Trailblazers 2020: Ginger Gosnell-Myers promotes reconciliation through Indigenizing cities
One of Vancouver’s most influential Indigenous voices, Gosnell-Myers, doesn’t describe herself as an academic.
This is in spite of her being the Indigenous fellow, decolonization and urban Indigenous planning, with SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue.
Nor does she consider herself to be an urban planner, even though she’s probably had as much of an impact on the Indigenization of the city landscape as anyone working in the city planning department.
No, Gosnell-Myers, who’s a member of the Nisga’a and Kwakwaka’wakw nations, calls herself a “storyteller”.
“I’m hoping to use my skills in dialogue and engagement—and in research—to give everybody a picture of the Indigenous city,” Gosnell-Myers tells the Straight by phone.
In her former role as the City of Vancouver’s first Indigenous relations manager, she played a leading role in opening up dialogue between the city government and the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh, which led to Vancouver becoming a City of Reconciliation and hosting the landmark Canada 150+ celebrations in 2017.
Unlike in other cities where the focus was primarily on the history of the Canadian nation-state, Vancouver paid homage to its Indigenous history and culture with a gathering of canoes by the Vancouver Maritime Museum, the Drum Is Calling Festival, and the city’s second Walk for Reconciliation.
She cited Indigenous Fashion Week as another example of an important event showcasing Indigenous heritage and culture.
“Every major city centre across this country has their own version of community and culture that brings them together on a regular basis,” Gosnell-Myers said. “Most Canadians just aren’t aware of this.”
Nor can most Canadians identify the Indigenous districts in their cities, even though this is well-known to First Nations people.
She hopes to change all of this through her fellowship. And she said that for any municipal government, the first goal should be raising awareness.
“There’s a reason why the City of Reconciliation framework had, as one of its three foundational pillars, cultural competency—for staff and for Vancouverites,” Gosnell-Myers noted. “A lot of our efforts were targeted at increasing people’s cultural awareness and competency to engage and work with Indigenous communities more effectively.”
Partially as a result of her efforts, the city's Indigenous identity is reflected to a much greater extent on murals, street signs, and in event spaces.
The plazas on the north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery and outside Queen Elizabeth Theatre have each received Indigenous names: šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square and šxʷƛ̓exən Xwtl’a7shn Square.
There's also a First Nations name for the city's newest library branch: nə́ca?mat ct Strathcona on East Hastings Street.
And Sir William Macdonald school further east was renamed Xpey’ elementary.
In addition, the Vancouver park board voted to conduct a colonial audit with a view to better reflecting the Indigenous history of the lands it oversees.
And the Vancouver school district erected new totem poles outside its head office at the corner of West 10th Avenue and Fir Street.
Stanley Park still hasn't been renamed. And the name of the 19th-century B.C. official who played a leading role in taking away Indigenous lands, former lieutenant-governor Joseph Trutch, remains on a street on the city's West Side.
But tremendous progress has occurred—and Gosnell-Myers hopes that her fellowship will help advance that even further.
Family trees hold the key
Several years ago when Gosnell-Myers was working on a landmark project on urban Indigenous people for the polling firm Environics, she was able to demonstrate the importance of culture.
This was accomplished by asking people if they knew about their family tree.
“People who said they knew their family tree very well or fairly well were more likely to say that they were happy in their lives, they were more likely to volunteer, they were more likely to vote, they were more likely to have finished postsecondary education or be in the process of completing postsecondary education.” she recalled. “They’ve seen themselves advancing in their jobs. There were so many other indicators of a healthy life that came with knowing who your family was and knowing where your family came from. It’s super interesting.”
Many Vancouverites don't realize that Nisga'a people have been playing an outsized role in public affairs for a very long time.
The Nisga'a Tribal Council's land-claims case led to the Calder decision in the Supreme Court of Canada, which acknowledged for the first time in 1973 that Aboriginal title existed prior to colonization.
That set the stage for various other Supreme Court of Canada rulings, including Delgamuukw in 1997 and Tsilqot'in in 2014, that fundamentally transformed the relationship between the Crown and Indigenous nations with regard to land title.
The first three First Nations MLAs elected to the B.C. legislature—Frank Calder, Larry Guno, and Melanie Mark—were all Nisga'a. The Nisga'a signed the first modern treaty in B.C.
And Nisga'a residents of Vancouver have played leading roles over the years at the Urban Native Youth Association, Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society, and Vancouver school board.
Former Vancouver youth worker Preston Guno and architect Patrick Stewart are two other Nisga'a people who've left a lasting mark on the city.
"We do have a strong history of political engagement," Gosnell-Myers acknowledged. "And we have cultural protocols that frankly make us engage in community life. It's in our cultural DNA."
City takes a step backward
According to her, Indigenization of the city also requires engagement with planners and designers. And she credits two former Vancouver politicians in particular, ex-mayor Gregor Robertson and ex-councillor Andrea Reimer, for their efforts to ensure that this became a civic priority.
However, Gosnell-Myers declared that Vancouver is no longer exerting nearly as much attention to this area.
"A lot of people who should be engaged at the municipal level aren't because those doors are being slammed," she said. "I look at Vancouver today and I don't see a lot of doors open."
As an example, she cited the loss of "good Indigenous staff" at the park board and in the city's engineering, social policy, and planning areas, including well-known filmmaker Kamala Todd.
"The city hired Michelle Nahanee to be the Indigenous lead on their citywide planning process," Gosnell-Myers added. "She left after, like, three days."
In contrast, Gosnell-Myers said that the City of Burnaby is looking at ways to engage its Indigenous community. She noted that New Westminster council has brought forward progressive motions.
So what about North Vancouver, which occupies the traditionally territory of the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First nations?
"I don't see North Vancouver doing anything, which is disappointing," Gosnell-Myers said. "The district and the city—they don't seem interested.
"I think one day they'll get there," she added. "But right now, they're probably fearful of the kinds of changes that they would need to make in order to demonstrate the success that they would hope to have."