September 2020: The images below are part of a work-in-progress called “Unsettling: A Shadow/Land Project” exploring my relationship to the place in which I am now living.
I embarked on the journey in April to more consciously do what I’ve always done as a former journalist and writer: Get out of the car, or the train, or the city and find out where I am and who is there. I am doing this in relation to an art project my sister and I are launched upon but it’s something I’ve wanted to do since I moved to the Lower Mainland.
How it might begin
I thought as I began this work that I might, for once, get out of the car near the Tsawwassen ferry terminal where I have been a thousand times over the decades, and turn left rather than head into Vancouver.
I might within two minutes be driving past the little cemetery on the quiet road that traverses Tsawwassen First Nation community lands, where I can see the school buses and Elders’ vans parked in front of the Nation’s office. I could walk on the boardwalk of a land facing the sea and, looking past the towering cranes and container ships at the Roberts Bank port, imagine how things were a short 170 years ago before Europeans arrived.
I could peer into the faces of the eagle and the human on the carved pole lying on the ground in front of the bighouse. And I could begin to learn about what has happened here – about how the nation’s longhouse was demolished to make way for the BC Ferries Terminal expansion in 1958, about the nation’s devastating loss of lands and rights, about the massive Roberts Bank global shipping port smack on its doorsteps whose eerie lights slice the coastal dusk – and about the bold steps the Tsawwassen (or, in the Halkomelem language of the Fraser River Salish peoples: the sc̓əwaθən məsteyəxʷ ) are taking for their peoples’ future.
I could go to the now virtually eradicated St. Mary’s residential school at Mission on the Fraser River, where so many of the region’s Stó:lō children were forcibly taken in order to erase their sense of place, their culture, their language, and their identities.
I could ask why that history itself is erased in a municipal park in Kwantlen territory that commemorates local settler history and yet leaves the residential school’s story untouched. Out-of-date signs on the grounds where visitors can step across the exposed foundations of the girls’ or boys’ former dormitories merely state that information has been removed for future replacement. The signs are old.
I could go to the canneries at Steveston and come to a better understanding of an ancient salmon fishery – one that has been managed for millennia by the peoples of the river. Here, I could begin to grasp its transformation into an industrialized resource imposed by a settler culture that has brought a globally significant fishery to the brink of collapse in 2020 – after a mere 190 or so years.
I could go the sites of oil refineries and pipelines on Indian Arm that threaten the lands and waters of the Tsleil Watuth. Or to Fort Langley where the Kwantlen played such a crucial role in the support of the ‘xwiletem ‘ or hungry people as the traders and newcomers were called. I could walk 2 or 3 kilometres to the shore of the Fraser River at New Westminster and imagine how the Qayqayt came to be only First Nation in Canada registered without a land base.
Knowing my place….
It’s a start. It’s a step toward moving past generalized acknowledgment that we are on the un-ceded territories of the Coast Salish Peoples and toward grappling with the specific stories of specific peoples, to understand more deeply, more personally, who is here and what our relationship to the story of these territories is.
It’s also perhaps the only way we can look into a mirror and come to grips with the fundamental nature of our own culture and its relationship to land and resources – and each other.
As I walked in the parks at Pitt Marsh and Indian Arm, or along the beaches of so many of the Nations who live amongst us, or past the reserves hidden under massive bridges or on marginalized tracts of land, I took photographs.
As I was alone most of the time, I started to notice my shadow cast on the lands on which I walked; a shadow intruding on the images I wanted to take.
A shadow is insubstantial, real and not real; it blocks light, and masks identity; it is both ominous and threatening, and yet a universal symbol in stories that transcend culture. As I looked at the images I took, I saw how my shadow seemed to cloak my personal responsibility as a newcomer, a settler on these lands. And yet it was also an affirmation I was actually here, on the land of others. I could look and perhaps really see….
Who are they – the Katzie and Kwantlen, the Kwikwetlem and Tsawwassen, the Qayqayt and the Tsleil Waututh?
I walk on their territories all the time. Many of us do. As I am in New Westminster, I often visit the nearby park at Colony Farm where people from the ‘insane asylum’ at Essondale (now Riverview) worked the grounds that had formed the homeland of the Kwikwetlem on the Coquitlam River – before settlers arrived and forced them onto constricted reserves.
In fact, the marginalization of the Kwikwetlem was mirrored by the lives of the people who worked on the farm. These were inmates who lived in a drastically overcrowded asylum that housed 4,602 patients in 1951 (including in basements and attics), at a period of time notorious for the use of physical restraints and patient seclusion.
Today, the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital for those with mental illness, including those found not criminally responsible for their crimes, is next to Kwikwetlem Reserve No. 1, a small 2.6-hectare site near the Fraser River at the mouth of the Coquitlam River.
Relations between the hospital and the Nation are often tense – indicated by headlines like “Life in the shadow of a Psychiatric Hospital can breed fear that spans generations,” highlighting the danger of escaped and sometimes dangerous patients for the people who live on the hospital’s doorsteps. The story of the mentally ill and the First Nation living next door to each other seems bitterly emblematic of how mainstream society has shunted aside those who do not fit into a ruthlessly single-minded vision of how a society will function. It’s dismal.
For years I’ve driven past the haunted structures of Riverview, the psychiatric institution on the hill above Colony Farm. In early September, I finally drove up past construction for new structures, above the broken windows and decrepit structures now abandoned and collapsing. I was shocked to see a sign: Healing Spirit House. I got out of the car and looked. I’ve now begun to learn about a whole new building – and a whole new role of the Kwikwetlem in influencing a new approach in BC to the struggles of youth in our society with mental illness. (to be continued…)
The evidence of resilience is everywhere. tbc…..
We deserve to be unsettled. We deserve to pack up our assumptions and take our shadows off the land of others. We need to find better ways to be here.
I am now creating a short film and working on images like the ones below to create a narrative that will, for me at least, be unsettling and, I hope, can help lift our shadows off of the places and peoples where the light should shine….