbett Centre, a strip mall with its very own Costco.
In 2021, UNB’s efforts to develop the land continued. The university sent a notice to Fredericton city council to rezone lands in the UNB Woodlot for future development.
As former UNB students, my fellow graduates and I felt deeply perturbed that the university had felt it suitable to award an honorary degree to a real estate mogul responsible for developing wetlands and other holdings on unsurrendered and unceded Wolastoqey land, directly following a land acknowledgement no less.
Instead, traditional Wolastoqey land (now a strip mall) was hailed as a source of profit for the university.
On the day of my graduation, I learned what the University of New Brunswick hoped its graduates might accomplish with their degrees. The pursuit of further knowledge? Perhaps. Societal betterment? Maybe. Glory as a real estate developer? Definitely.
Wayne Squibb’s honorary degree stands as proof.
And that Costco? It’s located at 25 Wayne Squibb Boulevard.
Harrison Dressler is a researcher and writer working out of the Human Environments Workshop (HEW) funded by RAVEN. He writes on New Brunswick and Canadian history, labour, politics, and environmental activism.