National Indigenous Peoples Day: Recognition comes at a painful time in the history of Indigenous People and shines a light on injustice, residential schools, and the need for reconciliation

This June, Canada is commemorating National Indigenous History Month to recognize the history, heritage, and diversity of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. Indigenous Peoples have a deep history and connection to the land we call Canada and the oceans and waters that wash on to its shores.

By Sarah Thomas, Manager of Indigenous and Coastal Community Relations, Clear Seas

As the Manager of Indigenous and Coastal Community Relations at Clear Seas, I am writing this blog to share my experience and insight as an Indigenous person in order to address the importance of reconciliation as set out in the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and why that is important for the marine shipping industry as well as all Canadians.

The importance of this story and the gravity of the situation has become ever more compelling with the dark side of this history resurfacing with the recent horrific news of the remains of 215 children found buried at the former Tk’emlups Indian Residential School in Kamloops, BC.

While painful to hear and to confront, stories like this are important and must be shared with the rest of the country so that Canadians understand the situation of Indigenous Peoples. It is important that on this National Indigenous Day – June 21st – we, as a country, take the time to honour the resilience of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada, and recognize the strength they carry within themselves. It is this strength and the link to their ancestors, their history, the land, and water, that make Indigenous people so important to Canada.

Indigenous Peoples have a deep-rooted culture and a connection to the land and waters known as Canada, and Indigenous voices echo across the land from ocean to ocean to ocean: “We are here, we have been here since time out of mind1.”

Indigenous Peoples have a special connection to the earth

Successive generations of Indigenous Peoples have lived off the earth for thousands of years, and they know the lands, waters, and environment that has sustained them for millennia. This deep knowledge and experience is referred to as Traditional Knowledge. According to the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), it can be understood as the collective knowledge of traditions used by Indigenous Peoples, that has sustained them within their environment, since time out of mind.

Sarah Thomas.

Sarah Thomas, member of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation and Manager of Indigenous and Coastal Community Relations at Clear Seas

Indigenous Peoples have an oral history which is passed down from generation to generation through stories told by elders or knowledge keepers in the community.  From my experience as a member of the Coast Salish, our Elders told us, “When the tide went out, the table was set.” This saying has been passed down through generations, demonstrating to us today, the main food source for Coast Salish peoples came from the oceans. Our Elders told us, there used to be an abundance of seafood that sustained our people throughout the years. They had an inherent knowledge of the tides and the season for fishing, berries, shellfish and never took more than they needed to ensure there was enough for the next year.

“Our stewardship responsibility includes restoring conditions that provide the environmental,
cultural, spiritual, and economic foundation for our communities to thrive.”

– Former Chief Maureen Thomas, Tsleil-Waututh Nation

Indigenous Peoples have a deep connection to the land and waters they inhabit, and so many of the creation stories from the people come from the land or waterways of their traditional territories. Tsleil-Waututh Nation means People of the Inlet, their creation story is told through generations, “By the sediment of the sand, on the bottom of the ocean, the creator made the first grandmother of Tsleil-Waututh, she came from the Burrard Inlet. That is where we come from, and this is why we are called the people of the inlet.”

A glimpse of the Burrard Inlet, Tsleil-Waututh Traditional Territory, BC

These stories and connections are why Indigenous Peoples are so committed to keeping the land healthy for future generations; it is who they are, as their entire existence is based on the creation of their people from the environment. “Just as the waterways have sustained us since time out of mind, it is our sacred trust to not only care for them in return but to restore the health of the environment,” say the Elders of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, the Indigenous People who live along Burrard Inlet.

Tsleil-Waututh Elders have said that when Europeans began to arrive, a significant portion of our population was lost to disease. Many stories tell of how our people survived other difficult times — colonialism, the reserve system, and residential schools. Throughout these hard times and despite these obstacles, our people helped to build Vancouver and North Vancouver, persevered in our stewardship of the lands and waters of our territory, and continued practicing and passing down our language and culture however we could. We found our way through the change that was happening in the world around us – taken from the Tsleil-Waututh Nation Land Use Plan 2018.

The knowledge of the tides and life cycles of the ecosystem and marine life played a significant role in the sustainability of coastal Indigenous communities. The people were aware when it was a bad year for fish, and they never took more than they needed. They knew the migration patterns of the animals and fish and travelled from winter to summer villages with food sources. The use of this information is valuable to be able to plan for a sustainable future for the next generations.

Indigenous youth from the Tsleil-Waututh Nation

The role of Traditional Knowledge in research

Traditional Knowledge brings a greater understanding to the environment when it is  incorporated in Western-based research and planning. Future research will have to respect Indigenous knowledge and be carefully integrated with scientific research to provide an all-inclusive viewpoint when making decisions.

Clear Seas recognizes the importance of Indigenous voices and has created a space for coastal communities to amplify their concerns when it comes to marine shipping and the knowledge these Indigenous communities hold within their traditional waters.

Clear Seas launches an Indigenous Internship program

In order to include Indigenous views into its research and inform marine shipping, Clear Seas launched an Indigenous Internship program in the spring of 2021. The goal of this program is to listen to Indigenous communities’ priorities when it comes to marine shipping and include these priorities in the research Clear Seas is working on. Reconciliation in the maritime industry is important to Clear Seas, and I am motivated to work with the communities to share their stories by including Traditional Knowledge into research projects focused on marine shipping. Not only is this a step towards reconciliation in the maritime industry, it is building capacity within the Indigenous communities.

We are reinventing the paradigm to ensure that Indigenous perspectives inform our research from the beginning of the projects rather than what has often been the other way around. Clear Seas will be working with the interns to advance the perspective of the First Nations and Inuit communities involved rather than prescribing a set approach. It’s about listening and applying Traditional Knowledge to map out strategies that will manage hazards and respect Indigenous Peoples and their cultural heritage. This is a key step as part of reconciliation.

Confronting the past, helping to heal the future

This year may mark a turning point for Indigenous Peoples in Canada. In the wake of the Kamloops discovery, Canadians are facing the reality of the legacy of the residential school system and the disruption and destruction it wreaked upon our people. It reminds all of us of the importance of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the actions that Canada must take to help heal and show its respect for our people. There are tangible steps all of us can address to build a better future which will help turn the page on this dark chapter in history to fully address reconciliation.

Learn more

Reconciliation and Canada’s Marine Shipping Industry

Notes

1 This is a poetic and heartfelt expression used by Indigenous Peoples to reference the time before Creation.

Published June 17, 2021