IN THESE PAST FEW WEEKS we’ve been given more than an inkling of what it’s like to have the deck perpetually stacked against you. What it’s like to be swamped by a crippling cascade of unjust circumstances that keep you hopelessly disadvantaged, that keep you beholden your entire life to oppressive systems and the privileged people who own or run them.
First came news on May 27 of the horrendous discovery of human remains buried on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. The discovery shouldn’t have surprised anyone, but it gave grim reality to what First Nations people have been claiming for decades: They had children who never came home, who simply vanished.
At least 215 sites have been identified, all containing little ones, some as young as three. Their small maltreated skeletons have been there for decades, pressed beneath the innocuous grass and the muted layers of soil, subsoil, time, and indifference. They are not located in one mass grave but individually scattered around, as if spit out by the building itself, one by one by one.
The Kamloops Indian Residential School in an undated photo (via Archives Deschâtelets-NDC)
When I close my eyes, I see them being lowered into the ground, in their tattered school uniform or other rags, their cheeks tear-stained, their bodies ravaged by neglect, and broken, maybe. The mother in me sobs for them, and as much for their agonized parents and families who were never told their cherished children had died, never given the decency of having the little bodies respectfully returned to them, and who never—even to the present—received more than shoulder shrugs when they pressed for the whereabouts of their missing sons and daughters.
I cannot know the depth of their anguish and never-ending loss. That this could happen, and at the callous, cold hands of those who professed to love God no less, is utterly unforgivable.
The federal government is no less complicit: It built schools that were more like prisons and handed thousands of children over to “educators” who were utterly unsuitable for the job, who by virtue of their calling alone, knew nothing about children, little about nurturing, nothing about parenting, and had, for the majority, taken vows against having children themselves. (Roughly 70 percent of the 139 official residential schools in Canada, including Kamloops Indian Residential School, were operated by the Catholic Church.)
I can’t imagine how desperate, distraught and terrified these families and communities all across Canada would have been when the mighty triumvirate of Government, Church and the RCMP came calling for their children.
What was this, if not outright genocide? Can we start calling it that now?
NEXT CAME OUR NDP GOVERNMENT’S long-awaited release on June 2 of an “intentions paper” on a much-needed overhaul of forest management in this province. With tensions rising at the Fairy Creek blockades and public outrage mounting over the steady loss of Vancouver Island’s last ancient forests, I harboured hope that Premier Horgan and his forestry team might finally call an immediate halt to old growth logging while other options are explored. (It makes no sense, and seems ill-intentioned even, to keep destroying a recognized treasure while exploring options for its survival.)
But my hope was dashed. Viewers were instead treated to an industry love-in, a self-serving fête of the industry’s renewal with nary a mention of forest renewal. In front of a huge backdrop showcasing a lush wilderness, the premier went on about an entirely different visual—cutblocks, tenures (agreements), volume (hauled out of the woods), fibre (trees on the trucks) and jobs. There was plenty of flushed talk, big smiles, and industry-affiliated endorsements of the kind usually reserved for infomercials.
Premier Horgan announcing his new forest policy intentions
In the end, you could tell the premier felt he had it in the bag, with his bright, triumphant smile and the impromptu wink to his right (where Minister Conroy was standing) as it all wound down.
To be fair, the industry is unquestionably in need of a thorough overhaul, and the intention to reduce raw log export and instead increase value-added capacity in our own province seems progressive. So does the plan to begin sharing the forestry pie with more and smaller local companies, some of them owned by First Nations.
But the few prickly questions from reporters on the ever-rising Fairy Creek imbroglio were a snag. There, and in his own riding no less, the premier has increasingly been finding his image squeezed between a log and a hard place. Could he not do something to protect the ancient forests, he was asked.
He could not, the premier replied. While he was passionate about the wilderness and loved old trees as much as the next person, his hands were tied when it came to saving them, he said. (How convenient, I couldn’t help thinking.)
Here’s why, he elaborated. “The critical recommendation that’s in play at Fairy Creek is consulting with the title holders. If we were to arbitrarily put deferrals in place there, that would be a return to the colonialism that we have so graphically been brought back to this week by the discovery in Kamloops.”
Had I just heard that right? I was aghast. It sounded as if he had just used the travesty of residential schools, and in particular the horrific discovery in Kamloops, to justify delaying the protection of old growth forests. In other words, out of respect for Indigenous people, he was going to continue allowing their forests to be destroyed for paltry compensation.
If Fairy Creek has succeeded in exposing the plight of our dwindling old growth inventory, it has also, and perhaps inadvertently, shone a light on the entrenched government prejudice against First Nations and the suppressive colonial tools and agreements still being used to keep Indigenous people subjugated and all-too-often impoverished. Tools like the excessively constricted logging agreement that the government drew up for the Pacheedaht nation earlier this year. It has all the flavourings of snake oil: The Pacheedaht could sign it and receive a scant $350,000 over three years—less than half of one percent of the $132 million worth of old growth logs that Teal Jones would cut and haul away every three years—or they could refuse to sign, and receive nothing.
That they chose to sign is not surprising, but what a reprehensible, dead-end pair of choices. What they confirm is the government’s ongoing preference for seeing old-growth forests turned into lucrative lumber, and its mulish resistance to being educated in the value of living ancient trees.
Unfair as the agreement is in itself, it has an even uglier side. The Pacheedaht also had to agree to keep the government informed on how they were spending this picayune windfall. This is a shamefully insensitive and insulting demand that drips with racism, malevolent insinuation and antiquated paternalism. I’m willing to bet this clause doesn’t appear in any government contract with non-Indigenous people.
And still there’s more. The Pacheedaht also had to agree that they would not speak out against the contract nor obstruct any aspect of the clearcutting operation. Nor could they allow anyone else to stand in the way. A person can’t help wondering if, as resistance grew and heels dug in at Fairy Creek, the government might have reminded the Pacheedaht of their obligation to denounce the objectors.
If so, it would explain the Pacheedaht’s sudden public directive to the blockaders in mid-April to pack up and go home. The timing was perfect for the premier, and it gave him an opportunity he couldn’t resist—to admonish the defenders (who included First Nations youth and Elders) for not showing respect for First Nations people.
Evidence has since surfaced that the government quite likely had a secretive hand in the crafting and release of the Pacheedaht statement. The favourable timing for the premier, it turned out, had been based more on choreography than coincidence.
Clearly the government will use First Nations in any way then can to get at their resources. Including calculated manipulation and disadvantage.
BUT THAT IMBALANCE may finally be starting to shift. On June 5, the Pacheedaht, Ditidaht and Huu-ay-aht First Nations declared their intention to the government to immediately defer old-growth logging in the Fairy Creek and Central Walbran areas for the next two years. They need that time, they told the government, to develop their own land and resource management plans that will be based on their own needs and values.
The Declaration is forceful and straightforward. There’s no cap-in-hand meekness in any of it.
When one of the signees, Chief Councillor Robert Dennis of the Huu-ay-aht First Nation, was asked by a CBC journalist if he thought the Province would agree to the deferral, he replied, “They’d better.”
It was, after all, a declaration, not a request.
Two days later, Premier Horgan announced that he would acquiesce. “We have allowed, as a Province, the title holders to make decisions on their land,” he said.
The wording betrays a subtle undermining, a waft of arrogance rising out of centuries-long power and privilege. Old idioms tend to die hard, especially those that have always solidified the upper hand.
But inevitably that grip will continue to loosen. Other First Nations have started busting out of their own forestry agreements with government, including Squamish, which has declared an actual moratorium on old-growth logging in its territory. Members of the Gitxsan Nation near Prince Rupert have installed a gate on a forest road in their territory and told loggers they are no longer welcome.
Pacheedaht elder Bill Jones and Victor Peter lead a procession demanding access to their territories in Fairy Creek area (photo by Alex Harris)
First Nations people here and across the country are finding their voices and emerging strong and articulate. They are full of resolve, unapologetic, increasingly well-versed and well educated, and no longer intimidated. They know with certainty that they are equally entitled to the same rights, privileges and respect that settler Canadians enjoy. They are done with having land, children, opportunity and prosperity stolen from them. They are done with unfairness, with agreements and deals that have unendingly been stacked against them.
We settler Canadians, with our thoughts and prayers for the lost little ones—these 215 and the thousands yet to be discovered—we must applaud and abet this courageous evolvement.
And we settler Canadians, with our lowered government flags reflecting ourselves bowed in shame and regret, we must acknowledge and accept that we owe a debt to the people, our equal and fellow citizens, who lived here first.
Writer Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic recommends Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America to anyone in search of a “fascinating, often hilarious, always devastatingly truthful” read. It is all that and very enlightening.