What does reconciliation look like, especially when resource extraction and industrial development take political priority over Indigenous rights? Not the usual question on my mind when setting off on tour, but when you’re joining twenty people engaged in faith-based social justice and environmental activism, it’s no longer just about the scenery.
Earlier this year a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a ground-breaking report that made more than 90 recommendations aimed at addressing a legacy of terrible injustice and creating a new relationship with Canada’s First Nations. The group I was accompanying wanted to gain a sense of what reconciliation might look like, by visiting the people and places facing business-as-usual challenges to the environment and Indigenous land and title rights throughout the Fraser River Basin and Peace River watershed regions.
We connected with numerous First Nations leaders and activists, frontline workers, agricultural landowners and environmentalists, and scanned vast landscapes that would be lost forever if proposed industrial projects go ahead. We also visited sites that reminded us that every level of government in Canada has a long history of marginalizing and abusing Indigenous populations.
Our first stop was one such former site of attempted cultural genocide (in the words of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission), the former Coqualeetza Industrial Institute in Chilliwack, a residential school eventually claimed and repurposed by the Stó:lō Nation. It is now the home for a wide range of offices and services operate by and for the Stó:lō. Most of our visit was spent inside a more recently built cedar-clad longhouse, sharing stories with very generous local elders.
In Kamloops we moved from the historical to the contemporary: a mining company has proposed operating an open-pit copper mine in the valley above the city. Local residents described the grave environmental impacts the mine would have on the health of people and landscape, and the serious threat posed to the city and the local river system if the tailings dam ever burst. The breach at Mt. Polley was on everyone’s mind, except in this case we were told the City of Kamloops would be in the direct path of any major leak. We also learned that local First Nations were reviewing their land and title rights in the area of the proposed mine, (indeed in September, the Stk’emlupsemc of the Secwepemc Nation filed their title case to the BC Supreme Court).
The next day we stopped in at Xatśūll Heritage Village (pronounced hat-sull), a modest facility located next to the fast-moving Fraser River about 35 km north of Williams Lake. Inside a reconstructed pit-house, an elder described life past and present in the Xatśūll community, and told his own story of coming back after many years of difficulties arising from being forced to attend residential school. He took us down along the river to show us a large stone with petroglyphs. There had been many others in the area but priests convinced band members they were false idols and forced them to roll most of the petroglyph-covered rocks into the river.
When we reached Prince George we stopped at Lheidli T’enneh Memorial Park, a recently renamed city park. It was the location of a First Nations village until the inhabitants were forced to leave in 1911 to make way for the railway, and some, but not all of their ancestral remains moved with them. It is now a reminder that this was not “an empty land” and that across what is now Canada, Indigenous peoples were displaced by force, threat and false promises.
That afternoon Brenda Wilson described life along the Highway of Tears, a key area of concern around missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Her sister Ramona went missing near Smithers in June 1994 and her remains were found 11 months later but no suspect has ever been identified or charged. Brenda is also the Highway of Tears coordinator in association with Carrier Sekani Family Services in Prince George. Reflecting on what Brenda shared with us, we planted a heart garden in front of the world-famous “Mr. PG” statue – featuring our messages of solidarity and hope for the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
From Prince George we headed for Fort St. John, the epicenter for resource extraction, oil and LNG pipelines, and the proposed Site C dam. We heard about high rates of violence against women and limited services to address social problems, we learned that the land to be flooded by the dam is high quality agricultural land that was removed from the Agricultural Land Reserve without input from those affected or the general public, and we could imagine the impact on wildlife and the local climate when a river valley is replaced by a wide, 80 km long artificial lake.
Numerous stops later we ended up back in Kamloops where we met with Arthur Manuel and Nicole Schabus. Arthur is an activist First Nations leader and co-author of Unsettling Canada. He and Nicole described the kind of new relationship that was needed between First Nations and the people and government of Canada.
Our last stop was the re-purposed Kamloops Indian Residential School. The main building was closed for renovations, but the smaller building, which once contained the gymnasium and sleeping quarters for the priests and nuns, is now the Secwepemc Museum (pronounced Se-KWEP-umk-wh). The displays inside tell the story of the people who wintered in the area at least 2000 years ago, the arrival of settlers, and the legacy of oppression that included taking children from families and forcing them into residential school. As in Chilliwack and elsewhere across the country, these church-run schools were wholly designed to “kill the Indian in the child” and rid the government of further obligations towards First Nations communities. Outside are reconstructed winter pit-houses and an ethno-botanical garden.
Eight days on the road and we only scratched the surface of a deeply troubling history of oppression and the many reasons to be concerned about what lays ahead for the Indigenous peoples in Canada. But we also heard stories that gave us hope, and yes, belief that reconciliation is possible and beginning to take shape. The election of a new federal government in Ottawa provides an opportunity to push for full implementation of Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations.