Reflections on our rightful place on Earth.
Earth rises above the moon’s horizon, as captured by Apollo 9
A CORRESPONDENT WHO IDENTIFIED as a member of the Haida Nation recently commented on a piece I wrote for FOCUS about the role of renaming in the process of decolonizing our thinking about this province, one still draped in the symbols of oppressive colonial authority, from place names to architecture to public art.
It was a thoughtful comment and raised points about which I’ve been reflecting and trying to think through responses that are respectful and equally thoughtful, entangled as they are in a perplexing complexity.
First there’s the observation that: “You and your people were not invited here.”
Well, there’s no disputing that. I wasn’t invited. And yet here I am.
The implication of the statement, of course, is that since I came uninvited, perhaps I should disinvite myself. But the uncomfortable fact is that for three-quarters of a century I have known no other place. I’m here and for me, really, there is nowhere else to go. I didn’t come here of my own volition. I came as a tiny infant. I wasn’t consulted and I was offered no choice in the matter.
And this is even more true of people who aren’t part of Indigenous communities but who were born here—my brothers were all born here, for example, so they aren’t from somewhere else, they’re from here—as are our children, our children’s children and in a few cases, our children’s children’s children.
Others who are not Indigenous have even longer lineages in what’s now BC. Some can trace their genealogies back to the early 1800s.
Telling somebody with perhaps seven generations of ancestors born here that they’re not invited may be satisfying to say but in pragmatic terms it doesn’t really move us in a meaningful way toward a lasting or just solution.
I’ve run into challenges to the legitimacy of my presence here before. And not only from some members of Indigenous communities whose expressions of resentment and anger over the whole ugly, abusive legacy of colonialism I certainly understand and, to some extent, accept as inevitable and perhaps even just.
In the larger context, though, I believe allowing anger and resentment to shape what we say or do is almost always counterproductive. Anger, if you permit it to own you, never leads anywhere good. Even our bodies, faced with constant inflammation, cease to function properly. So, I believe, it is with the spirit.
For example, consider the exculpatory, deflecting “whataboutism” and defensive rhetoric that has arisen from some non-Indigenous quarters of mainstream society upon having the cruel injustice of the residential school system drawn to its attention and then being asked to think about accountability. Who should be held accountable? What should redress look like?
That angry response leads nowhere except into an unsustainable and dysfunctional swamp of denial. There’s no denying the reality of what happened, nor is there any excusing it. Denial prevents us from dealing with what happened. These were children who we victimized. Children! Blaming the victims for drawing our attention to the injustice of their victimization by us is unconscionable.
Misguided non-Indigenous response
I’ve also been told by non-Indigenous people who were born in BC that as an immigrant I have no right to comment upon events here and that I’m unwelcome and that I should either shut up or get out and “go home.” A few even offered to come and physically assist me in departing—“I’ll come and punch your lights out,” said one cheery note from Port Alice.
Some of this I found amusing, since in most cases it turned out that I’d actually been in the province half a century longer than had the folks saying that as a newcomer I had no right to be here.
Most of this ill will erupted into my in-basket whenever I wrote about resource exploitation issues, or shoddy environmental standards and the impending crises of global warming, loss of biological diversity, or the need for less rapacious harvesting of forests, fish and minerals.
A significant number of these non-Indigenous correspondents, however, took greatest affront at my writing about the obligation upon the dominant culture to face up to the need for justice for First Nations; to address their indisputable rights not to be economically marginalized, socially victimized by stereotypes; to govern themselves locally instead of being governed by distant bureaucrats in Ottawa; to have what has been done acknowledged instead of consigned to a collective national amnesia; and to expect redress rather than a gloss of “what-aboutism” and excuses.
I understand the source of that resentment. It comes out of fear, uncertainty, historical ignorance, a sense that there were powerful forces at work marginalizing individuals who had no power to resist what threatened their families and their livelihoods. Just as I understand the resentment expressed by some Indigenous voices at the heedless non-Indigenous majority which has enriched itself by appropriating and exploiting resources to which it had no unilateral right and which until recently seemed incapable of bearing witness to its own wrongdoings.
Which brings me to the second point made by the note from Haida Gwaii: “You and your people are not welcome here.”
The expression of that feeling, however understandable to me or satisfying for the speaker, doesn’t advance the conversation very far.
I’m here—that’s a simple fact.
I’m not welcome—well, that’s a feeling about a fact.
A fact that has to be addressed before we can get to addressing the feeling about it.
The fact is this. I’m here and I’m not going anywhere. And neither are the 5.1 million other British Columbians, 4.8 million of whom are not Indigenous, and who, whether welcome or not, are not going anywhere either.
Indeed, the math indicates the real growth of non-Indigenous numbers in BC is going to continue to exceed the real growth of the Indigenous population here in illahie (meaning ‘country’ or ‘earth’ or ‘land’ in Chinook) for the foreseeable future.
The birth rate for the Indigenous population is high, about four times higher than that of the non-Indigenous population, but it is nevertheless subject to the tyranny of numbers. There are about 8,200 Indigenous births in BC each year, but there are about 32,000 non-Indigenous births. Add to that the net population increase of 10,000 from inter-provincial migrants and immigrants to Canada and the difference is even greater.
By 2031, at those rates, the Indigenous population will have grown from 270,000 to 352,000 people. Over the same decade the non-Indigenous population will have grown by about five times that—around half a million—and the overall population will have grown from 5.1 to 5.9 million.
Even though the First Nations population has now surpassed what it’s thought to have been around the time that the colonial era began (and is now 10 times what it was at its nadir), the culturally dominant non-Indigenous majority is probably going to remain numerically dominant for centuries to come.
One thing seems clear. In a society with such disproportionate asymmetry between Indigenous culture and the mainstream, a progressive engagement is essential. Angry yelling at one another, retreating into self-justifying bubbles of cultural solitude, will simply mean that natural entropy will lead to the dominant culture unilaterally imposing its interpretation of how things should be, likely without even thinking about it.
The only thing we can change is the future
The pragmatic reality is that the past is messy. It’s filled with both despicable people and saintly ones; with great injustices and with ethical triumphs. We discover wicked acts among our ancestors and virtuous ones; there are the venal and there are the incorruptible; the misguided and the wise; there’s structural privilege and there’s altruism.
But the past is also changeless. As a wiser writer than I once pointed out, the past is a foreign country. We can read reports about it from a few who have been there but we can never go there ourselves. We can’t change it. The only thing we can change is our future.
So how do we do that? Where do we go from here? What can we change in our immediate future, the same future which will become our children’s past? How do we make the future better than the past from which our troubled present derives?
These are knotty, difficult questions. Yet that’s where we need to focus our energy, even if for some of us the engine of that energy is anger or resentment.
The worst side of us will always urge us to angry rhetoric that’s often intended more to wound than to engage; or to excuse and absolve ourselves of past injustices rather than take collective responsibility.
But remember this—the best side of us will always strive to do our best for each other and for the home we are going to have to share.
Okay, as the Haida writer observed, I wasn’t invited. And I and my people are not welcome here. I hear that.
But since we’re here to stay, and we’re not going away, what next?
And who, exactly are “my people”? Well, one of “my people,” at least in my immediate family, is First Nation by birth with ancestry in northern BC that goes back at least 10,000 years, probably far longer. And then, of course, there’s me, fresh off the boat but nonetheless here longer than about 90 percent of BC’s population—at my age there aren’t many who have been here longer than me. Quick generalizations (and I’ve made a few myself in my time), generally, are a bad place to start a conversation.
We hear disgruntled rhetoric from everywhere in these parlous times. Claims that Canada has no legitimacy because it was founded in an undeniable injustice; that Canada should be dismembered because of ancient wrongs perceived in Quebec or because of recent wrongs perceived in Alberta, or, indeed, even that Vancouver Island should separate from British Columbia because it doesn’t get a fair shake from the mainland; claims that the fabric of Canada’s identity is threatened by people who are of different race, culture, religion, even sense of personal self. Muslims, Jews, Asians, Americans, Blacks, Christians, atheists, First Nations, white people, the transgendered—the list of grievances is long.
But all this griping leads to a question. If not Canada, what? If not British Columbia, what? If not a culturally diverse nation, what? The question brings to mind the old aphorism that dishevelled, unruly, frustrating, irritating, maddening democracy is the worst possible choice for a government—until you consider the limitations, impositions and inherent injustices that all the others represent. Canada, at least, has the power and flexibility with which it may remake itself as a better version of what went before.
So, how do we go forward in this complicated time to make our shared home a better place? Do we burn it all down, as some propose? If we do that, what do we build in the ruins we create? And how do we do it in a way that means justice for all and not just for some? Do we ignore past wrongs? Then how do we ever reconcile with those who were wronged—or who wronged us?
The notion of ownership is an invention
The last point made by my critic from Haida Gwaii had to do with ownership.
If I own property in BC, the writer observed, the title to it only derives from laws passed by Queen Victoria. Perhaps I should instead write a piece making awkward legal arguments as to how I’m the rightful owner of what the writer describes as “my people’s land.”
Well, there’s indeed truth in that statement, although in my case I actually live by choice on treaty land and while there’s disagreement about what the two parties understood their original agreement to mean, further complicated by the passage of more than 150 years and the vast demographic, social, political and economic changes that none of them could have imagined, there’s a process for sorting those differences out by discussion, negotiation, good faith and, if necessary, the law, which however imperfect is what we have.
Several years ago, I had the privilege of being invited to be one of the formal witnesses at a conference jointly hosted by the Songhees First Nation, elders and cultural leaders from other First Nations around Victoria, and scholars from the University of Victoria to discuss what it meant to be treaty people.
I found it a remarkable and heartening coming together of wise men and women who were, indeed, trying to make respectful sense of who we are and what we want to become together.
The notion of ownership is an invention. It’s a way of trying to create an illusion of certainty for ourselves in an existence in which the norm is uncertainty. Ultimately, none of us owns anything, we just prefer to think we do because it gives us a feeling of certainty, Yet we are all only sojourners for a brief time and we’re all heading for the same exit, however much we surround ourselves with the material possessions, personal relationships, families, communities, tribes, nations and empires with which we create an illusion of permanence.
Live long enough and we’re destined to lose everything: what we own, the people we love, our memories and the consciousness that’s the sum of our perceptions. Naked we come, owning nothing, and naked we depart, taking nothing.
Am I the rightful owner in moral terms of Indigenous people’s land? No. Am I the owner according to the legal conventions of the moment? Yes. Could those conventions change? Perhaps, if we can agree on how. For example, joint sovereignty is not exactly an unusual concept. Our political landscape is already layered with overlapping jurisdictions—federal and provincial, provincial and municipal, legal and social, private and public tenures.
In terms of overlapping Crown and aboriginal titles, why not add a small tax to all private and residential properties and direct it as a reliable, predictable revenue stream to the First Nations that have underlying claims to original title?
We do it for libraries, schools, volunteer fire departments, sidewalks and street lights. It needn’t be onerous. Frankly, adding a couple of mills to the property tax rate and directing it to First Nations governments probably wouldn’t even be noticed by most property owners.
But those are details. There’s a more important question. Do I have a right to my place on Earth? Yes. And where is my place? Well, it’s here regardless of any wrangling over who owns what and to what degree. A conundrum perhaps best answered by two young Dene hunters I met in the sub-Arctic bush more than half a century ago.
They were gutting and butchering a caribou they had just shot.
I remember them grinning at me, up to their elbows in entrails, while I asked them about the magma pool of hostility that had recently welled-up in the resource-reliant non-Indigenous community in response to the filing of a land claim against the entire Mackenzie River Valley where both oil and gas pipelines and a highway were planned.
One of them looked up laughing and said: “They think we want to own the land. That makes them mad. We can’t own the land. Nobody can own the land. The land owns us.”
I’ve thought about that wisdom many times since, the way it frames the prevailing illusion that any of us actually owns anything.
We don’t, of course. All of us are just passing through, brief sojourners in the vast rolling tapestry of life. Everything we think we have must be surrendered and lost. The people we love most. Property. Material possessions. The beauties of sunsets and wind storms and seasons unfolding. All this will pass from our hearts, from our memories and finally from our minds and our ability to even sense their existence.
Perhaps, as some believe, spirits return. Perhaps, as others believe, they don’t and we simply dissipate into the everything and the nothing that comprises the universe. Nobody knows.
Our ideas of ownership, property, permanence, certainty are all illusions. We do have a duty though. A duty to good stewardship on behalf of those who will be here after we have departed, a duty to kindness to those with whom we share our brief journey, a duty to justice, a duty to do our best to act in good faith.
We’re all in the same canoe
In this time of fire and flood, vanishing species, environmental refugees in the tens of millions—including here in BC in our present moment—the looming imminence of catastrophic climate change that is reshaping the global ecosphere, perhaps we’d all do better to heed what a Tseshaht elder told me many years ago.
I was not long out of high school. It was the year after Canada’s 100th anniversary and in a flash of youthful enthusiasm after hearing him speak at a public lecture, I decided I had to go to Port Alberni to talk to George Clutesi about art. I persuaded my 19-year-old girlfriend to drive me there in her ancient and unreliable Volkswagen Beetle and she bravely took me over the hump from Nanaimo in a blinding snow storm.
I’d first met him as a nine-year-old. He was a friend of my dad. George was a janitor at the Alberni residential school where he’d once been an inmate for 11 years. At least, that was the day job that supported his writing, art, and shepherding a resurgence in dance and song. Emily Carr had bequeathed him her unused canvases, paint and brushes when she died which tells you the esteem in which he was held. While he was working at the residential school—despite being told not to by administrators—he began re-introducing a new generation of children to their traditions of song, dance and art.
He invited his two unexpected young visitors in and talked for a long time about art both in the context of Tseshaht traditions and of its place in the larger world of European and Asian art.
But the one thing that he said that has stuck so vividly in my memory that I can still hear him saying it, his old dog snoring on the rug and the rich scent of a roasting tyee salmon wafting out of his kitchen, was this:
“We’re all in the same canoe,” he said. “We can learn to paddle it together or we’ll capsize it and we can drown together.”
Learning to paddle together into the future, that’s the objective of reconciliation. What does reconciliation look like? I don’t know. Different people have different ideas about that. Which vision is right? I don’t know. That can only be determined by agreeing what it looks like and talking out how to get there.
Finding consensus can only come of talking it through. Reconciliation, it seems to me, requires finding what we have in common and celebrating those things while learning to accept, respect and tolerate our differences.
The canoe is already at sea. There’s a big storm coming. Everybody in our canoe has a right to be here. Where it goes is up to us. Paddle together or drown together.
Seems like a pretty straightforward choice.
Stephen Hume spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. His byline has appeared in most major Canadian newspapers. The author of nine books of poetry, natural history, history and literary essays, he lives on the Saanich Peninsula.