The field was covered with blankets, and the blankets were covered with people. Over the course of the next hour most of the blankets, and the people on them, were snatched away. By the end, participants were crying.
The emotional exercise was a depiction of the erosion of indigenous land and culture since European contact, and marked the culmination of a two-day First Nations celebration held on Canada Day. It was the latest in a series of initiatives launched on 2,300-population Pender Island, British Columbia, by Canadians seeking not just reconciliation but also knowledge of Tsawout language, culture and history. The programs’ success is an example of how spontaneous, grassroots reconciliation initiatives could sprout throughout North America.
“Over the last four years Pender Island and the Tsawout First Nation have been developing a community-to-community relationship built on recognition, respect and trust,” said Paul Petrie, head of the South Pender Historical Society.
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For centuries, Indigenous Peoples have suffered under colonialization: Their lands have been usurped, their culture and lifestyle trampled, and their populations devastated. Canada does not wear this stain well. However, hope glimmers. The 2015 report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with its damning revelations and far-reaching recommendations delivered a potent jolt. Governments have begun implementing the 94 recommendations.
But governments’ good intentions have fallen flat in the past. For real change, there must be strong citizen support. Pender Island provides an excellent example of how it could be done. Several grassroots initiatives have been launched to help heal the wounds suffered by the Tsawout First Nation, whose traditional lands include Pender Island. Specific goals were to understand the Tsawout and their culture, as well as build bridges between the two communities. This was a bold undertaking, since Penderites had had no previous connection with the Tsawout, and furthermore, no Tsawout live on Pender today. The initiatives were spearheaded by individuals rather than by institutions.
Catalyzed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work, several concerned people established the Pender Reconciliation Circle and organized five presentations in 2013. Each program was followed by a circle in which participants passed an eagle feather around to people who wanted to speak, granting them the floor. One after another, Pender Island residents poured out their heartfelt empathy to residential-school survivors and their children, and voiced distress at the damage Canada’s policies have wrought.
The presentations included the film Muffins for Granny, in which seven elders spoke about their experiences at residential school. At one there was a panel discussion with three Pender residents, including Jane Morley, a former Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, on ways to address historic wrongs. Another featured an archeologist who described First Nations history of the Gulf Islands, recounting how the Tsawout had lived in a village on Pender for 5,000 years. When their population was decimated they regrouped on the Saanich Peninsula. At the fourth presentation attendees watched Honour of All: the Story of Alkali Lake, a documentary about how one community responded to residential schools. The fifth presentation’s featured speaker was former Truth and Reconciliation Commission Executive Director Bob Watts, CEO of the Assembly of First Nations and a member of the Six Nations Reserve.
“I don’t know how many people I’ve told about the circle,” Watts said afterward. “It is truly one of the most special experiences I have had. It reinforces my belief in the goodness of Canadians. I wish it was reflected in government.”
An Aboriginal Cultural Festival was celebrated on the weekend of the final presentation with a First Nations skill demonstration, history telling, a guided walk and a potluck feast with traditional entertainment.
Continuing the effort, Petrie organized a First Nations history seminar series in 2015–16. At the first meeting, the traditional Tsawout 13 Moons Calendar was explained, and an archaeologist spoke about indigenous history on Pender. The turnout was huge, with an overflow crowd. At one seminar a large, rapt audience learned how reef-net fishing, which was banned by the federal government, was integral to Salish First Nations culture.
In recognition that true reconciliation must involve youth, a traditional firepit was built at the local school. The plan is to hold annual roasts attended by students from the Pender and Tsawout schools. Of particular note is a student leadership program with six students from the Tsawout school and six from the Pender school, established to promote development of leadership skills, cultural awareness and cross-cultural understanding.
The Reconciliation Circle reconvened in 2017 and held five meetings at which they read and discussed the Truth and Reconciliation report using the circle format. The Circle is currently searching for ways to continue the program.
The July 1 Canada Day celebration lasted two days and included a workshop on the Tsawout language that introduced Penderites to pronunciation and some commonly used expressions. An ethnobotany plant walk led participants through Tsawout reserve land. A permanent 13 Moon Calendar display panel was unveiled by Tsawout chief Harvey Underwood and Anglican priest Ellen Willingham.
The celebration culminated in a traditional salmon pit roast at the Pender school grounds, attended by more than 150 people. The wrenching Karios Blanket exercise was the highlight. The blankets represented North American territory before settlement, and those standing on the blankets represented Indigenous Peoples. As the number of blankets and people on them diminished due to assimilation policies, broken promises, disease, the Indian Act of 1876 and the forced movement of children to residential schools, many participants were moved to tears.