During an interview in the boardroom at the Ray-Cam Co-operative Centre, aboriginal activists Scott Clark and Grace Tait both laughed as they recalled a recent meeting with Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson.
“We informed him that he was, in our view, the biggest chief in British Columbia because he had the largest number of Indians living here,” Clark told the Georgia Straight.
It’s true. The 2006 census revealed there were 11,730 aboriginal people living in Vancouver, and just over 40,000 across the region. Clark, a member of the Beecher Bay First Nation near Victoria, emphasized that Vancouver’s Native population is extremely diverse.
“There are a lot of stereotypes,” he acknowledged, “but at the same time, there are a lot of incredible success stories.”
He’s just one example. While studying at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Clark led an aboriginal parents’ crusade that put pressure on the Vancouver board of education not to close five East Vancouver schools. When asked for the names of people he admires, Clark cited Tracy Johnson, an aboriginal single mother of five who attended a demonstration outside former premier Gordon Campbell’s constituency office.
“She was standing up fighting for her kids’ school,” Clark said. “I think there are a lot of stories like that.”
Tait, a member of the Tsimshian First Nation, noted that aboriginal people have a “rich history” of supporting one another, but this isn’t reflected in statistics or in media coverage of her community. She grew up in an East Vancouver housing project, and marvels at aboriginal people’s resilience and their willingness to help one another.
“A lot of our people are very humble,” said Tait, an inner-city early-childhood-parent coordinator. “They’re told, ‘This is part of your teachings,’ at a very young age.”
The recently released Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study, which was coordinated by the Environics Institute, has helped shatter some stereotypes of urban Native people. Project director and Vancouver resident Ginger Gosnell-Myers (niece of Nisga’a leader Joseph Gosnell) told the Straight by phone that much of the non-Native population believes almost all aboriginal people live in poverty and lack education. “In the city, though, it’s a different story,” she stated. “There are very dire aspects, but there is tremendous growth at the same time.” She added that urban Natives vote at nearly the same rate as the non-Native population.
The UAPS involved sending more than 100 interviewers, most of whom were indigenous, to conduct in-person interviews with 2,614 aboriginal people in 11 Canadian cities. This was followed up with a telephone survey of 2,501 nonaboriginal Canadians in the same cities.
“One of the most optimistic findings from the UAPS is the strong sense of cultural vitality among urban Aboriginal peoples in Canadian cities,” the report noted. “By a wide margin, First Nations peoples, Métis and Inuit think Aboriginal culture in their communities has become stronger rather than weaker in the last five years. This is particularly true in Toronto and Vancouver, where residents are both more aware of Aboriginal cultural activities in their city and participate in them more frequently.”
The research indicated that the pursuit of higher education is the “leading life aspiration” of urban aboriginal people. In addition, the UAPS reported that urban aboriginal people want to become a “significant and visible part of the urban landscape”.
“The thing that surprised me the most was the sense of pride in being Canadian,” Gosnell-Myers said.
UBC has nearly 1,000 aboriginal students enrolled this year; another 500 are attending SFU, including Gosnell-Myers, who is studying in the public-policy program. For her major project for a master’s degree, she said that she is going to look at data in the UAPS as a basis for making policy recommendations for the City of Vancouver.
It’s an area that interests Clark and Tait, the two founding members of the urban-aboriginal group ALIVE, whose name is an acronym for Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement. Clark said that during his meeting with the mayor, he asked if city council would adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Clark also pointed out that the City of Vancouver does not have a comprehensive urban-aboriginal strategy, which means that decisions are made on an ad hoc basis—and not always in the interest of the broader aboriginal community.
Tait and Clark have not been impressed by the city’s decision to allow Atira Women’s Resource Society to create an 18-unit housing project for teenagers, including many of aboriginal descent, at 120 Jackson Avenue without consulting the neighbourhood. The CEO of Atira, Janice Abbott, is married to B.C. Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay, whose organization is financing the project. “Whoever yells the loudest or who is the best connected gets their program funded,” Clark alleged.
He described ALIVE as the only urban-aboriginal organization that promotes what they call “place-based strategies” to provide services to people where they live. “What we’re simply saying is that aboriginal people are at a place now where we want to fully engage all civil society,” Clark explained.
This means moving away from creating silos that isolate aboriginal people from the mainstream. To achieve that end, Clark and Tait have met with park-board staff to make community centres across the city more welcoming to aboriginal people. Tait noted that 1,000 of the 6,000 members of Ray-Cam are of aboriginal descent.
“They don’t all come from this neighbourhood,” she said. “But they come because no one is turned away. Wouldn’t it be nice for [aboriginal] people to participate in their own neighbourhoods.”
They praised the Mount Pleasant Community Centre and library and the Hastings Community Centre for extending themselves to local Native people. But, Clark added, progress in creating a more inclusive society also requires nonaboriginal people to learn more about their Native neighbours. The UAPS revealed that half of urban non-Native Canadians have never heard about Indian residential schools, where aboriginal kids, taken from their homes, were robbed of their culture, and forced to speak English.
“The truth and reconciliation process is about two groups of people—in this case the colonizer and the colonized—coming together and creating new truths,” Clark said. “But as long as we are separated, we can’t create new truths and a new moral high ground of inclusivity.”
First Nations media stars
CBC’s Vancouver-based Duncan McCue, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation in Ontario, files news stories and documentaries to The National, hosted by Peter Mansbridge. McCue is also a visiting professor of journalism at UBC, where he has introduced a new course, Reporting in Indigenous Communities.
Vancouver resident Angela Sterritt, who is of Gitxsan and Irish ancestry, has worked for CBC and written for several newspapers and magazines. Before taking time off to have a baby, Sterritt worked on CBC Radio’s ReVision Quest, hosted by Shuswap First Nation member Darrell Dennis, who sometimes adopts a lighthearted approach to educating the public and demolishing stereotypes of aboriginal people.
Over at CTV, Pieter Romer, a Nisga’a with some Dutch ancestry, is senior producer of First Story, which broadcasts aboriginal current-affairs stories. He also teaches at Capilano University. One of the pioneers on First Story was Candis Callison, who recently became an assistant professor at the UBC journalism school after obtaining her PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Callison, a member of the Tahltan Nation, was born and raised in this area. And no list of aboriginal media personalities would be complete without mentioning Bill Lightbown, a Kootenai elder and blunt commentator on Vancouver’s Co-op Radio.
Three local Aboriginal iconoclasts
By writing books with such titles as The Economic Dependency Trap and Dances With Dependency, Vancouver author and lawyer Calvin Helin has questioned the degree to which aboriginal people have become dependent on government assistance. He also objects to the power of on-reserve chiefs. “My purpose is to try and help poor people,” Helin told the Straight last year. “What I realized is that you can’t help people in the long run by giving them material things. You can help them in the short term, but in the long run, the only way you can help them is to give them knowledge to help themselves.”
Another iconoclast is Carol Martin, a victim-services worker at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre and an outspoken critic of social workers. At a July 28 panel discussion at the W2 Media Café, Martin said that each time a social worker visits a home, a new file is opened, which results in parents being “labelled” and kids being apprehended. She likened it to dealing with an abusive partner. “No matter what you do, you can’t please them,” Martin claimed. She and many other aboriginal grandmothers are fighting back against the apprehensions. “I stand my ground. I don’t give away my power. We have to really teach our women and our children this.”
The best-known activist of aboriginal descent is probably Jamie Lee Hamilton, a transgender sex-trade activist, who raised a ruckus throughout the 1990s when the Vancouver Police Department failed to investigate when women went missing in the Downtown Eastside.
The Vancouver Police Department has made significant efforts to reach out to the aboriginal community in the wake of the 2002 arrest of serial killer Robert William Pickton. The VPD put the symbol of the protector, the Thunderbird, on police cruisers. And this year, the diversity and aboriginal policing section won the Minister of Justice National Youth Justice Policing Award for the Eastside Aboriginal Space for Youth program, which offers young people resources and alternatives to getting involved in gangs.
There are scores of aboriginal artists in the metropolitan area, and here are some of the most famous: painter Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, concept-driven artist Brian Jungen (he doesn’t want to be typecast as the Nike guy), performance and installation artist Rebecca Belmore, interdisciplinary artist Dana Claxton, sculptor and printmaker Susan Point, and sculptor and painter Robert Davidson.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.