Many B.C. museums and galleries draw attention to the history of Indigenous peoples. The leaders in this regard, of course, have been the Museum of Anthropology at UBC and the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria.
However, in the 21st century, the Museum of Vancouver has really upped its game through exhibitions such c̓əsnaʔəm: The City Before the City, as well as Weaving Cultural Identities.
The newest exhibition at the museum in Vanier Park, That Which Sustains Us, looks at the history of the forest industry in Vancouver in the 19th and early 20th centuries through an Indigenous, environmental, and economic lens.
Visitors first see the written greetings from the three host First Nations—the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh—which all worked with the Museum of Vancouver on That Which Sustains Us.
Next, visitors are presented with images of an old-growth forest in Stanley Park and a pile of debris from the clearing of Kerrisdale. It sets the stage for what’s to follow.
“Settlement really pivoted on this idea of terra nullius (nobody’s land)—that you could claim unused land,” MOV curator of Indigenous collections and engagement Sharon Fortney told the Straight on a recent tour of the exhibition.
Fortney pointed out that the forests in this region before European contact were "managed". Indigenous people from the three host First Nations lived in Stanley Park, for instance, and other areas of the region with ancient trees.
"Just because you didn’t see it, it didn’t mean that people weren’t harvesting in them, using the wood and the bark and the fern patches and the berry patches," Fortney explained.
“These were places that the local Indigenous communities occupied,” she continued. ”It was a different mindset. You didn’t have to leave a trace on the land in the same way.”
What she described stood in sharp contrast to a massive Douglas fir stump near the entrance. Its interior rings reveal that it’s at least 500 years old.
This stump provides a sense of the size of trees that once existed across what we now call Vancouver—and what were chopped down as settlers started clearing the land and taking ownership.
Inside the brightly lit gallery, Fortney points to tools used by Indigenous foresters. Videos offer insights into everything from making fish-skin leather to the use of hemlock boughs in harvesting herring roe before those fish populations in Burrard Inlet were decimated due to pollution.
Fortney also noted the existence of a carving by Chief August Jack, which replicates an older figure that stood overlooking the Squamish River Valley, welcoming the salmon back each spring.
“It was part of that cultural tradition of respect,” she said.
Different areas of the gallery focus on different themes—land and water, food, movement, economy, and home—as they pertain to the forest.
In the economy section, there’s a model of the Hastings Mill, which was a sawmill founded in 1865 on Burrard Inlet. It's possible to see one of those giant trees moving from the water into the building.
Fortney said that most of the early lumber industry workers were Indigenous before single men started coming from Eastern Canada looking for employment.
“The Indigenous men liked to choose work that allowed them to work in family groups,” she added. “So they settled near the mills and they stayed with their families and they worked in teams, doing activities to support the lumber industry.”
By 1900, Fortney added, the industry had diversified, with a growing number of workers from South Asia, Chile, Hawaii, and other places.
That’s reflected in references to forest workers from India and Japan. Fortney said that some Japanese forest workers resisted integration into the broader society by creating their own village on the North Shore that included a Shinto shrine.
Part of the exhibition focuses on the circular economy and the importance of reusing materials. In fact, environmental themes are incorporated into the exhibition in several areas. There's also a map from the city, showing which areas are the hottest in summer.
That corresponds with where there are fewer trees.
"The hottest parts of the city are places where the death rate goes up in the summer because it’s so hot," Fortney said "That’s from a study done at UBC. You’ll see the Downtown Eastside—it’s dark red, and sort of along the [Fraser River] shoreline. So these areas have been really deforested."
There’s even a mounted skin of a cougar, which was shot on a logging dock in Kitsilano around 1920.
That’s augmented by a yet-to-be completed animation production showing the changing landscape, along with key events in the history of the late 19th century.
The 1860s to the 1890s monumentally changed the lives of First Nations people in B.C.. This marked the arrival of a smallpox epidemic, the provincial government asserting ownership of "Crown" lands, the creation of small Indigenous reserves, and the opening of residential schools. The effects continue to reverberate through the province today.
This heavy hand of colonialism was felt by Fortney's own family. Her grandmother was a member of the Klahoose First Nation—part of the Northern Coast Salish. She was one of many Klahoose people sent to residential school on Kuper Island (now called Penelakut Island).
“It was a very pivotal period, when you think of reconciliation and some of the things that came into effect under the Indian Act that affected Indigenous communities,” Fortney said. “It was very important to me that we work with host nations on this gallery."