Vancouver's Fog

Breaking a nation's silence

by Maia Wikler; illustrations by Marika Pitot

The sand of Jericho Beach reflected the hazy pinks and soft violets of sunrise. The North Shore mountains loomed in the distance, topped with snow. To the east rose the skyscrapers of downtown Vancouver, a reminder of the rapid urban city development that began 30 years ago. I stopped running and stood breathless, my mind racing with the enormity of the research and the complexity of the social issue I was about to immerse myself in. I came to Vancouver, British Columbia to investigate how cross-cultural miscommunication negatively impacts social movements for Indigenous rights.

In British Columbia, the lands are unceded and contentious. The history of forced cultural assimilation, genocide, oppression and displacement is all too fresh. The last residential boarding school closed in 1996. We are only one generation removed from the time of its activity, and the wound of that trauma still festers. Here, the extensive indigenous art and motifs that adorn popular locales such as town centers, parks, shops and the Vancouver International Airport mask the ongoing complexity of aboriginal rights, political injustices and the history of aboriginal cultural negligence. The artistic indigenous presence is substantial. Nonetheless, as Lynne Davis noted in her book “Alliances,” “Little has been written about aboriginal collective acts of resistance, the longest social movement in Canadian history, and current dissent regarding land rights, preservation of sacred traditions and self-governance.” Indigenous culture has become a facet of popular Canadian culture, yet behind the façade of multiculturalism, legal action over land claims and other First Nation rights persists. There is use of aboriginal iconography while there are significant human rights issues at stake on the national and community level. 

I wanted to pursue the question of how the general public in Vancouver is communicating and perceiving this issue. Throughout the month, I collected over 20 hours of interview recordings. Each person I interviewed shared a different story and understanding of First Nations in British Columbia. I expected the larger insights from the research to come from the answers to my interview questions, but my research developed a new question as a result of the difficulty I had interviewing various Vancouver community members. I experienced overwhelming reluctance from everyday people about speaking on this culturally and racially sensitive topic. Gaston Gordillo, professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, responded to an interview request through e-mail: 

“Dear Maia, 

Thanks for your e-mail but I don’t really work on aboriginal issues in B.C. so there’s not much I can say on the subject matter. Best of luck in your work.” 

This wasn’t the first or last response I received to an interview request in which the person immediately declined, saying they had little to offer on the topic. I found this problematic: are professional experts the only people outside of the First Nations communities comfortable with discussing issues of human rights in British Columbia?

There are many First Nations communities within British Columbia. Their artwork is displayed throughout galleries, tourist shops, highways and tunnels. They even appear on the city’s sewage drain covers. The media frequently reports on various First Nations issues, sometimes through “racist economic sound bites,” a Musqueam museum employee said to me. How can it be that there is nothing to be said on a cultural community that is present in public spaces and mediums?

One afternoon, while working at a local coffee shop, I spoke with an older woman who agreed to an interview after I thoroughly explained that I wasn’t looking for expert opinions and was only interested in how these issues are perceived and communicated within the general community. Throughout the interview, she expressed her initial discomfort with talking about the issue of indigenous rights. She began by saying, “Oh gosh, see I don’t even know where to begin because I don’t even know what to call them. What’s the right term? Is it Native?” It seemed that the research began to extend beyond the ways in which people speak about Indigenous rights, raising an integral question: What generates this silence of the ongoing complexities of cultural oppression and human rights? 

This perpetual wariness to discuss Indigenous rights in Vancouver seems to stem from concerns of being found politically incorrect or feeling inadequately informed. When I asked a woman I met at the Museum of Anthropology about barriers to communicating about Indigenous issues, she responded, “The mechanism that needs to exist to let us talk about differences isn’t in place. How do we translate to one another? In school, we made tipis. That was how we learned about the First Nations. It was sanitized, and these objects weren’t contextualized.  I really feel like I should know more, but I don’t.”

I asked a University of British Columbia student named Richard, head of the Indigenous Students Association, about the trepidation amongst non-Aboriginal community members in talking and engaging with Indigenous issues. He said, “We would rather you ask us questions. Let’s get the story right, and then this idealist Disney world comes apart. We are only known as the dead, the dying, the drumming or the diseased. Embracing culture has to do with the way it’s presented and learned, and then there will be some understanding.”  I then asked Richard how to be politically correct and culturally sensitive when referring to any one part of the Indigenous community. “It’s always changing. At one point it was Native, then aboriginal, now the Canadian government really likes First Nation. But generally, I prefer Indigenous. That is the term used by the United Nations and is the only title that hasn’t been forced upon us by the Canadian government.”

The silencing of this issue feels like a never-ending Vancouver fog. It blurs the land and the horizon, and there is a subtle glimpse that something else is there, but nothing can truly be seen. Silence is a fog; it clouds the reality and drowns out the voices of a minority. But how do we break it? Asking questions allows for critical thinking and acknowledgement. While in Vancouver, I kept thinking about Colorado College as a participating proponent in silencing this issue. There is a significant lack of courses at CC that teach in a decolonialized context. The few courses at CC on Indigenous issues are offered sporadically and through specific lenses, such as law and religion. There is little community engagement with CC and the local indigenous community between the student body and raise awareness of the history of the Southwest and the current issues Indigenous communities face. The other day, the CC website posted a photo of a student for the block "Field Study: Religion and Colonialism." The caption read, “The students heard directly from American Indians about their people’s experience of Spanish and American colonialism and witnessed the creativity of their religious responses.” Everything about this caption is problematic, beginning with the American Indian reference. In this context, the word Indian has derogatory and racist roots, while “American” implies assimilation to the American society. Viewers cannot know which tribe this class interacted with. CC’s engagement with Indigenous cultural and human rights simply does not compare to the University of British Columbia. UBC has signs throughout campus reading, “Today your host is Musqueam,” recognizing the Indigenous communities that lived on the land before UBC. 

CC could begin by providing a more accurate history of the school and place in a pre-colonial context. The West in Time requirement has little focus on Indigenous cultural rights issues and the history of cultural genocide throughout the United States, especially the Southwest. CC could create a Human Rights minor or Indigenous Studies minor/major that focuses on these issues. Even better, the school could employ Indigenous professors to teach courses that involve Indigenous issues.

Imagine what cultural loss would feel like. Your mother or father would have been abducted from their homes to attend residential boarding schools infamous for the inhumane treatment and slew of abuses of its “students.” At the facilities, the students in residential schools suffered from malnourishment, inadequate clothing, rampant disease, physical and sexual abuse and punishment for displaying any traditional cultural practices. These schools had a 50% mortality rate. An electric chair was used as punishment for children who didn’t comply with the strict assimilative rules. Once your parents ended school and reunited with their community, they would have lost their native tongue and would be left unable to communicate with the ones they loved. 

The last residential school closed in 1996. The trauma of forced cultural assimilation continues in the prevalence of suicide, alcohol and substance abuse and long-term emotional issues. The survivors of these schools are around our parents’ age. The pain of cultural genocide continues to transfer onto each consecutive generation. Not only has your family suffered a system of forced assimilation, the government continually changes and controls your rights. Land that had once been occupied by your ancestors for thousands of years was forcefully acquired through the forces of colonialism in just a hundred years. But this trauma isn’t in the past. Today, land that had been designated as your reservation continues to be taken by the government for resource extraction. And now, to become independent and educated, you have to comply with the white Western system. Your community now predominantly speaks English, and the history of your ancestors and your parents is taught through the Disney World lens of Pocahontas. If you’re lucky enough to go to university, you’ll see white students drunk on Halloween wearing the regalia and clothing of your relatives, without a glimmer of recognition of the history of that piece of clothing. It has become a costume, adorning the body of those who have no connection to the cultural meaning and significance, ultimately continuing to spur subtle prejudices and culturally oppressive actions. 

We need to ask ourselves, as the next generation, whether we are going to continue to perpetuate this silence. Lack of cultural awareness ultimately perpetuates the absence of support, and cross-cultural alliances, and hinders the movements for Indigenous rights. As humans, we identify and understand ourselves through culture. If our culture is stripped from us, so is our humanity.