Klahowya Tillicum – Finding my footing in intercultural relations and marine planning

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By Julie Gardner, Dovetail Consulting, jgardner [at] exchange.ubc.ca

First Nations and the Canadian Government are working to redress the injustices of colonialism, which were at their peak only a few generations ago, and it’s a rocky road. The largest class action settlement in Canadian history is under way, aiming to bring a fair and lasting resolution to the harm caused by residential schools, a system of forced boarding schools for Aboriginal peoples. Headlines about First Nations standing together for indigenous sovereignty have been dominating the news.

At the same time, in our ocean management world, many coastal First Nations in British Columbia are building from strength to strength, often in collaboration with other governments – including in the area of marine spatial planning and protected areas. There should be much to learn from these ongoing, innovative initiatives in the near future. Meanwhile, I’ve been reflecting on how the writ-large struggle for the recognition of indigenous rights has expressed itself in my working experience.

A dozen years ago I wrote a draft discussion paper for a conference on “First Nations Cooperative Management of Protected Areas in British Columbia.” Despite having been guided by an expert panel that included First Nation leaders, the draft almost led to mutiny at the conference. The tone of the paper assumed that protected areas, including marine ones, were basically acceptable to First Nations, which they weren’t. Many protected areas had been imposed without accommodating First Nations rights and title. The report coming out of the event was much improved, yet I still had lots to learn. A subsequent low point was my offending a First Nation community outreach worker with a questionnaire that inappropriately asked elders to tick boxes about what they value in their territory, for planning purposes. When I blurted, “But I have so much respect for you people” the outreach worker pointed out, “That’s the problem, you think of us as ‘you people’.” Ouch.

The bulk of my experiences since then have been less fraught. I’m making fewer assumptions, while practicing respect and getting it back. Lately I’ve been helping to craft a co-management plan for a new type of protected area for a special island off BC’s north coast. The “Conservancy” designation specifically accommodates activities necessary for the exercise of aboriginal rights, and the preservation and maintenance of social, ceremonial and cultural uses of First Nations. I have also worked on a project looking specifically at “First Nations Rights, Concerns and Interests Related to MPAs on Canada’s Pacific Coast”. I tried to pack the report with as many practical ideas for building relationships as I could, within the top priority of respecting rights and title.

While potholes in the intercultural path forward are being smoothed out, I still sometimes yearn for the day that relationships are generally simpler, more friendship-based. My mother’s father, who was a foreman at a north coast fish cannery, passed down to us a bit of Chinook – the language that served as a tangible bridge between all groups. On that day that I’m looking forward to, my First Nation colleagues and I will welcome each other the way our grandparents did, with a “Klahowya tillicum” – “Greetings, friend.” We’re already part way there.

Julie Gardner, Ph.D., is a Principal in Dovetail Consulting, based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. She works to bring calm, compassion and clarity to challenging environmental issues, through research and facilitation for governments, including First Nations, and ENGOs.