I wonder if we will recognize that point at which we converge as a people and as a society—when we become one? It is my hope that someday we British Columbians will be able to look upon ourselves collectively as part of a gemstone with many facets: each aspect looking out in a different direction, beautiful on its own, but connected to all others to make a more valuable whole.
This question of convergence arose for me during a recent visit to the Royal BC Museum. My children wanted to see the mammoth exhibition and, despite the inconvenient journey to Vancouver Island, we made the trip. I took a break from the treaty implementation work I do at Tsawwassen First Nation, not because I pined to see mammoths but because there were other things I wanted to see and experience with my children at the museum. My children and I share Coast Salish heritage. My mother’s family comes from Tsawwassen and Katzie, while my wife’s family finds their roots in Holland and France. We are grateful for the richness of the cultural experience that our children will enjoy throughout their life but that diversity means that, as individuals, we experience museums differently.
The Royal BC Museum is in Lekungwen territory. Many of their words and traditions are familiar to me. I reminded my children as we entered the museum that the welcome posts that are found in the lobby are much the same as the qeqen (welcome posts) we find in our temexw, or territory. Always in a pair, male and female with arms raised, palms facing upward— not outward, these sentinels stand at the edges of our lands and bid welcome, not warning, to guests and visitors. During this visit I learned that the museum offers free admission to the Indigenous people of British Columbia and I welcomed that gesture of acknowledgement.
The mammoth exhibition was everything that my children hoped for. Stunning visuals, tactile and aural elements: from remnants small enough to hold in the palm of your hand, to towering skeletons that dwarfed those who stood beneath them. My kids would bring home their own herd of mammoths from the gift shop but I was keen to visit the other exhibits and see how my children would react to them.
In the First Peoples gallery I found myself almost paralyzed by a display of argillite carvings. Powerful and ageless stories are contained in their complex and delicate details. These items represent some of the oldest and most valuable lessons from this part of the world. While I pondered their meanings my son had time enough to explore every corner of the hall before tearing me away to join the girls at a replica of a sailing ship. We went inside together, as a family. We marvelled at just how small a vessel it was—it certainly wasn’t anything like the modern ferry that brought us over from the mainland. I pondered what massive change this small craft had brought to the BC coast, for good and for ill. Inside I saw a rough-hewn chair: small, angular and utilitarian. I imagined a sailor in this artless contraption, scribbling out journal entries by greasy lamplight. I was overcome with the thought that these men would describe the Indigenous artists who created the intricate argillite totems as being primitive. I gave a laugh at the irony and was surprised and ashamed at the venom I heard in my own voice. There are many British Columbians that see these hard men as enterprising voyagers; Indigenous leaders saw them as something less noble. Early attempts at reconciliation through treaty-making were abandoned, the colonial governor balking at the cost. Was this the point at which we diverged?
British Columbians, and many across Canada, see our history as two parallel lines. This division is reflected in many ways, including how the collections in the Royal BC Museum are arranged: Indigenous artifacts in one space, colonial artifacts in another. That division creates an artificial barrier. Reflected in the museum is an agreement that at some point in history there was a shared history, we see that in the mammoth exhibition. British Columbians, Canadians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous; we can all agree on a time in history when the land, people and animals were one. But our reckoning of history diverges at some point and the artificial barriers are agreed upon and erected.
The reality is that, in both the past and the present, we have been and are connected. For at least seven generations, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have lived side by side and no one is going anywhere. My question is: Can we organize the objects that represent our past in a way that communicates and demonstrates convergence? One that celebrates our shared history? My wife and my children and I acknowledge our obvious differences, but we agree that we are a family. I wonder at what point we, as residents here in British Columbia, will be able to see each other as facets of the same treasured gem?