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'We Weren't Supposed to Survive'

Seeking reconciliation with BC's First Nations. First in a series.

Sandra Shields 30 Mar

Sandra Shields lives on a farm in the Fraser Valley with photographer David Campion. Their first book won the 2003 Hubert Evans Prize; Where Fire Speaks looks at how development arrived for one African tribe. Their second book, The Company of Others, explores the power of caring relationships in the lives of people with disabilities and their families and friends.

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Vancouver International Airport. Photo by David Campion

[Editor's Note: This weekend we should learn whether the first final agreement reached under the B.C. treaty process has been accepted by its community, the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation near Prince George. Two years ago, the government of British Columbia and First Nations leaders laid out a vision for a "New Relationship," spurring initiatives aimed at "closing the gap" between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal British Columbians. In this four-part Tyee Solutions Reporting Fellowship series, writer Sandra Shields looks at steps being taken in her home community of the Fraser Valley, and explores whether all this talk is changing things on the ground. To learn more about Shields, her series and Tyee fellowships, go here.]

"Ask the average person in the valley who the Stó:lo are," Gwen Point says, "and they will say, 'I don't know.'" A Stó:lo cultural leader and long-time educator, Point recently became one of a handful of Aboriginal professors at the University College of the Fraser Valley.

"Before reconciliation can occur," she says, "people have to know who we are and they have to understand what happened here."

Like most of my non-Aboriginal neighbors, I knew next to nothing about the Stó:lo when my husband, photographer David Campion, and I moved from downtown Vancouver to a farmhouse on the side of a mountain across the Fraser River from Chilliwack. It was when a friend lent us the Stó:lo Atlas, a beautiful and fascinating book, that we began to learn something of the history that lies outside our back door.

People of the river

Stó:lo means river. Archeologists say that the Stó:lo have been living in the floodplain along the Fraser River for more than 350 generations. Part of the Coast Salish peoples, the Stó:lo include 24 bands located between Vancouver and the Fraser Canyon north of Yale.

First contact with Europeans came in the form of smallpox in 1782. The disease traveled along Native trade routes and when it reached the valley it is believed to have killed two out of every three people, decimating the estimated 60,000 Stó:lo living here. Thirty years later, when Simon Fraser made it to the lower reaches of the river that would soon bear his name, he encountered abandoned villages and a people still in recovery.

In the 50 years after Simon Fraser passed through, life along the river continued much as it had for generations. The Hudson's Bay set up forts, some of the Stó:lo men traded salmon, and some of the Stó:lo women married Hudson's Bay men. It was in the spring of 1858 that everything changed. Within four months, 30,000 miners arrived fresh from the rowdy California frontier and began digging up the banks of the river in search of gold. Settlers followed and B.C. implemented a policy of "benevolent assimilation." The priests at St. Mary's Mission established a boarding school to educate Stó:lo children and the Stó:lo were confined to reserves that amounted to less than one per cent of their territory.

Within a generation, by the 1880s, there were more settlers than Stó:lo. Canada passed the anti-potlatch law and the drumming, singing and winter dances that had ordered Stó:lo cultural and spiritual life became illegal. The first person in Canada to go to jail under the new law was a man from Chilliwack and fear spread throughout the valley. Until the 1960s, those who continued to practice their traditions did so in the utmost secrecy.

"The idea was to colonize," Gwen Point says. "We weren't supposed to survive. The devastation that happened to the Stó:lo community since contact, we are still living with that today. Our children are struggling in education. Our people are over-represented in the prisons. We are only beginning to come into our own and that's because many of our people are turning back to our culture and taking an active part in the decisions being made in all areas such as education, health and self government."

More than sorry

The way history is remembered affects all of us deeply. Again and again, in countries around the world, the experience of having been victimized travels through generations carrying with it a call for truth and justice.

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission was part of a growing international movement that links reconciliation with healthy democracies. Simply put, reconciliation is about moving from antagonism to trust and respect. It is linked to the functioning of democracy because it creates the kind of relationships that increase social capital. In B.C., reconciliation moved out of the shadows in the spring of 2005 when Premier Campbell announced the creation of the Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation.

Vancouver-based author and community organizer Jessie Sutherland has been involved in frontline reconciliation work in communities across Canada as well as the Middle East, Africa and South America. She warns that reconciliation is often used as a buzz word by those in power who think they can say Sorry and then move on without addressing the underlying issues or doing the long hard work of sorting through contested histories, rooting out injustice and learning to share power.

Wary of a cultural understanding that sees reconciliation in terms of contrition and forgiveness, Sutherland prefers to use a broader definition that views reconciliation as a process by which systems of domination are transformed into relations of mutuality. She explains that reconciliation must come from political leaders and from ordinary people. Even those who have suffered or benefited little from the past absorb the beliefs and attitudes that underpin conflict, so while systemic restructuring is essential, the hearts and minds of the people must change too.

The steps are as familiar as they are difficult: a joint search for truth, justice, and healing. Every reconciliation process is unique, but it is generally agreed that if tough issues aren't dealt with, they only get worse with time - which goes a long way towards explaining the complex knot that the B.C. government and First Nations leaders have begun to try and unravel.

New relationship

The waterslide in the resort community of Cultus Lake near Chilliwack was closed on the gray December day when I went looking for the Soowahlie Band Office. The directions from the gas station clerk took me down a road that turned to gravel and disappeared between pine trees. Two kilometers of mud and potholes later, I found Grand Chief Doug Kelly in the campground headquarters that doubles as his office.

Kelly works with Stó:lo Tribal Council, an alliance of eight Stó:lo bands. When I confessed that the muddy rutted road to his office made me wish for four-wheel drive, he laughed and told me about a letter to the editor that appeared in a local paper.

"It was basically saying we're a tax burden, that everything First Nations get is a handout and all we do is take, we don't pay taxes, all those old arguments. Well, our national chief had done some work and concluded that First Nations governments receive approximately half the funding that other local governments get."

Kelly did a bit more research, came up with some figures, and wrote his own letter to the editor. "Chilliwack residents," he said, "receive something like $12,000 per person in terms of value of services from Canada, B.C. and the city. Stó:lo residents living on reserves in and around Chilliwack receive about $7,700. That's why our roads aren't paved, that's why we don't have sidewalks, that's why we don't have light standards."

Kelly cut his political teeth young, first serving as chief of Soowahlie in 1983 when he was 22 years old. He was a founding member of the B.C. Treaty Commission and in the spring of 2005, he was on the executive of the First Nations Summit when Aboriginal leaders and the provincial government drafted the vision for the "New Relationship."

"It was exciting," he says. "Three years earlier we had been fighting the referendum on treaty-related issues and suddenly we were talking about doing business in a new way."

These days, he wonders when the change in perspective at the upper level of government will make its way down the chain of command. "The premier talks about it being a new relationship but right now it's from the neck up," he says. "It hasn't got to the arms and legs, all those civil servants who actually do the work of the province of B.C."

To ensure that happens, he says "First Nations need to make clear and pronounced statements about what we want and how that change ought to be carried out."

Reconciliation season

The farmhouse where I live sits on the north shore of the Fraser River in the traditional territory of the Leq'á:mél First Nation. There were once several large villages here and the Stó:lo say this is where the Halkomelem language likely originated.

A 20-minute drive to the west, the Xá:ytem Interpretive Longhouse stands on the site of a 9,000 year-old Stó:lo village. This past October, a gala ceremony here drew the lieutenant-governors of both British Columbia and Washington State to celebrate the return of the site to the Stó:lo.

The ceremony at Xá:ytem was part of an unprecedented spate of reconciliation-themed events that took place in the Fraser Valley last year. They began in February when Washington State acknowledged responsibility for the murder of a 14-year-old Stó:lo youth in 1884 -- an acknowledgement that was helped along by a powerful locally-produced film, The Lynching of Louie Sam. In August, a somber ceremony marked the return of the land and buildings of St. Mary's residential school to the Stó:lo. Then in October, the Stó:lo celebrated the repatriation of T'xwelatse, an ancient stone statue, from the Burke Museum in Seattle.

Grand Chief Clarence Pennier was on the podium at several of these ceremonies. A long-time Stó:lo leader, he first sat on council in his home community of Scowlitz in the early 1970s. These days, Pennier is the president of the Stó:lo Tribal Council. After more than 30 years of fighting for the recognition of Aboriginal rights and title, he has no illusions about the government's motivation for the new relationship.

"We have to ask Campbell: 'What made you do a 180?'" he says. "It's not his heart. It's court cases. When he lost his own case, he couldn't appeal it because he had been elected by then, but he understands why he lost. As a province, B.C. doesn't actually own the land and resources. That's what the courts say. That's what the constitution says."

Pennier points out it has been First Nations' persistent search for justice that lies behind the pivotal court cases that changed the government's position and led to the recent spate of ceremonies in the valley. "The return of St. Mary's took 20 years," he says. "It was 15 years for Xa:ytem and T'xwelatse took 14 years."

"The ceremonies are important," he says. "They raise people's awareness that things can change at the political level and they help to establish relationships." But he is quick to say that much more is needed. "Unless people see change happening in communities, in policies, in legislation, then people will gear up again. If we can't get anything politically, we have to try direct action."

"It's about respect," he says. "It's how we live together and create a better future for all of us."

Australia says 'Sorry'

Reconciliation caught the attention of ordinary Australians in 1997, the same year that the Delgamuukw decision rewrote the nature of Aboriginal-Crown relations in B.C. While newspapers here tried to convey the meaning of a complex legal case that left most British Columbians bored, scared or confused, headlines in Australia told the riveting tale of a judge and WWII fighter pilot who was transformed into a passionate advocate demanding his country apologize to indigenous Australians.

When Sir Ronald Wilson took on the job of leading a public inquiry into Australia's residential schools, he believed, like most Australians, that Aboriginal children had been taken out of wretched conditions and given the benefits of white society. Instead he heard months of testimony about the tragic repercussions of a policy that severed children from their language, culture and lands, destroyed families, and left an intergenerational legacy of lost parenting skills, shattered physical and mental health, and high mortality rates.

Sir Ronald demanded that Australia acknowledge its crime and make reparations to the "stolen generations." Prime Minister John Howard thought indigenous Australians had won too many concessions already, so he said "No." The furor that ensued plunged Australia into an intense debate about the responsibility of present generations for past crimes.

The tide peaked on May 28, 2000, when a quarter of a million Australians walked across the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Planes flew overhead and wrote "Sorry" in the sky. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians looked one another in the eye and smiled. The walk inspired Australian author Kate Grenville to write Secret River, an acclaimed novel that uses her ancestors as a jumping off point for exploring the consequences of settling on land that already belongs to someone else. Last year, at Vancouver's Writers Festival, she said the walk came about because people felt in their guts the need to do something.

Moving out of denial

"Do British Columbians feel the need for reconciliation in their guts?" Chilliwack writer Stephanie Gould asked me one afternoon. She thought not.

I met Gould last spring when she helped organize a film festival about the survival and revival of Indigenous culture in the Pacific Northwest. Hugh Brody, the author, filmmaker and anthropologist who currently holds the Canada Research Chair in Aboriginal Studies at the University College of the Fraser Valley (UCFV), was the motivating force behind the festival that played first at the British Museum in London and a month later at UCFV.

Opening night drew a 100 people to Chilliwack City Hall. During the discussion, a young girl of Aboriginal ancestry raised her hand.

"The films made me think about what we have lost," she said and her quiet voice broke. She recovered and continued. "I feel like here at the film festival, what was taken away from us is being given back."

That weekend, while the rest of the valley basked in the first warm weather in months, a group of several dozen of us, mostly middle-aged white people, sat in a darkened theatre and watched film after film that showed a version of history none of us had learned in school. After one film, a man blurted out, "This history is so recent -- it happened yesterday. And it's so embarrassing." Late on Sunday afternoon, a woman asked, "How do we, as non-Aboriginal people, support others in moving out of denial about what happened here?" To sit through the film festival was to feel the need for reconciliation in your guts. And it wasn't comfortable.

"What has taken place in the Fraser Valley," Hugh Brody said in a recent conversation, "happens all over the world where cultures collide and then have to deal with the fallout of these encounters and the pain and disarray that always seems to come with them." He pointed out that when people are in denial, or when they are unaware of the history they live with, they create risks to themselves and to one another.

"If communities are to live together in a healthy way," he said, "they must avoid these non-truths."

The right path

From the field above my house, you can see the lights of Chilliwack, 10 kilometres away across the Fraser River. This central region of the valley has been home to a concentration of Stó:lo communities for thousands of years. Prior to the smallpox epidemic, this was one of the most densely settled areas of the continent north of Mexico. Today, while communities like the Leq'á:mél live on rural reserves, across the river in Chilliwack nine of the Stó:lo bands have much of their land base within the boundaries of the steadily growing municipality.

Joe Hall is chief of one of those bands, the Tzeachten First Nation. He is also the president of Stó:lo Nation, an alliance of 11 bands from throughout the valley. I met him at his office just south of Chilliwack's Wal-Mart and Canadian Tire in the Stó:lo Nation Government House. This used to be the site of the Coqualeetza Industrial Institute, a residential school that closed in 1940 and was replaced by an Indian hospital that operated until 1969 when Canada ended its policy of segregated health care for Aboriginal people.

"This is a new path," Chief Hall says about the provincial government's reconciliation efforts. "It's the right path, and the bugs are going to work themselves out, maybe not as quickly as we would like, but it did take many years to develop the situation we're in."

After decades of sparring with the city of Chilliwack, Hall now enjoys a good relationship with the municipality. "Maybe we had to go through that to get to here, but the importance of having a better working relationship is priceless because it's so much easier to work in an environment of cooperation than one where there is constant controversy and debate."

He feels these good news stories need to come out of the closet. "A tiny example in the Tzeachten community is the shopping centre we built. We didn't lease it out, we own it. We got Save-On-Foods, Tim Hortons, and Royal Bank to come on and that was unheard of in this area. It's made us a player in the local economy."

As Hall sees it, politicians in B.C. are leading; citizens and bureaucrats are lagging behind. "I know it's been said a lot, but we need to educate the public. Unfortunately the loudest and most controversial people who speak about these initiatives are often the redneck component of our society and the people who are probably in support of reconciliation stay quiet -- they don't want to run into their redneck neighbor and have to battle it out."

"And in some cases the bureaucrats, as a component of the community, don't understand what the new relationship is trying to achieve. Then they are left to implement initiatives and the danger is that it never actually filters down."

Bottom up or top down

In Australia, the challenge has been to get reconciliation to filter up. The last week in May has become National Reconciliation Week, organized by the non-governmental organization Reconciliation Australia which is working to close the 17-year life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Public pressure has led the government to introduce sweeping policy changes, but they have come under fire for being disorganized, under-funded, and failing to include Indigenous voices.

In B.C., the courts have acted as our conscience, and economic pain motivated politicians to finally respond. The resulting reconciliation process has been mostly top down, but ultimately it must take root among ordinary British Columbians.

The unfinished business of reconciliation may be uncomfortable, but it is not going away. Later this year, as part of the settlement with residential school survivors (who continue to wait for cash compensation), Canada's first Truth and Reconciliation Commission will begin traveling the country to acknowledge the legacy of residential schools. National Chief Phil Fontaine, himself a residential school survivor, has said that, "First Nations are determined to send the message to the world that 'Never again' will such a racist agenda be tolerated in Canada."

In B.C. one of the main thrusts of the new relationship is closing the socio-economic gap. The efforts of the province and Aboriginal leaders to change the realities of shorter life expectancy (seven years below the provincial average for First Nations), higher incarceration rates, and lower incomes and graduation rates will ensure the statistical gap, with its subtext of injustice, continues to make headlines.

Treaties will also continue to appear in the headlines, starting this weekend with the results from Prince George of the Lheidli T'enneh vote on the first final agreement to be reached under the B.C. treaty process. Two other agreements, these with the Tsawwassen and Maa-nulth First Nations, will also be voted on by their communities later this year, while 51 First Nations remain engaged in the process. In the Fraser Valley, the nations affiliated with Stó:lo Tribal Council are among the 40 per cent of B.C. First Nations currently abstaining from treaty talks, while Stó:lo Nation (which represents eight bands at the treaty table) is pushing to have a final agreement in place by spring 2008.

In the summer of 2008, the People Together Foundation, under the leadership of Chief Leonard George and Lt. Gov. Iona Campagnolo, is reaching out to ordinary British Columbians and inviting them to join a Walk for Reconciliation that will be held in Vancouver to mark B.C.'s 150th birthday.

In a good way

You can catch a glimpse of the Kilgaard longhouse while driving the #1 Highway from Abbotsford to Chilliwack. Last October, when the stone statue T'xwelatse was repatriated from Seattle's Burke Museum and returned to Stó:lo territory for the first time in over 100 years, the longhouse was filled with a capacity crowd that included many non-Aboriginal valley residents who had never seen the inside of a longhouse before, never heard the honor songs of the Stó:lo or seen the sacred masks that were danced that night.

Standing four feet high, with elliptical eyes, a curious smile and an undeniably strong presence, the granite statue is far larger than any other Pacific Northwest stone sculpture that survives from pre-contact times. According to Stó:lo history, the stone holds the shxweli or life force of a Stó:lo ancestor, a man named T'xwelatse who got into trouble for fighting with his wife and was turned to stone. For generations, the stone stood before Stó:lo longhouses as an embodiment of the teaching that human beings must learn to live together in a good way.

Since receiving this fellowship, I have discovered a great deal about the place that I now call home. The Stó:lo are as much a part of the Fraser Valley as the cedars that grow on the mountains and the salmon that spawn in the rivers. The human history of the valley runs back thousands of years, a reality that many of us newcomers are only just beginning to appreciate.

In the following weeks, this series explores what is being done in the valley to move away from the divided past of the last 150 years and create a shared future. Upcoming articles visit the valley's schools, forests, and negotiating tables to find out if the new relationship is changing things on the ground, and to search for answers as to how we can all learn to live together in a good way.

Next Friday: A new relationship in the classrooms?  [Tyee]

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