Rethinking Reconciliation: Riva Fisher on Unsettling Pemberton

I don’t want these to be her last words because my biggest personal lament about Riva’s passing on September 18 2017 at the age of 25 is not getting to read her over the years, not having the chance to follow the evolution of her thinking. But even as the silence of her passing encloses those who loved her, I revisit this article, and prepare it to share. Because I believe that this piece of hers warrants an audience. It’s based on a school paper Riva wrote at University, and revisited this past summer, after conversations with family and friends. It’s meaningful to me, because I often wonder, how does a non-indigenous person declare a place to be their home, express their deep love and sense of belonging to place? I’d explored the idea in this earlier post, and in what has become the most gratifying part of the Wellness Almanac, it inspired conversations elsewhere, and in return, even as Riva’s health was declining, this article was sent my way, as a thoughtful contribution to an ongoing dialogue.

For more from Riva, visit her recap of her week at the helm of the Wellness Almanac’s instagram account, here. The photos in this post are Riva’s, taken from that week.

It’s an invitation to think about who we are as a community, and how, as individuals, we can always rethink our past actions, with more compassion to others and to our younger selves. After all, if we aren’t growing in compassion, weren’t not really growing, are we?

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by Riva Fisher

The recent Canada 150 celebrations drew attention to deep divisions left by the legacy of colonialism in this country. While we were waving flags and celebrating 150 years of peace and prosperity, many people were expressing a growing unease at celebrating our legacy as colonizers. What about the indigenous people who were here first? What legacy did they have to celebrate?

As someone who grew up in Pemberton and went to school with kids from the Lil’wat, N’Quatqua and In-SHUCK-ch bands, I’ve struggled with concepts of racism and inequality.

“I didn’t take their land,” I used to think, “and besides, it’s ancient history”.

riva fisher

It wasn’t until I moved to New Zealand for university that I started actively educating myself on the impacts of colonialism. Just as the descendants of colonized people must internalize its effects, so too I realized, must the descendants of the colonizers.

The following is a look back at a few times in my life that stand out as having some deeper meaning within a colonial framework. These are experiences that, however trivial – and not without shame on my part, have added understanding to my life as a settler. This is my home, but knowing who I am and how that effects my interactions with people around the world and with my neighbours in this magnificent place will be a lifelong process.

Sea to Sky highway by Riva Fisher

The Haka

Every now and then people remind me of the time my brother and I did a Maori Haka in front of our elementary school. Our family had just moved back home after living in New Zealand for a year and no doubt some well meaning teacher or parent must have thought it would be a good idea to have us perform a “traditional dance” for our friends. Our school was half First Nations kids and here we were: maybe the whitest, most privileged kids in town doing a ceremonial war chant that we’d just learned while on a home exchange on the other side of the planet. Half the school belonged to a culture with a dance tradition stretching back to time immemorial, but I don’t remember them being asked to perform. That was how the relationship was in the ‘90s; people figured the safest way to discuss indigenous culture was just to not discuss it at all. After realizing how messed up the whole residential school/assimilation thing had been, they decided to loosen the grip a little—no longer “killing the Indian in the child”, just ignoring it entirely.

So there we were, slapping our chests and sticking out our tongues with all the ferocity that two 7 and 9 year old Canadian kids could possibly muster, summoning warrior strength from New Zealand, our ancestral homeland. It didn’t cross our minds then to recall the notable colonizers that feature in both sides of our lineage: our family name passed down from the Reverend TR Fisher, sent to the colonies as a missionary to salvage the heathen Maori inhabitants; or Susanna Moodie on our mother’s side, whose book “Roughing it in the Bush” was intended to describe the colonial experience to those back in the motherland looking to immigrate to Canada. Our colonial legacies ran deep and now, thanks to our Haka, we had become the school’s foremost authority on aboriginal culture for the day.

That was back in 1997. I’d barely heard of colonialism then, and the concept of “cultural appropriation” wouldn’t come to town for another 15 years, at least. At any rate, we looked pretty adorable stomping around up there and we meant well by it — but I sure won’t mind when the infamous elementary school Haka fades out of public memory forever.

The Pemberton Downtown barn by Riva Fisher

The Battle for Stl’atl’imx Day

In Grade 11, I was “elected” student body president of Pemberton Secondary. In true high school fashion, it wasn’t so much an election as a popularity contest. There was only one other girl that wanted the position, and she stepped down as soon as I reached a hundred votes. I guess she figured that the people had spoken, or at least that the system wasn’t ever going to work in her favour.

I got right to work as President, which more or less meant organizing school dances and theme days and making the occasional announcement over the PA system. One year I planned the Christmas dance to be on my birthday. We put balloons up everywhere and signs that said, “Welcome to my Birthday Party”. Some people thought that was a little cheeky, but there were four other kids who had the same birthday as I did and we all got to enjoy a giant birthday party courtesy of the school. This story isn’t about school dances though. It’s about my totally well meaning fight for bannock, and the conflicting emotions I feel thinking back on it now.

Pemberton Secondary was pretty much half First Nations kids and half white kids. For the most part, we stuck with our own. Native kids stuck with native kids, and white kids stuck with white kids. We didn’t really understand why; though I had a lingering suspicion that the native kids had gone through some sort of initiation the summer between elementary and high school and suddenly it was off limits to hang out together.

There were exceptions of course. Lots of the boys would still joke around like we always had, but the girls from Mt Currie were pretty much silent toward white kids after that. You couldn’t really blame them, but having little to no understanding of any of the traumas of colonialism, we were left wondering what the problem was, or if we’d done something to cause it. We figured they were holding onto some grudge from our ancestors stealing their ancestor’s land. But that was ancient history, right? Surely enough time had passed for them to just get over it.

The school chose to deal with racialized issues in a peculiar way. I suppose they were just trying to make up for the previous century of wrongdoing within the Canadian education system, but it came off as awfully unfair to us kids. On my first day of high school I was pushed down the stairs by a hulk of a girl.

“Fuckin’ whitey”, she said as I looked up at her dark eyes. When I went to the principal I was quickly told that she would not be punished. It would be racist to automatically assume she had done it.  As far as the school was concerned, I was the one being the troublemaker and to say anything to the contrary would be unhelpful. It was in this way that Pemberton Secondary was run: with an unspoken code of segregation and different rules and expectations for kids from different backgrounds.

Knowing what I know now, many of the things that we saw as “special treatment” were there out of necessity. A lot of these kids lived really difficult lives and didn’t have any of the resources or opportunities that the rest of us did. The school was trying to keep First Nations kids from dropping out and hoping to make it seem like a welcoming place, a difficult task given the years of deep mistrust and the unaddressed grievances. But when you’re 16 years old, you’re not thinking about intergenerational trauma and systemic inequalities when half of the school gets free pizza for lunch and you don’t. Or when half of the school is offered a chance to win an iPod and you aren’t. I was certainly not thinking of colonial injustices when Stl’atl’imx day came along and only native kids were invited to miss class and join in the celebrations. As I sat in class listening to the muffled drum echo through the hallway— the sweet, buttery scent of fresh bannock floating through the air— I decided that it was time to end the inequality (yes, I am fully aware of how painfully ignorant and naive that statement sounds).

At lunch I walked outside to join in the festivities. Some of the local elders had come in to share stories and songs, celebrating (unbeknownst to me at the time) the signing of the 1911 Lillooet Declaration, which claimed sovereignty over traditional territories of the Stl’atl’imx Nations. A circle of dancers in full regalia performed around the feast—burgers on the barbecue, and a table stacked high with candied salmon and bannock. It was a beautiful celebration, one that I was quickly asked to vacate.

“Why can’t we all celebrate?” I asked. “Why can’t we all share in the occasion?” I stood my ground, keen to uphold my presidential duty to bring justice (and bannock) to all. Mustering all my pubescent arrogance, I stood there, refusing to leave, citing “inclusion” and “sharing” and “learning” as my newly revamped presidential platform. Perhaps had I known then that it was a day specifically honouring the refusal of the local indigenous groups to keep putting up with white people’s shit, I would have backed down. But this is not a story about backing down. This is a story of a privileged white kid whining about “racial inequality” until she got her way.

I don’t remember the exact chain of events, but I know that I got my fry bread and that anyone who wanted, regardless of skin colour, was invited out to the drum circle to sing the songs and hear the stories of the elders. I remember looking around and thinking that I’d done something good for my school and my community, that at the very least I’d helped to desegregate the school that afternoon. Looking back, I know that it shouldn’t have been me demanding inclusion, that an invitation from someone within the community would have been the appropriate route, but I can’t help but feel a small sense of pride. With all the emphasis currently being placed on education as a path to reconciliation, I’m not convinced that it was so wrong to demand a more inclusive school environment. Even if bannock was the true goal in my campaign, was it so wrong to want to share and appreciate a part of my classmates’ culture?

The Locker

In Grade 8 my locker location made me the lone white girl amongst a group of First Nations boys. I don’t know how they managed to have nine together in the randomized locker selection process, but somehow I ended up square in the middle. I was the odd man out to say the least, but we all got on thick as thieves, until someone’s girlfriend would show up and stare me up and down until I’d pack my things and leave. We’d have a lot of laughs talking in native accents and using the slang, (which, regrettably, we white kids were always doing anyway but only in private). I could lock my bottom jaw and say “holy sick it’s all” (a commonly used expression to convey surprise), with my most over-the-top accent, and it was totally acceptable thanks to my newfound honorary membership in this club. We’d call each other sama7 and paqwatch (‘white devil’, and ‘white shit’, respectively), and it wasn’t racist cause we were carefree teenagers who didn’t know any better.

One day, while absent-mindedly undoing my locker, I looked up in horror to see all the boys staring at me. I stopped singing immediately. Surely, not even my honorary membership would make this OK. “The RCMPs Always Chasing Me” is a song by an indigenous parody rap group that lists unsavory stereotypes of native people to a funky hip hop beat. To put it in perspective, “the RCMPs always chasin’ me, cause I stole six cases of Mr.Clean” is the least offensive line of the chorus. It was not the line I happened to be singing as I stood at my locker, surrounded by kids who the stereotypes actually applied to. I froze, and tried to stutter out an apology. I’d ruined everything. My closet teenage racism had finally reared its ugly head for the world to see.

They kept staring at me for what seemed like eternity before finally bursting into laughter. One of the boys pulled out his iPod with a speaker, and they all sang along with every word. I laughed nervously, but didn’t join in the singing. I knew they wouldn’t mind if I did, but I’d suddenly become keenly aware of what an outsider I was. They could laugh at these stereotypes, but I had not earned that right. I had not lived through the experiences that they had, and had no idea how harmful the implications of these words could be. Not even the location of my locker could change that.

The Outrigger Race

Long before the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria carried Columbus to the shores of the New World; Polynesians sailed throughout the South Pacific in outrigger canoes. The outrigger is a boat built for waves, a canoe with a float attached for stability. They are still hugely significant amongst Polynesian cultures, and in recent years have started to find popularity within paddling communities in the West. While most canoe sports tend toward a European demographic, Outrigger belongs to the Polynesians. Every few years the World Championships bring together racers from Tahiti, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Rapanui, Samoa, and every other island in the South Pacific big enough to put six paddlers together for a team. Outrigger is so culturally significant, Hawaiian teams represent themselves as a sovereign nation, completely autonomous from the United States and New Zealand paddlers hail from Aotearoa, the Maori name meaning, “land of the long white cloud”. In 2012 the event was held in the tropical, Oceanic paradise that is Calgary, Alberta. The boat that helped populate the South Pacific finding its new home on the Glenmore Reservoir, the dam that provides the city with its water (no swimming allowed).

My dad was racing on Team Canada that year and my best friend from New Zealand happened to be visiting for the summer. We decided to road trip to Alberta to join the festivities. If supporting my Dad meant having to gaze at the perfectly sculpted Polynesian paddlers all day, we would make the sacrifice.

The opening ceremony always involves a cultural demonstration in which each team is asked to perform a song or dance representative of their country’s traditions. In 2008, when I raced with Team Canada, our junior team choreographed a line dance to the tune of “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy”. As poor a display of “Canadian culture” as it was, the audience loved it and they all leapt up for their chance to spin and boot-scoot like the cowboys did.

We arrived in Calgary just as the junior team was finishing their line dance, before the Hawaiians descended with all the grace and elegance of the traditional Hula. As the assorted islands pitted their various Hakas against each other, it became impossible not to feel overcome with cultural inadequacy—Canada’s line dance appearing more silly and frivolous with each passing chant. There was so much importance and meaning behind these performances, histories and stories thousands of years in the making. Hakas had been used to intimidate opponents in war, to bestow honour upon distinguished guests, to celebrate, and to mourn. In 1769, when Captain Cook first arrived at the island of Aotearoa, the Maori Haka awaiting him on shore was amongst the first documented interactions with the newly ‘discovered’ people. The resilience and strength that has allowed this tradition to endure through so much colonial hardship, and the significance that it continues to have within NZ society at large is staggering.

Fortunately, someone organizing the event had had the foresight to invite a local First Nations group to perform a traditional chicken dance at the end of the ceremony. The cultural shame I’d been experiencing was temporarily displaced. Canada did have more to offer than denim shorts, plaid shirts and cowboy hats; it just meant retracing and refuting our colonial past in order to find it.

The Tangi

On the last day of races in Calgary, a 70-year-old man paddling with one of the Hawaiian teams suffered a massive heart attack while competing. “He died doing what he loved,” his family would later say. None of us watching from the stands could tell what was going on when the racers started shouting and waving their paddles in the air. Slumping over after a race was the universal sign of having tried your hardest—energy left over after the finish line was energy wasted and could turn even the closest teammates against each other. My brother used to puke after every race; just to prove to everyone that he had done his best, that there was literally nothing left inside him. Back in the spectator stands confusion had turned to shock when a body was pulled from the boat onto the dock. An enormous pause followed as we held our collective breath. The silence was chilling, broken only by hushed murmurs and the far off voices of the oblivious. When finally the group who had clustered around backed away, we could just make out the outline of a body underneath a sheet.

Out of respect, the races were postponed. Alice and I slunk away to try and get a grasp on what we’d just seen. It was hard to comprehend how suddenly the day had changed, how something so innocent had become so harsh and unforgiving. We wrestled with our emotions, holding back tears for fear of looking weak and infantile. We hadn’t even known this man, who were we to take so much sorrow from his death?

When we returned, the street that ran through the park down to the racecourse was lined on either side with people coming to pay respects. Teams from all over the world had gathered, paddles in hand, to honour their fallen comrade. The first cry came from a giant Maori man standing across from me with his chest puffed out and shoulders back. His arms and legs were fully covered in the traditional spiraled Moku tattoos of New Zealand making his team uniform almost redundant. His voice reverberated through the crowd, commanding the attention of all who had gathered. The reply was deafening—a cacophony of unrestrained shrieks and shouts from hundreds of Polynesian men and women. Their eyes opened wide, exposing the whites as far as they would go, while their teeth gnashed with anticipation. With each call and answer, the intensity grew. Here came the tongues, the grunts, the deep powerful breaths. As the leader let out a final summoning cry, a great, unified chant erupted out from the procession— the raw emotion bursting out from each member as if they were on the front lines of war.

Holding nothing back they slapped their chests, legs and arms in aggressive rhythm, the pain of burning skin allowing catharsis. Each movement carried significance, every action and phrase a specific message to help guide the transition from one world to the next. As the hearse slowly began to move through the parade, visceral cries shot out at random, unbridled expressions of grief, anger and sorrow. When the car passed, the mass knelt down, planting their fists firmly in the ground.

When the bagpipe began to wail I couldn’t help but feel frustration. Never before had I seen such a poignant and emotive manner of addressing death than what had just been presented. While it was no doubt meant in good faith, the bagpipes chiming in felt like the Imperial hand reaching out and offering the “correct” way to mourn. The abrasive droning of the bagpipe resonated with the irony of colonizers ‘teaching’ when often, we would have done well to learn.

Attempting to understand my identity as a descendent of settlers in a community defined by its colonial history forces me to question and reevaluate how I fit in.

When I was born my dad paddled his outrigger canoe through the icy flows of the Lillooet River. Inspired by the Maori custom “Whakapapa”, he buried my placenta at the foot of what my family now affectionately calls “Riva’s Rock”. Like all those who came before me, settler and indigenous alike, I am grounded in this place. I am an outsider, a settler in a land that does not belong to me, and yet this is where I passionately call home.

Understanding my place in this home will require much listening and learning but I am glad that with events like Canada 150, the discourse has finally begun.

river and matt


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