One woman’s commitment to de-colonization.
SOME PEOPLE IN THE WORLD serve as profound role models. They embody our species’ best qualities—care, patience, empathy, tenaciousness, optimism—and they focus on doing “right work” that acknowledges the importance of all beings, that tries to decolonize settler relationships to the land, and that seeks justice and fairness for all. This column gives me the opportunity to meet a lot of these kinds of people.
Marion Cumming, however, is one who comes frequently to mind, not least because I spent two years working as her gardener on her wild Oak Bay property at the foot of Walbran Park. Gardening involved copious tea drinking and cookie eating in her kitchen, while we caught one another up on our projects. Now that I no longer work for her, I thought it time her achievements came to light.
Marion Cummings (Photo by Tony Bounsall)
Cumming, who calls Oak Bay a miniature Disneyland, is known for her ability to gently, persuasively, and relentlessly achieve miracles for ecosystem protection, heritage conservation, and First Nations reconciliation. The latter is earning her a place in history. Born in 1936 in Toronto, Cumming completed a BA in visual art, and then spent two years as an exchange student at the Universidad de Las Americas, in Mexico City. Living with Mexican families, she “became aware of the vast disparity between the rich and poor, and—even in Mexico—racial discrimination.” After working for the Argentine Embassy and teaching high school art in Ottawa, she moved with her husband to a New Brunswick farm, where her lifelong dedication to First Nations took flight.
Decolonization involves the un-settling of the settler mindset, which has silenced First Nations, taken their land, and used violence to attempt assimilation. In 2014, the landmark Tsilhqot’in Decision awarded Aboriginal Title to 1750 square kilometres in the BC interior. It has set a precedent for future rights and title cases, and grounds the reality that, as Cumming argues, all settlers live on “stolen land.”
But Cumming started on her mission well before the court case. In 1990, Cumming and her (now late) husband Bruce put their beliefs into action. After she was bequeathed a house by her aunt in Victoria, the Cummings donated their 288-acre New Brunswick property and home to the Wolstokwiyik Nawicowok Indigenous Sacred Land Trust, to become a healing and cultural centre. “We don’t even think of it as a gift,” she says. “It was land that was taken unjustly to begin with.”
Cumming’s daily work takes her in a dozen directions, as she petitions against development projects in the city that threaten many private parcels of the last remaining Garry oak stands by talking to mayors, councils, developers and landowners. Her sense of hope, her doggedness and her fearlessness can be awe-inspiring. In the 1970s, trying to fight development on the East Coast, she picked up the phone and asked the operator for journalist and activist Jane Jacobs’ number, which was easier to find back then, she tells me, blithely. They spent several years in conversation, Cumming consulting her when issues arose.
High on her to-do list, she tells me during tea in her garden, is “encouraging Canadians to think about returning land to Indigenous Peoples. We’re learning so much from them about respect for land and wildlife, and they deserve to feel that they’re back on their own land, with their own culture once again.”
Cumming also owns a small heritage cabin on land that fronts the Koksilah River. She and her husband agreed to give both it and her Oak Bay property, which overlooks the traditional Lekwungen village of McNeil Bay, back to First Nations upon her death. She wants both to “serve as a bridge for Indigenous Peoples and [settler] cultures.” It is, she says, “my life’s work.” Their decision has been lauded by Mohawk UVic Professor of Indigenous Governance Taiaiake Alfred, and master carver and Tsartlip First Nation member Charles Elliot.
Locally, Cumming serves on the board of the Salish Sea Biosphere Initiative, the Oak Bay Heritage Foundation and its Commission. She was also one of the founding members of the Sea-to-Sea Green Blue Belt Society, which worked to secure the Sooke Lake Watershed Lands for protection, and had the vision to conceive of a swath of protected lands that now stretch from Sooke to Saanich Inlet, helping to limit sprawl and development past the Western Communities. The first meeting of the society was held in her living room. She and Bruce were also weekly speakers at the Water District board meetings, back when it was considering logging and developing large swaths of the now protected watershed.
Cumming is an accomplished pen and ink artist and painter, and has exhibited across Canada. It’s a vocation she has used to prevent the demolition of heritage structures across the country, including the old Toronto City Hall, and the New Brunswick and the Stratford City Halls, as well as countless heritage houses. One way, she points out, of counteracting the destruction wrought by gentrification, is to get publicity for particular structures that merit being retained. In Fredericton, four months of weekly articles in the local paper, along with accompanying local art depicting the city hall, helped turn the tide. Developers nicknamed her “the velvet bulldozer” for her ability to portray the beauty and value of heritage buildings and lands.
She sketches and paints every Sunday afternoon, seeking out “rambling properties in Oak Bay and Fairfield that lie on tiny lands, surrounded by towering Douglas-fir and which have been forgotten for a century, except by developers. It’s a form of expression,” she says, “the way that music is, and it can be so healing in some ways.” Cumming volunteered in the “worst” mental hospital in Mexico, El Manicomio de Mixcoac in the late 1950s. She can still name the children she taught how to express themselves through art.
Her fight against development extends to the Juan de Fuca Lands, where her passion is leading her to campaign, along with Deborah Dickson, Stan Boychuk, Ray Zimmerman and Jacques Sirois, for the creation of a United Nations Biosphere that would encompass the CRD and the Salish Sea. Recently, the initiative received a $10,000 research grant to explore potential collaborations, including forming an Indigenous elders committee from the First Nations communities in the CRD.
“The Juan de Fuca lands are of major concern. When you look at the map, you can see the area is just laced with streams and lakes, and it really ought to be preserved.” Cumming believes that those with a yearning to develop the area, if they thought deeply about it, would realize their actions “would devastate intentions of living up to our responsibilities where climate change is concerned,” and have a change of heart. Her idealism still seems at once innocent and indomitable.
We bring the tea back inside. On her dining room table, which has become one of her desks, there are stacked books and pamphlets—on wolves, on the geology of Vancouver Island, on First Nations coastal art. She mentions the burial cairn she suspects lies in her garden, where a circle of boulders cradles a patch of bracken fern. She loads me up with two books on backyard birds and Tod Inlet and a handful of chocolates.
Her optimism in the face of dark times—the Trump administration, Trudeau’s approval and recent purchase of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, and the construction of Site-C dam—might be what impresses most upon meeting Cumming. She does not falter; she simply recalibrates and continues to work behind the scenes. To her, hope “means striving to be more loving and more humble and less selfish—it’s possible. If we’re to be serious about climate change and concerns about the environment, in a way it’s the only choice.”
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (New Star, 2012). She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.