Rosemary Georgeson didn’t know it at the time, but the events of that sunny day in the 1980s when she was almost killed by the ocean that had fed her and her family for many years set her on a path that led to where she is today.
Where Georgeson is today is her position as one of the lead organizers for In the Beginning, a presentation of the Firehall Arts Centre and Vancouver Moving Theatre that is part of the 17th Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival.
In the Beginning consists of five cultural-sharing events at the Firehall spread over four days (November 4 to 7) of the 12-day annual festival.
Three of the five events will introduce viewers to members of the First Nations upon whose traditional territories Vancouver now stands: the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish.
The other two showcase the stories of Indigenous people who came from outside the Lower Mainland and B.C. to the place we now call the Downtown Eastside (DTES) and who made their lives there and in the surrounding areas. Those events are titled Over the Mountains and From the Waters, the latter of which brings us back to Georgeson and her brush with death.
”We were crossing the Salish Sea,” Georgeson, who has Coast Salish and Sahtu Dene heritage, tells the Straight by phone. “It was a beautiful sunny day.”
It was 1986, and she was a single mother, 29, with two young daughters at home on Galiano Island, where she had lived all her life. She was aboard one of the boats that had given her a living in commercial fishing ever since she had started with her dad as a child in Active Pass.
Then the vicious gale blew up without warning. Even B.C. Ferries suspended sailings.
“There was no way to turn around, so we kept on going,” she says, remembering how her terrified thoughts turned to her little girls, four and five. “If anything had happened to me out there, my parents would have had to have raised them. It was pretty scary.
“I wanted to kiss the dirt when I stepped off the boat. I’m very cautious when I go out on the water now.”
Her passion for working the boats had taken a serious hit. For the next 14 years, she worked at various dry-land jobs, including as a cook and truck driver, delivering flowers.
“At 43, I decided it was time for a change,” Georgeson says. “My cousin Marie Clements asked me [in August 2000] if I wanted to help out with a women’s writing workshop at the Firehall. That’s where I first met [Firehall artistic producer] Donna Spencer.
“We ended up running that for three years.”
Two books of women’s stories and poetry came out of those workshops, and some of those were hers.
“They were stories about a life fully lived, fishing, raising kids. Growing up on Galiano, life was so different there. And working with these women on the DTES, they had the same stories. It was the most amazing healing process.”
Clements—a celebrated Métis playwright, director, and actor who lives on Galiano Island (Georgeson now lives in Delta)—had helped her find a new passion.
“I realized that in the writing process, I was letting out my stories and some of my anger,” Georgeson says. “I thought, ‘This is amazing: I get to come here and do this work and help these women.’ I was more of a support for other women to put their story out.”
And stories are what it is all about now, for both her (Georgeson became a playwright and radio documentarist and was the Vancouver Public Library’s storyteller in residence in 2014) and In the Beginning’s large cast of Indigenous presenters.
During last year’s Heart of the City Festival, Georgeson, Spencer, and Vancouver Moving Theatre artistic director Savannah Walling explored the history of the cultural communities that made up the neighbourhoods, past and present, in and around the DTES: Chinatown, Hogan’s Alley, Japantown, and others.
“It seemed clichéd; it didn’t seem to sit well with me,” Georgeson says. “We don’t have the right to tell anyone else’s stories.
“And we couldn’t find a story that we, as First Nation people, could be a part of. This [In the Beginning] is looking at who was there on the land first. It’s about telling our own stories, finding our places in this land.”
Georgeson started calling a lot of “people I know”, and the result will be unstructured evenings of storytelling, visual art, and oral history from activists, chiefs, and everyday people involved in cultural revitalization and tribal journeys.
“I think that their conversations will be really, really interesting,” Georgeson says. “Nobody is telling the participants what to say....It probably will be a surprise for everyone, including us!”
Maybe In the Beginning should be calling Georgeson’s story the first one in From the Waters.