Within the regional district’s population of 42,665 residents, more than 3,000 are First Nations. We co-inhabit a region that is also traditional and unceded territory for several Nations, including the Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), St’át’imc and Lil’wat. Small parts of the SLRD also overlap with the traditional territories of the Stó:lō, Tsleil-Waututh, Nlaka’pamux, Tsilhqot’in, and Secwepemc Nations.
Many of these communities are not welcoming visitors right now. Even as we have been invited by our Provincial Health Officer to slowly adjust the dial, cautiously expand our bubbles and move about a little more freely, we are being asked to do that respectfully, and to ascertain the warmth of the welcome of anywhere we plan to travel to.
Here’s some history most of us didn’t learn in school:
• In 1927 the Government of Canada amended the Indian Act 1876 to tighten control on First Nations people and First Nations and, making it illegal for First Nations people to hire lawyers or raise money to hire legal counsel. Anyone who loaned money to First Nations people for lawyers or legal counsel was liable to a jail sentence. This legislation was in place until 1951.
• 150,000 children, over several generations, were forcibly separated from their families and sent to residential school, and prohibited from speaking their languages. At least 6,000 children died there – many families were never informed of the deaths of their children. The stated goal of the residential schools, that were run in BC from the 1920s until the mid-1990s, was “to kill the Indian in the child.” These schools were not a community or social service. The subsequent language loss has meant that only a small handful of fluent speakers remain today, although dedicated work is being done to revitalize the language. Some people have called their community’s elders “walking talking totem poles” – living bearers of a precious and beloved culture. The loss of every elder, of any fluent speaker, could be likened to the destruction of a museum full of artefacts – the loss is not just personal, it’s cultural.
• Huge numbers of BC First Nations died from smallpox on first contact in the 1770s and 1780s. BC’s first official epidemic occurred in 1862 when a gold-seeker coming from San Francisco brought smallpox with him. On the coast alone, roughly half the indigenous population died when the colonial government refused to provide immunization or enforce a quarantine to prevent the spread of infection. The 1862 epidemic left mass grave sites and devastated First Nations communities – with each death to the epidemic, invaluable stories, knowledge and skills were also lost. The massive population decline paved the way for colonists to move further into indigenous lands without establishing treaty relations.
I think it’s important for those of us who aren’t members of a First Nation, and who move through the world with a privilege we might just be learning to identify or name, to acknowledge that this pandemic might feel very different had our families lived through these waves of loss and devastation. Getting out to the lake might not feel as urgent as keeping our elders and our health-compromised members safe.
As Dr. Henry has said of this time: We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat. Some are in a luxury yacht and some are in a leaky dinghy.
There is much work to be done, addressing systemic racism in our lives and our systems. One very basic place we can start is by respecting the safety requests that First Nations are making when they ask people to keep a respectful distance. The beaches and trails and campsites and lakes will always be there. COVID-19 won’t.
We’ve been calibrating and filtering so many of our choices in the past 3 months through the lens of “is this essential? or Is this necessary?” Is it necessary to grocery shop every day or can you accommodate better planning and less frequent shops in order to reduce risk to everyone? Is it actually essential to be in a shared office when technology provides the tools to do that from a distance? It’s been challenging and inconvenient and the sense of hardship and loss is real. But, is it necessary to impose on communities who are still practicing phase 1 restrictions in order to keep their families and their elders safe?
Perhaps one of the best ways we can acknowledge this Indigenous History Month or National Indigenous History Day on June 21 is to consciously choose to behave differently than has been done in the past, and to move towards more respectful relationships, by respecting the different vessels we’re in, as we continue navigate this storm.
Chair, Squamish-Lillooet Regional District