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Vancouver Is an Indigenous City

We can never change the nature of the land, and whom it belongs to. And that's a beautiful thing.

By Kamala Todd 12 Nov 2015 |

Kamala Todd is a Metis-Cree urban geographer who makes films, writes, and facilitates dialogue to build cross-cultural understanding and decolonize the city. She is director of Indigenous City Media, with many TV and documentary credits.

[Editor's note: Writer and filmmaker Kamala Todd brought the house down with this speech at the recent Indigenous City Gathering, an evening event in Vancouver hosted by SFU Public Square's 2015 Community Summit in partnership with grunt gallery and Rain City Chronicles. The Tyee republishes it with permission.]

Reflecting on this evening, I want to emphasize remembering. Remembering where we stand.

If we are not indigenous to our city, we have to learn what the land memories are. What is this place? Who are the people who have always lived here? What are our obligations to each other, to the land?

There is much more than we see on the surface, in mainstream documents and renderings of Vancouver. Vancouver has a shiny reputation as a boom town. The Milltown to Metropolis narrative still dominates -- and it's reflected in the constantly changing landscape.

The theme of this event is "city-building." It's not about building. Anyone can build. To me, building suggests we are starting from scratch. Building anew. Always trying to remake. Acting as if this is all there has ever been, and endlessly entrapped in the Creative Destruction of capitalism. I reject that approach to community, to place, to memory and meaning.

It's about the foundation. It's the roots that support you. The stories that you know, the stories that you don't know.

We don't live in isolation. We are not separate from the land, the waters, the plants, the animals, the sky, the rocks, the ground, the ancestors.

Yet the cultural values that have shaped this urban world tell us that we are. We are separate. We are on our own. The dominant narratives that have shaped this city talk about pioneers settling and making this place. They talk about founding fathers and empty land. And those newcomers appointed themselves caretakers of this place and they continue to tell the stories. I reject that colonial mindset, I reject those harmful lies.

The relationships we have with our city, the branches and pathways of our everyday lives are all shaped by the foundation, the roots.

What relationship do you have with your city? The ways we connect to our city, the paths we take, the damage we make, the good we bring, the beauty we create, the knowledge we absorb -- all of this depends upon what we know of the foundation, the dirt, the stories, layers, histories, and the less tangible stories and meanings and teachings that swirl all around us, and stretch way back, and all the way forward.

They are here. They have always been here.

So, what is the foundation of Vancouver? Scrape away the colonial layers, the surface structure of dispossession and all of the painful unjust ways that this city was founded. Go deeper.

What is the foundation? The very being of this land?

Listen to the stories

I was born and raised here, but I can only know a small bit of this land that I grew up in, that my children were born in. I try to listen to the stories, and learn more about the people who have always lived here. I am not indigenous to Vancouver, I will never claim to know this place as a Coast Salish person (my ancestors hail from Cree grasslands and Germany and Ireland).

My Coast Salish hosts, friends and relatives -- Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish people -- know their land in ways the rest of us never really can. And that's a very special thing. And it's nothing to be afraid of. And it doesn't make Vancouver any less my home. We can all connect to our place, we can lay down our own roots, build our own histories.

But we can never change the nature of the land, and whom it belongs to.

To truly inhabit where we live, and for the city to truly inhabit the land, we have to know where we stand, we have to find ways to connect to the stories. And this is a rich process. It is a gift to do this work.

Our understandings of the city must be truly, honestly, fully indigenous. And that means the indigenous people themselves are front and centre, visible, heard, included. No longer written out of the story. The same goes for all of our cities, all across this continent -- as they are all, what I call, Indigenous Cities.

Creating healthy urban environments, healthy inclusive communities depends fundamentally upon the acknowledgement, full recognition and entrenching of this fact, that this is an Indigenous City.

What will it take for this to be fully, widely known? Simply, common knowledge. To be no longer obscured by the scaffolds of colonial culture?

What will it look like? What health and wealth do we gain from this full knowing, when local indigenous laws, languages, teachings, place names, plants, directives, needs, values, cultural landscapes, cultural production, are once again, fully in place on the land, fully visible, fully seen, fully here, as they have always been.

Not building anew

I dream of the day when this will be known indisputably as a Musqueam place, a Tsleil-Waututh place, a Squamish place -- where the weavings and unique Coast Salish styles are known as Vancouver's aesthetics. Where hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ will be spoken and known as the language of this place. Where the legal orders and protocols are known, and adhered to. When the First Nations themselves define and shape Vancouver.

This is possible. It's not a dream. It's not a lost cause. To get there we need to decolonize, we need people who have always seen themselves as the gatekeepers, the caretakers, the founders of this city to listen to the other stories, to learn about the deep roots, to make space, and step aside.

Stop saying that the pioneers settled this place. Stop obsessing about a 100-year-old building while down the street people's ancestors are being dug up and disrespected. Start acknowledging that this is an ancient place, that there are stories and knowledge and rights that precede this very recent conglomeration on this land. Contrary to the colonial propaganda, this has never been a land free for the taking. The people are still here.

Stop acting like you have invented sustainability! Stop acting like you are the expert. Start including, acknowledging, making space for First Nations, who lived sustainably here for thousands and thousands of years. Start sharing profits, and sharing power. Listen to the land. Remember where you are.

Don't be afraid of acknowledging Vancouver as First Nations' land, of ripping off the masks of illusion. Dialogue and reconciliation mean full recognition of how this city was built, and what needs to be restored. This will always be an Indigenous City, this will always be a Musqueam place, a Tsleil-Waututh place, a Squamish place -- there are rights and knowledge and relationships that can never be severed. The question is, how are the rest of us going to belong within this, how are we going to be part of the Indigenous City in ways that are no longer at the expense of the very generous people who have allowed us to be here, on their beautiful land? However we do it, we can go forward in the same canoe, knowing where we stand, and never again trying to pretend that this is a young city with no history.

We are not starting from scratch, we are not building anew. We are deepening our knowledge of the foundation. Our connection to the very place that keeps us alive.  [Tyee]

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