Take Back the Parks

Our pro­tected spaces aren’t un­touched wilder­ness. They are colo­nial crime scenes

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Robert Jago

Vancouver’s Stan­ley Park — a place known for its dense forests and primeval at­mos­phere — was, as re­cently as 150 years ago, home to Squamish vil­lages. Peo­ple lived there for thou­sands of years. On the eastern edge of the park, fac­ing down­town, there is a lit­tle is­land known to the Squamish as “skwt­sa7s.” Sal­ish oral his­to­ries record that the is­land was the site of a siege, one that ended with a sac­ri­fice de­scribed here by Pauline John­son in her Leg­ends of Vancouver:

Out be­fore a long file of south­ern war­riors they stood. Their chins up­lifted, their eyes de­fi­ant, their breasts bared. Each leaned for­ward and laid his weapons at his feet, then stood erect, with empty hands, and laughed forth his chal­lenge to death. A thou­sand ar­rows ripped the air, two hun­dred gal­lant north­ern throats flung forth a death cry ex­ul­tant, tri­umphant as con­quer­ing kings — then two hun­dred fear­less north­ern hearts ceased to beat.

Cana­di­ans have al­ways thought of their coun­try as an ar­chi­pel­ago of cities in a sea of un­touched wilder­ness. We see this ide­al­ized ver­sion of the coun­try in ev­ery­thing from paint­ings by the Group of Seven to nov­els by Far­ley Mowat. It’s also a con­cept that the gov­ern­ment likes to pro­mote: forests, moun­tains, and lakes all fea­ture reg­u­larly in Canada’s 150th an­niver­sary pro­mo­tions. In fact, Parks Canada re­leased its much-cel­e­brated Dis­cov­ery Pass in Jan­uary, which grant free ac­cess to Na­tional Parks for the year.

Many Cana­di­ans see the col­lec­tive pos­ses­sion and ex­plo­ration of this wilder­ness as a right of cit­i­zen­ship. But the pris­tine land­scapes seen in gov­ern­ment pro­mo­tions — and the very con­cept of Canada as a wilder­ness — are un­rec­og­niz­able to me and to other In­dige­nous peo­ple. In ad­di­tion to be­ing the sesqui­cen­ten­nial, 2017 has also been des­ig­nated as a year for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with First Na­tions, Métis, and Inuit peo­ples. As an on­go­ing part of this rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, the gov­ern­ment ac­knowl­edges the trau­mas of the res­i­den­tial school sys­tem. But it still cel­e­brates other crimes — specif­i­cally, a parks sys­tem that has robbed and im­pov­er­ished In­dige­nous peo­ples.

In the nine­teenth cen­tury, some of our land was taken for farm­ing; in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, still more was ap­pro­pri­ated for pub­lic works and mil­i­tary use. And all through­out th­ese years, con­tin­u­ing to this day, thefts have been oc­cur­ring un­der the guise of eco­log­i­cal preser­va­tion — green colo­nial­ism.

Many in Canada dis­miss In­dige­nous peo­ples’ con­nec­tion to the land as ro­man­tic and ir­ra­tional. They say that we should aban­don it to move closer to the ur­ban ar­eas for our own good. In a piece for Maclean’s, jour­nal­ist Scott Gil­more wrote that First Na­tions must “leave th­ese [re­mote re­serves], for­ever” or, pend­ing that, be sent “a backhoe as they keep dig­ging graves.” For­mer prime min­is­ter Jean Chré­tien has made sim­i­lar state­ments. In­dige­nous peo­ple who don’t want to leave their land are sim­ply “nos­tal­gic about the past when they were go­ing hunt­ing and fish­ing,” he said in 2016. Even Jonathan Kay, the for­mer ed­i­tor-in­chief of this mag­a­zine, once stated that the aban­don­ment of our home­lands was the only way for In­dige­nous peo­ple to “make a liv­ing and ex­ist in dig­nity.”

But the de­sire for the re­turn of th­ese lands goes beyond nos­tal­gia. The places Canada has made into parks are filled with our sto­ries — every moun­tain, every val­ley has a name and a his­tory for In­dige­nous peo­ples. It is in th­ese places that our his­tory is alive: our Mecca is here, our Magna Carta, our Ther­mopy­lae. C anada’s parks de­part­ments have treated In­dige­nous peo­ples like an in­fes­ta­tion ever since the found­ing, in 1885, of what is now Banff Na­tional Park. Look­ing out at the ter­ri­to­ries un­der his su­per­vi­sion, su­per­in­ten­dent Ge­orge Ste­wart de­manded that “In­di­ans” be barred from the area. “Their de­struc­tion of the game and depre­da­tions among the or­na­men­tal trees,” he wrote, “make their too fre­quent vis­its to the Park a mat­ter of great con­cern.” In the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury, as non-na­tive set­tle­ments such as Banff and Jasper grew, the liveli­hoods of First Na­tions peo­ples were de­stroyed.

This tac­tic soon be­came stan­dard prac­tice on other “pro­tected” lands. In Al­go­nquin Park, Al­go­nquin peo­ple were de­nied ti­tle and recog­ni­tion for their towns of Lawrence and Nightin­gale, which lay within the park’s bound­aries. In 1895, Aubrey White, On­tario’s as­sis­tant com­mis­sioner of Crown lands, wrote of the pres­ence of Al­go­nquin peo­ple in lan­guage that we now re­serve for the Asian pine bee­tle: “You know the preda­tory habits of th­ese peo­ple, how they roam about, and how dif­fi­cult it is to keep watch of their move­ments in the for­est.” The Al­go­nquin peo­ple were even­tu­ally forced out into dis­tant re­serves.

At a 2000 hear­ing be­fore Canada’s her­itage com­mit­tee, James Ple­wak of the Keeseekoowenin Ojib­way First Na­tion dis­cussed the found­ing of Man­i­toba’s Rid­ing Moun­tain Na­tional Park in the 1930s. “Our peo­ple were burned out of their homes,” he said. “In­di­ans and parks were con­sid­ered not to be com­pat­i­ble.”

Such ac­tions are not rel­e­gated to the past. The gov­ern­ment aims to des­ig­nate 17 per­cent of Canada as pro­tected space by 2020. To this date, pro­tected ar­eas are still be­ing cre­ated with­out In­dige­nous con­sent. In 2016, the Sur­rey Bend Re­gional Park

was es­tab­lished in Bri­tish Columbia within the ter­ri­to­ries of the Katzie and Kwantlen First Na­tions — land that is cur­rently un­der ne­go­ti­a­tion as part of the Katzie treaty process. As Tu­mia Knott, coun­cil­lor for the Kwantlen First Na­tion, says, “We’ve no­ticed that where th­ese parks have been sit­u­ated is rather strate­gic — they’re places of real sig­nif­i­cance and im­por­tance to Kwantlen.” A s in­dige­nous peo­ples re­build, we are striv­ing to re­con­nect with our lost ter­ri­to­ries. This means re­claim­ing parks when­ever pos­si­ble and as­sert­ing stew­ard­ship and eco­nomic rights when we can’t get the land it­self back. The mod­ern fight to re­claim land be­gan with the 1974 Ojib­way oc­cu­pa­tion of Anic­in­abe Park near Kenora, On­tario. Since then, some bat­tles have in­volved guns — dur­ing the Ip­per­wash Cri­sis in 1995, for ex­am­ple, un­armed First Na­tions ac­tivist Dud­ley Ge­orge was killed by out-of-con­trol po­lice. Other fights have taken place in the courts — the land­mark 1999 R v. Sun­down de­ci­sion, for in­stance, rec­og­nized First Na­tions’ tra­di­tional rights to es­tab­lish hunt­ing in­fras­truc­ture in parks, ex­empt from pro­vin­cial reg­u­la­tion. Around the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble, In­dige­nous peo­ples have worked to pre­vent the uni­lat­eral cre­ation or ex­pan­sion of parks at Pukaskwa, Point Pelee, Wa­ger Bay, and Great Slave Lake by gov­ern­ment.

In Vancouver, the Musqueam peo­ple have re­claimed por­tions of Pa­cific Spirit Re­gional Park and the sur­round­ing area, near the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia cam­pus and on the western edge of Vancouver. Un­der­stand­ably, the Musqueam have done what any­one would do to a par­cel of west-side Vancouver: they cut down some trees and plan to put up con­dos. Just like James Ple­wak said in ref­er­ence to Rid­ing Moun­tain Na­tional Park, th­ese lands are “the most im­por­tant re­sources we [have] to sus­tain our lives.”

Musqueam’s con­struc­tion plans pro­duced a litany of irony-im­mune quotes from lo­cal res­i­dents: “Once you’ve al­lowed a lit­tle bit of the park to be re­moved, no park in the whole province is go­ing to be safe any­more”; “We don’t think it’s right that the gov­ern­ment should take [land] and give it away”; “Are we go­ing to go giv­ing away parks like Stan­ley Park?” For cen­turies, First Na­tions have seen our land taken from us one piece at a time. It’s galling to see our words turned against us as we take our lands back.

Not every repa­tri­a­tion ends with twobed­room con­dos. Some re­sult in First Na­tions cre­at­ing parks of our own. The Tsil­hqot’in Na­tion in BC turned much of its newly re­cov­ered lands into the Dasiqox Tribal Park. Else­where in the province, the Doig River First Na­tion has been strug­gling to es­tab­lish the K’ih tsaa?dze Tribal Park.

But th­ese are not typ­i­cal parks where na­ture is pro­tected from hu­man use. In an in­ter­view with the Des­mog­blog, Jack Wood­ward, a lawyer for the Tsil­hqot’in First Na­tion, ex­plained that tribal parks are cre­ated to de­fend the “sus­tain­abil­ity of the ecosys­tems nec­es­sary to sup­port the abo­rig­i­nal or treaty rights.” He ex­plained that “a tribal park rec­og­nizes the fact that you can still live on the land, and make a liv­ing from the land.”

Such ap­proaches face pre­dictable non­Na­tive re­sis­tance. In Osoyoos, BC, a lo­cal news­pa­per pub­lished re­marks from pe­ti­tion­ers who were up­set about First Na­tions in­volve­ment in a new park. The words of one stand out: “The ridicu­lous al­lowance that hunt­ing is their right any­time any place will be the ex­tinc­tion of our wildlife.” Com­ments such as that are vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal to those spouted by the su­per­in­ten­dent of Canada’s first park, and show that far too lit­tle has changed in the last 150 years.

Cana­di­ans ad­vo­cat­ing for more pro­tected spaces need to un­der­stand their own his­tory. A ma­jor part of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is ac­cept­ing that when we cel­e­brate Canada 200, Al­go­nquin peo­ple may again be liv­ing in Al­go­nquin Park, and that Stan­ley Park and the turquoise wa­ters of Mo­raine Lake in Banff Na­tional Park may be dot­ted with First Na­tions homes and busi­nesses. Wilder­ness may be a sa­cred con­cept to Cana­di­ans, but it’s one that must be sac­ri­ficed if rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is to have mean­ing.

Louis Cameron (cen­tre) and the Ojibwa War­rior So­ci­ety oc­cupy the Anic­in­abe Park in Kenora, On­tario, in July 1974.

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