An ugly monument

(Published in West Coast Native News, July 2014)

I live on Salt Spring Island. The adjective most used to describe this little dot in the archipelago sprawling across Canada’s Pacific coast is ‘bucolic’. Organic farms, yoga centres, pastures roamed by grazing lambs, grinning hippies on bicycles: get the picture? There’s a great deal of giving back: gap year trips to Ghana to work in medical clinics, social enterprises devoted to helping Nicaraguan coffee farmers, and general helpful neighbourliness abound.

While cultural diversity is not Salt Spring’s strong suit these days, the island is steeped in a many-thousands of years tradition of indigenous culture.

But: you wouldn’t know it to look around: most local First Nations live elsewhere, as the single reservation here is miniscule. You wouldn’t know it if you were a student in elementary or high school here, where “Canadian History” is mainly taught as beginning with European conquest. You certainly wouldn’t know it from the narrative that is passed around, distorted as a chinese whisper: realtors will breezily explain to prospective settlers that “Salt Spring was never inhabited by native people. It was a seasonal berry-gathering place for people who lived elsewhere.” Such is the lie that permeates Salt Spring: indigenous people never had claim to any of this land, so—conveniently—we aren’t colonizers here.

In fact. Every beach we picnic upon is made up of white shells: these are middens, piles of shellfish which humans have harvested and discarded for thousands upon thousands of years. Every beach where we picnic with our families has been the site of a similar scene for millennia: mothers in compatible little circles pounding clams & sharing stories. Not much changes.

Except: when smallpox swept along this coast eight out of ten of those mums had to watch their kids die, eight out of ten mums died themselves. The disease was so rapid and so dreadful that communities, eviscerated and limping along, had to relocate from Salt Spring to the big island now called Vancouver. The fact that smallpox preceded European settlers, who came to the west coast of North American a century later than their predecessors in the east, meant that those coming here for the first time found communities staggered by smallpox, and thought this was the norm.

Yet: back in its heyday, the town of Shihawt, now called Ganges, was a hub for travellers on the Salish Sea. It was one of the biggest towns in the region partly because it was on the tail end of a canoe skid that cut across Salt Spring. Travellers from other islands and the ‘big island’ could shave 8 hours off of their canoe trip over to the salmon fishing grounds on the mainland if they cut across Salt Spring, from Booth Canal in the east to Ganges Harbour in the west. I like to imagine how Ganges was back then: as now, travellers from all over gathering on the beaches, sharing news and stories from their far-flung home villages. Folks checking out one another’s painted cedar canoes and intricately carved paddles, kids running up and down the beaches in little troupes of re-united joyful cousinhood, moms holding their grandchildren for the first time… you know, ‘humanity’ aka civilization.

Somehow that entire history goes unsung. There are monuments to Japanese Canadian settlers, to war veterans, to beloved pets even, in Ganges, but not a single monument to the First Nations who created the white shell beaches we drag our modern boats up and down. Well, perhaps that’s not entirely true: there IS a monument to First Nations in our town. It’s called Grace Islet, and it’s a monument that perfectly encapsulates the attitudes towards our indigenous forbears and First Nations cousins who today live mainly on impoverished ‘reserves’ that would be recognizable to any citizen of Gaza or the South African townships.

Grace Islet is a little 1 acre slip of land off Ganges: you can step away from the cafes and clothing shops of this lovely little town and stand on Grace Point, which on low tide days is connected to the islet by a narrow land bridge. Back in the day, aboriginal communities buried their dead on islets such as Grace in order to preserve the sanctity of the ancestors. They chose islets because only gravekeepers, from long traditions trained in the rites and rituals of ancestor care, were permitted to walk among the graves. They were kept apart, so the ancestors could be properly respected.

How does modern Canadian society relate to such traditions? Well, in the case of Grace Islet, we have chosen to issue a building permit to a private developer so that a luxury house can be built directly over the burial cairns.

This is the monument to our indigenous population that we have chosen to construct. The Japanese have a garden, the veterans have a statue and a park, and the Indians have : a massive fuck you in the shape of a McMansion, planted directly on top of their cemetery.

I recognize that indigenous people who have carried the honour of their ancestors through generations and generations bear deep witness to places: places those who have unsettled themselves from their ancestral origins do not have the same attachments to. Around here, every beach and every hill is saturated in stories that go back further than memory: that indigenous ecological and cultural knowledge is precious. At the same time, we are all indigenous to our own inner landscape. The relationships we conduct with living things is guided by a moral compass that is within. In this we are all brothers and sisters, parents and children. We are family: in honour, in struggle, in Grace.

We’ve tried to put a stop to the building through due-process, and discovered that the legislative mechanisms established by colonial governments are deeply flawed, with a double-standard written in the law books when it comes to First Nations’ rights.

Diplomacy has failed. Dialogue has been refused. It is time for direct action, to ensure this house will never be built. If Barry Slawsky’s mansion is not the monument you want our generation to be remembered by, join in the movement to protect Grace Islet. Join us in standing in the face of disgrace.‪#‎nohousehere‬ Facebook: Grace Islet.