This story was produced by The Tyee, a We Are Not Divided collaborator
It started, like many modern relationships do, with a smile and then a swipe.
On April 12, when Julie Arps first messaged Lynt Harris on Plenty of Fish, the world around them was growing increasingly unrecognizable. The novel coronavirus had infected just over a million people worldwide. New York’s skyrocketing death toll was front page news. The pandemic had sent the world economy into a tailspin and shut down international borders, including the one between Arps and Harris’s homes.
Arps lives in Ferndale, Washington, just a 45 minute drive away from Harris’s home in Surrey, British Columbia. Before the virus came along, neither of them thought of the U.S.-Canada border as much of an obstacle. Arps says she’s a fan of Vancouver’s sushi and Stanley Park. Harris says he’s taken his family to visit Washington as many as eight times in a typical year. But 2020 refused to be typical.
The ban on travel between Canada and the U.S. hadn’t registered when Harris was crafting his reply; instead he was worried about responding too instantly. Harris says he waited a full day before messaging Arps back, just to be safe.
But a few messages soon snowballed into long chats on WhatsApp and Zoom, often spanning late into the night. “As soon as we started the video chat I could just tell that he is special,” Arps told me over Zoom in late September. I found myself mirroring her smile as she talked about the moment she knew this wasn’t just a fleeting app-enabled flirtation. He’s a good man in a way that’s hard to explain, she said. Her beaming eyes said the rest.
Harris found himself captivated by her calm and sense of humor in the face of so much strangeness. He gave Arps a grand tour over video chat — of his house, his job, his previous marriage, his two kids in their twenties, and everything in between. Arps has kids of a similar age and works as a teacher in Blaine, the last American stop before the duty-free parking lot. It was her son who first suggested that they take their dates to the Peace Arch park along the border, which straddles the 49th parallel and is accessible to residents of both countries. The Peace Arch park is unique — a green space in which U.S. and Canadian citizens can co-mingle, as long as they don’t cross the park’s perimeter into the other country.
“He’s actually a longtime friend of ours because my younger son is best friends with his son,” Arps said. “He walked me all the way through the park to meet Lynt. He told us where we could go in the park and where we were free to roam and hang out and everything.”
In those still-early days of lockdown, a reopened border didn’t seem too far away, Arps told me. They met two or three times a week in the afternoons when Harris got off work, which was a blissful diversion from all the state-ordered isolation. They held hands, ate snacks on a picnic blanket, and tossed a frisbee surrounded by other reunited couples and families. At one of their first meetings Harris gave Arps a remote to open the gate outside his building. “When she comes in, she can just kind of drive through,” he explained.
Then the goal posts moved back a month, and then another. Even though businesses were allowed to reopen and shelter-in-place orders were lifted, Canada’s ban on non-essential travel did not ease up over the summer. “It’s been extended six times now,” Arps said.
Harris and Arps have continued to stay hopeful through rain, wildfire smoke, and even a temporary closure of the Peace Arch park. In June the park’s south entrance was barricaded over crowd concerns, so Saunders suggested a lesser-known meeting place along Zero Avenue at the international border near Abbotsford, B.C.
“It was not the safest place,” Arps said of the grassy “border ditch” where they met for just a few weeks. With tall grass and uneven ground in the middle, and a fast-moving highway on the edges, it was a short drive but a great distance from the stately “together in unity”-inscripted Peace Arch monument.
Despite the unglamorous setting, Arps and Harris smiled through unseasonably cold June weather. It was there they met Czech photographer David Tesinsky, who noticed their umbrellas and lawn chairs by the side of the road.
“From my first look, when I saw them sitting less than a meter apart, I really felt it’s a love story,”Tesinsky told me for a story in July. Across a 50 kilometer stretch of road, Harris and Arps were one of two couples braving the elements in what looked like the middle of nowhere.
Harris and Arps were able to return to their preferred transnational picnic spot later that month, and Tesinsky visited them there, too. As reporters like myself started to take interest in their blossoming relationship, fellow park attendees started recognizing them.
“Just the other day a young couple came up to us and asked if we were the couple in the article,” Arps said, referring to aheartfelt Maclean’s profile in September. “They had actually made this remarkable trip from Michigan and Ontario, just to meet in the park.”
Arps was amazed to hear that long-distance couples were making cross-country journeys just to share the same fresh air during a global pandemic. She’s since received social media messages from people in Oregon and Alberta asking about the park. “It’s such a special place for us,” she said.
Harris told me the attention takes him out of his comfort zone a little, but he’s glad to inspire others to connect. There’s a second wave of infections and a high-stakes American election outcome on the way, so spreading kindness and hope feels more radical than ever.
With Covid-19 cases rising, days getting shorter and rain coming down more than ever, Harris and Arps know their personal challenges aren’t going away soon. The park closes when the sun sets, which will mean less time together during the week over the winter months. “It’s just going to be kind of restricted to the weekends,” said Harris.
Both Arps and Harris say they’re still hopeful that restrictions will ease up a little, if not entirely. “We’ve got more control of things now, I think we’re safer than we were,” said Harris. “We’ve got more knowledge about how to protect ourselves.”
Harris and Arps are still a few months away from celebrating a one year anniversary, but their plans together extend a lot further into the future. “I’m obviously really devoted to Jules, so I keep a smile on my face,” Harris said. “Eventually things will open up.”
Arps knows that one day she’ll be able to use the remote Harris gave her. When that finally happens, she says she doesn’t imagine anything too fancy — just some quality time, and maybe a bike ride together.
“I try to keep it in perspective and think about the big picture,” Arps said. “In the long term, this isn’t as big a deal as it will be in the future. And we’re going to have a good story to tell.”
At 5 a.m. on August 11, 2018, city workers in yellow vests and hard hats arrived at City Hall in Victoria, British Columbia. It was a cloudy morning in the small coastal provincial capital, and even at the early hour a crowd was gathering. The workers flanked a bronze statue of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, which stood behind a tall metal fence. Cinching ropes around Macdonald’s neck as the sun broke through the clouds, they hoisted the figure off its base.
As the statue swung toward a waiting flatbed truck, a dozen protesters linked arms, singing the Canadian national anthem. A handful of counter activists responded with their own chant: “Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye!”
At 7:30 a.m. the truck pulled away with its burden, on its way to placing the nation’s founding father in the hidden confines of a city storage facility.
Macdonald’s Victoria likeness joins a growing heap of discarded monuments to controversial figures around the world: Violent colonialists. Slave traders. Genocidal politicians.
In 2015, after a long and emotional “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign led by Black South Africans, the University of Cape Town toppled a statue of famed imperialist Cecil Rhodes, whose policies laid the foundations for Apartheid. That same year, a movement to do away with U.S. confederate monuments gained traction. By 2018, more than 100 of them had been plucked from their former places of pride and many others faced harsh scrutiny.
This moment peaked when the Charlottesville, Virginia city council voted in favor of removing a statue of Confederate Civil War general Robert E. Lee, sparking an infamous eruption in the streets between white nationalist groups and counter protesters. The feud climaxed when right-wing extremist James Fields drove his car into the crowd, hospitalizing 19 people and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer, a supporter of the removal. Fields pled guilty to 29 charges of hate crimes and was sentenced to life plus 419 years in prison. Charlottesville’s monument to Lee is still standing.
Since June this year, Charlottesville’s Lee statue and countless other monuments around the world have come under renewed scrutiny amid global anti-racism protests. Hundreds of statues have been removed almost overnight by city governments, or dealt with by protestors: smeared with red paint, toppled from their podiums, beheaded.
Yet few of the cities where these statues have fallen have deeper plans to address the roots of these interventions, as though removing the visible symbol of racism or hatred — the monument — somehow absolves the city of the duty to deal with that problem further. For example, “Many of the cities that have made symbolic gestures in support of Black activists and communities in recent weeks have also declined to cut police budgets as drastically as activists had hoped,” the Boston Globereported.
More than ever, it seems, the world is desperate for a how-to guide for taking statue removal beyond the symbol, to the system. That’s what makes Victoria’s story special.
Bill Stewart is Métis, a term which refers to people of mixed Indigenous and European ancestry or, in a legal context, descendants of specific communities in Ontario and the Prairies.
Stewart had publicly advocated for the removal of Macdonald’s statue from Victoria City Hall. When he arrived at the scene shortly after it had been removed, someone showed him a picture of the statue hoisted by its neck.
“Debates over statues and monuments are often framed in terms of being about the past. I would argue they’re more about the present, and what values we want to continue forward with into the future.”
He immediately thought of the historic Métis leader Louis Riel, who was hanged for treason by Macdonald’s government in 1885 for leading an uprising to defend Métis and First Nations rights. “It was a symbolic hanging,” Stewart says of the statue.
Stewart, who is 54, was taken from his birth mother as a newborn and adopted into a white family in Kitchener, Ontario. He only discovered he was Métis in his twenties, after years of abuse from his adoptive mother.
“I spent the majority of my life seeing myself as a white man,” explains Stewart, but “I was raised being discriminated against for being Métis.”
Stewart wouldn’t understand the full implications of his Métis identity for another 20 years after his discovery. Upon meeting several survivors of the “Sixties Scoop” — an assimilationist child welfare practice in Canada, where at least 20,000 young First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were taken from their families and adopted into other, predominantly white, households — Stewart realized he, too, had survived the Scoop.
Many of the figures whose statues have been felled in recent years represent colonial power exerted ruthlessly and violently. But Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada’s schoolchildren have been taught to understand, embodied a different ethos.
In national lore, Macdonald has been portrayed as the gentle if imperfect George Washington of Canada and a deal-maker with mother England. Textbooks praise him as the person most responsible for uniting Canada under confederation in 1867 and building a transcontinental railroad when few thought it possible.
What Canadian schools have not taught until recently — a change accelerated by specific requests from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission — is that confederation was achieved on the backs of Indigenous people, whose culture Macdonald worked to explicitly destroy as Canada’s longest-serving superintendent-general of Indian Affairs. He pushed forward the Indian Residential School System and the Department of Indian Affairs, the foundations of Canada’s assimilationist policies, with the explicit aim to eradicate Indigenous culture and “get rid of the Indian problem.”
Last year the federally funded Canadian Museum of Human Rightsrecognized that the Indian Residential Schools system, which ran until the final school closed in Saskatchewan in 1996, was a violation of the United Nations Genocide Convention.
The Sixties Scoop (which lasted officially until the 1990s, and some argue continues unofficially to this day) was an extension of that system: In both programs, the practice was to remove Indigenous children from their homes at a young age, often without parental consent, while they could still be “civilized” and taught Western ways, as the then-Minister of Public Works Hector Langevin told the House of Commons in 1883.
For Stewart, a monument paying homage to Macdonald is “not an academic issue. It’s something that strikes very close to home.”
Protesters on the day of the removal included members of the white extremist group Soldiers of Odin and the hard-right BC Proud group. But many with less radical leanings also take their side.
“When you place an individual on a pedestal in public space, it makes it very difficult to tell a complex narrative about that individual. The focus is on honoring them and glorifying their legacy.”
A national survey found that 55 percent of Canadians opposed the statue’s removal, twice as many as those who supported it. Seven in 10 Canadians believe “the name and image of John A. Macdonald should remain in public view,” the survey also found.
The heated debate sparked by the statue’s removal did not surprise Reuben Rose-Redwood, an associate professor of geography at the University of Victoria. “Statues in particular are these focal points for conflicts over culture and values,” says Rose-Redwood, who has spent the past decade publishing research about “commemorative landscapes” — physical signs and statues which memorialize, and often celebrate, certain people, events, or values. “It’s taking our values, which are this intangible thing, and materializing it in the actual landscape,” he adds. It gives us somewhere tangible to point to, or go, to fight over these values in the real world.
Rose-Redwood also argues that monuments prohibit nuance. “When you place an individual on a pedestal in public space, it makes it very difficult to tell a complex narrative about that individual. The focus is on honoring them and glorifying their legacy,” he says. Certain values that may be unjust or otherwise outdated “become part of the landscape. They become taken for granted and normalized. We’re placing our values literally in stone.”
Rose-Redwood was in attendance as Macdonald’s monument was carted away. He held a sign reading: “We aren’t erasing history, we’re making it.”
The claim that removing a statue is erasing history has become a central refrain among those who object to similar actions around the world. Scholars of memorialization are quick to counter this claim emphasizing that statues are not history in and of themselves.
“Debates over statues and monuments are often framed in terms of being about the past,” Rose-Redwood explains. “I would argue they’re more about the present, and what values we want to continue forward with into the future.”
The statue of Macdonald is a prime example of this: it was only erected 38 years ago, in 1982, in a city he had only visited once, and was unilaterally approved by a conservative mayor confident the act would win support.
Historian and University of Manitoba professor Adele Perry wrote in an op-ed for the Winnipeg Free Press that it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that Canadians began to commemorate Macdonald as the founder of Canada. Macdonald’s face didn’t even appear on the ten dollar bill until 1971.
Perry argues that these commemorative acts at this time in Canada’s history “mainly tell us about the aspirations and anxieties of some English-speaking Canadians” during a period “marked by Québécois nationalism, Indigenous resistance, the challenges of feminism and a Canada that was less and less white.”
Similar belated commemoration practices forcing a certain narrative of the past during periods of unrest are common around the world. In the United States, most of the early commemorative statues erected immediately following the Civil War were general memorials to the fallen soldiers from both sides. A report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, however, shows most of the Confederate monuments now hotly contested weren’t installed until two key points in American history: during the Jim Crow Era in the South, and at the peak of the Civil Rights movement. The statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, for example, was erected more than five decades after his death, in 1924, in the Jim Crow South.
“I think it’s important to understand that one of the meanings of these monuments when they’re put up, is to try to settle the meaning of the war,” Jane Dailey, an associate professor of history at the University of Chicago, told NPR. “But also the shape of the future, by saying that elite Southern whites are in control and are going to build monuments to themselves effectively.”
Bill Stewart’s mission to see John A. Macdonald toppled in Victoria reached a very public moment at a City Council meeting on September 21, 2017.
In his pocket was a speech he’d carefully written. “I completely scrapped it,” he says, because that same day Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau had made his points more grandly, and more forcefully, in front of the United Nations General Assembly. Instead, Stewart told Victoria’s politicians what Trudeau had told the world.
“Canada is built on the ancestral land of Indigenous Peoples,” Trudeau began, “but regrettably, it’s also a country that came into being without the meaningful participation of those who were there first… For Indigenous Peoples in Canada, the experience was mostly one of humiliation, neglect and abuse.”
“The failure of successive Canadian governments to respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada is our great shame. And for many Indigenous Peoples, this lack of respect for their rights persists to this day.” Trudeau pledged that Indigenous-Canadian relations would change, promising Canada would begin to abide by the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. If Trudeau’s words were to be taken seriously, Stewart told Victoria’s city councillors, they would address the Macdonald statue outside their front door.
He wasn’t the first, or the last, to make that demand. The city had already declared 2017 the “Year of Reconciliation” with Indigenous people, including a Witness Reconciliation Program meant to facilitate dialogue between the City of Victoria and the Lekwungen People, now known as the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations.
The initiative was spearheaded by City Councillor Marianne Alto, who first suggested a task force for reconciliation with the Lekwungen People, on whose traditional lands the city sits.
But the Nations didn’t feel a task force was reflective of their culture.
Through a conversation with the chiefs and councils of the two Nations, the city realized if they were going to do the work of decolonization, they needed to find a more Indigenous method for working together. On the advice of the Songhees and Esquimalt, they created a “City Family” which would operate in a relaxed, non-hierarchical way.
TheCity Family has met monthly in the Mayor’s office since June 2017, and is made up of Mayor Lisa Helps, a few city councillors including Alto, and members of the Songhees, Esquimalt and urban Indigenous communities — always with more Indigenous than non-Indigenous members.
“It was a very organic and slow-moving discussion. That has been a tremendous learning experience for all of us who are not Indigenous: how unhelpful it often is to rush.”
On one evening each month, the diverse members of the City Family congregate in the more relaxed part of Mayor Helps’ office. They sit on couches and chairs in a circle as they share a meal. Conversation flows with no strict agenda, and although Mayor Helps is officially the leader of this family, “No one is higher than the other,” affirms Florence Dick, a member of Songhees Nation and of the City Family since March 2019. “We come in as equal.”
It didn’t take long for the John A. Macdonald statue to arise in those early gatherings. Councillor Alto recalls that before members of the City Family had grown to know and trust each other, “there was this almost palpable sense of discomfort with some of the members.” It took a few months before someone finally asked what was wrong.
Initially one person bravely shared that every time they went to City Hall, walking past the statue of Macdonald made them “feel taken aback and uncomfortable,” Alto recounts. All the Indigenous members agreed. This started lengthy conversations among the City Family about how best to address the trauma of the statue, which lasted for about eight months.
“It was a very organic and slow-moving discussion,” says Alto. “That has been a tremendous learning experience for all of us who are not Indigenous: how unhelpful it often is to rush.”
Finally, they agreed to keep the decision about removing the statue simple. They brought their idea to the local Nations’ councils for feedback and support. Everyone agreed the City of Victoria would claim responsibility for the decision to remove the statue in order to minimize the likelihood of the Indigenous people involved in the process being attacked. A plaque, co-written by the members of the City Family, would go where the statue had once stood.
“We said, we’re not going to make it happen with a lot of fanfare, we’re not going to provide an opportunity for people to become charged about this,” Councillor Alto says.
Mayor Helps is guided by the view that it’s crucial to honor the opinions of the “most deeply affected people,” in this case the local Indigenous community. Both Helps and Alto emphasize that anyone committed to tackling systemic racism or injustice or addressing a problematic monument in their community needs to think first, and constantly, about process. “You can’t just do things the way you’re used to.”
“It’s not just the act that should be reconciliatory, but also the process,” adds Helps. “The process is almost more important than the statue removal.”
This is the most pronounced difference between Victoria’s approach to toppling a contested memorial, and how it has been done elsewhere in the world. When they created the City Family, they were focused on a larger goal of reconciliation and meaningful relationship building, not the removal of Macdonald’s likeness. But when they learned they couldn’t build positive relationships as long as Macdonald loomed over their proceedings, they responded to the need voiced by every Indigenous member of their Family: that he had to go in order for the real work to begin.
When Bill Stewart heard Macdonald was losing his place of honor in Victoria, his thought was celebratory: “Wow, this is actually happening.”
Not pleased was the statue’s sculptor, John Dann. In anopinion piece he wrote for the Globe and Mail, he argued that while he was concerned about the treatment of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, removing his statue was the wrong way to address Macdonald’s legacy.
“The piece was conceived without a pedestal and it was placed in a somewhat enclosed space that facilitated an intimacy with it,” Dann wrote. “It did not aggrandize the man, but was a reflection of his humanity, on our shared humanity, with all its strengths, weaknesses, confidence and insecurities.”
For Florence Dick, the uniting of Canada into a single nation was not a noble act led by a flawed man, but a calamity of subjugation for Indigenous Peoples. Macdonald’s bronze presence at City Hall inflicted a repeated insult to her mind and soul.
“Every time we went there, it still didn’t feel comfortable. It still didn’t feel right,” she says. The statue of Macdonald, representing the colonial establishment of Canada, was experienced by Dick and her elders as a daily violent reminder of their place in the colonial system.
When she heard the statue was gone, she immediately thought of her daughter and her three-year-old granddaughter. “I felt joy,” says Dick. “Now my grandkids, when they become leaders of our people, won’t have that over them. They can officially walk in as equal. I couldn’t do that. My parents couldn’t do that. My elders couldn’t do that.”
Dick feels hopeful about the world her granddaughter will grow up in. Not just because one statue was removed, but due to the entire process of reconciliation happening within the City of Victoria.
“I see people taking statues down all over Canada and the U.S., but not understanding our point of view,” says Dick. Victoria, in contrast, is taking measures to break down the centuries-old barriers between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the area, Dick feels. Victoria is providing reconciliation training for all city staff and has hosted a conversation series organized by the City Family to educate the public about the history of Victoria and the Lekwungen People, the principles of UNDRIP and the impacts of colonization on Indigenous Peoples in Canada.
In addition, the 2019-2022Strategic Plan for the City of Victoria outlines 17 specific actions to be taken for “Reconciliation and Indigenous Relations.” The actions should create systemic change, says Mayor Helps, and ensure reconciliation becomes “embedded in the practice of the city” through a diverse range of measures, from increased visibility of Indigenous Peoples and cultures throughout the city to more difficult conversations about land sovereignty.
Another goal? To make the City Family a “core program” for Victoria.“No one can create a program that is untouchable, but we can make it as difficult as possible to break it down,” says Alto. “That’s the goal.”
Alto keeps alive in her memory a story told to her by an Indigenous Elder at an early meeting about how to advance reconciliation in Victoria.
“This program is like all things,” the Elder said, “a journey that starts with a canoe. And you get in a canoe and set off on the river. You know that eventually all rivers lead to the ocean, but they all take different routes.
“Once in a while you’ll get stuck in an eddy, or hit a branch, and it may seem to you that it slows or impedes your progress. But at that moment something else will happen which is important for you to see and learn.”
“Eventually, you will reach the ocean. It may take you a very long time, or a short time.” Most importantly, says Alto, “reaching the ocean is not reconciliation. Being on the river is reconciliation.”
Bill Stewart, for his part, is pleased to see a new bend in that river. “I grew up with the idea of Canada the Good, and I shared that dream,” he says. Taking satisfaction in the demise of a monument to John A. Macdonald is “not about trying to tear it down,” he says. It’s about “trying to move from the ideal of Canada the Good to the reality.”
Cole Pauls is a Tahltan comic artist, illustrator and printmaker hailing from Haines Junction (Yukon Territory) with a BFA in illustration from Emily Carr University. Residing in Vancouver, Pauls focuses on his two comic series, Pizza Punks: a self contained comic strip about punks eating pizza, and Dakwäkãda Warriors. In 2017, Pauls won Broken Pencil Magazine’s Best Comic and Best Zine of the Year Award for Dakwäkãda Warriors II. In 2020, Dakwäkãda Warriors won Best Work in an Indigenous Language from the Indigenous Voices Awards and was nominated for the Doug Wright Award categories, The Egghead & The Nipper.
This story was produced by CBC q, a We Are Not Divided collaborator
When Rafael Lozano-Hemmer was growing up in Mexico City, he didn’t exactly have a typical childhood.
A self-professed “unsupervised nerdy child,” he read and re-read Guillaume Apollinaire’s transgressive erotic novel Les Onze Mille Verges that his uncle Federico had left behind.
He had a coin collection that he would organize according to metal alloy, date, country, emblem and mint. He played American football — “badly” — for a team called Patriotas del Parque Unido.
He performed in commercials for bread, chocolate and shoes, and synthesized bakelite with his grandfather, an amateur chemist. (The grandfather thought it would bring fame and fortune, only to discover it had been invented six decades earlier.)
But the Mexican-Canadian artist also did something that few kids can claim: his parents owned a string of disco nightclubs, salsa clubs and drag bars, and the young Lozano-Hemmer regularly hung out at those hotspots.
“I used to be super proud of this because I spent so much time in these clubs. I was seven years old and spending time with Rudy Calzado and Celia Cruz and all the salsa stars. Now I go to psychotherapy because it’s not okay to send your kids to nightclubs and discotheques,” said Lozano-Hemmer with a laugh, speaking with CBC Radio’s q host Tom Power.
“But I grew up among strobe lights and color-changing lights. And I think it informs part of my practice. I really like to throw a good party.”
Known for his stunning, large-scale installations involving light, the artist later relocated to Montreal, where he earned a degree in physical chemistry from Concordia University. But it’s the human chemistry he conjures through his work that has won accolades around the globe, as well as a fiercely faithful following.
Last year, Lozano-Hemmer’s pieceBorder Tuner made headlines as it invited people on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border to move massive searchlights until two beams joined. When one person’s light met another’s, they could speak with the person on the opposite side.
In Pulse Tank, which has been exhibited in cities from Washington D.C. to Geneva to Istanbul, participants’ heartbeats are transformed into waves of water that trigger a light display.
In Voice Tunnel, visitors to New York’s Park Avenue Tunnel could speak into an intercom that recorded and looped their voices; the sound was then piped through 150 speakers and matched with Morse code-like flashes of light.
Many artists work with light as a medium, says Lozano-Hemmer, but they often use it to represent enlightenment or spirituality. Growing up amid swirling disco lights — and in environments where people could step out of the everyday and be whoever they wanted — gave Lozano-Hemmer’s work a different spin.
Like a great nightclub, he argues, art provides a kind of interruption to normal life, and a platform for people to relate to each other in different ways.
“Most of my work is interactive. Participation is not only invited, but fundamental to the existence of the artwork,” says Lozano-Hemmer, who has created commissioned works for the European Union’s expansion in Dublin, the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and the opening of the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, to name a few.
“A lot of my works are activated by cameras or by sensors, or by microphones that pick up the activity of the public, and then that becomes the artwork itself. So if you have no public, there’s nothing to show.”
Lozano-Hemmer’s works always have a public. But what happens when a global pandemic strikes? The answer can be found in Cercanía, a creative residency and exhibition at Arsenal Contemporary Art Montreal that is exploring themes of proximity and shared experience — without putting people at risk.
“While most of the pieces are immersive and interactive, there are no buttons, no levers, no surfaces to touch,” he says, adding the name is a Spanish word that means proximity, but also implies intimacy and complicity.
“The Mexican activists used to say, ‘We’re not asking you guys to dream. We’re asking you to wake up.’ And I think that art is a little bit like that.”
Set in the 18,000 square-foot space — the artist calls it “gargantuan and beautiful” — the ever-shifting show features 12 pieces, among them a 2,300-channel sound sculpture, a computerized shadow play and a 30-meter-long interactive projection room.
In Sustained Coincidence, people’s shadows are tracked and overlapped, so they can create a blended portrait while keeping a safe distance. Another piece, OnPulse, extracts people’s heartbeats with a camera using a process called plethysmography, then sends them a three-dimensional artwork online and allows them to connect with other “hearts.” (People can also participate remotely at OnPulse.net.)
In Pareidolium, visitors walk up to a reflecting pool, and a small camera uses face detection to capture their image, then activates hundreds of ultrasonic atomizers that convert the cold water into plumes of vapor. So for a fleeting moment, they see their own face in the mist before it vanishes.
“A lot of my work lately is about how we relate to our atmosphere, which is our biosphere,” says Lozano-Hemmer, pointing to the fact that humans are facing massive challenges including Covid-19 and climate change.
“So there’s the idea that the atmosphere is beautiful,” he says. “But it also has all of these issues we need to be aware of. So for me to work with vapor, to work with the atmosphere, is a way to make tangible the medium through which we live.”
Inspired by everything from carnival to animatronics to phantasmagoria — a centuries-old type of horror theater involving spooky projections — Lozano-Hemmer has worked with robotic lights, computerized surveillance, media walls and telematic networks. To him, technology isn’t a tool; it has become so enmeshed with our everyday lives that it has become a second skin. “I call it normal,” he says. “I call it natural.”
But while the artist’s works are visually dazzling, the cutting-edge tech also entices participants into something far more intimate and personal — and at times unabashedly political, making visceral the injustices that countless people face.
His 2015 work Level of Confidence uses facial recognition technology to examine the viewer’s face, then applies biometric surveillance algorithms to determine how closely they match the faces of 43 students who were kidnapped from a school in Iguala, Mexico.
Lozano-Hemmer presented Border Tuner along the line between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez Chihuahua in Mexico — sister cities that have operated in tandem for centuries, and where some politicians are trying to construct divides.
“You have people who have coexisted for a long time, who have family on both sides. And now you get a very adversarial nationalist narrative of building borders and walls and Mexicans are rapists and they’re dogs and they should be shot in the legs. I’m just quoting the president of the United States,” says Lozano-Hemmer.
“So how do we make an artwork that completely forgets about this division and creates a way to connect people from both sides? The idea was to not so much create bridges between the two cities, but just to highlight that those bridges exist.”
Among the hundreds of participants who maneuvred spotlights to communicate with people on the other side were children, poets, historians, a U.S. Vietnam vet who had been deported to Mexico and a drag queen wrestler named Cassandro el Exotico.
“You’d have families who were being reunited through the piece, so it was super emotional. Other times you’d have people flirting with each other or serenading each other,” says Lozano-Hemmer. “It was incredible.”
But even though Lozano-Hemmer’s works bring people together, they can also be deeply uncomfortable. His pre-Covid piece Asphyxiation Chamber offered people the opportunity to walk into a sealed room filled with nothing but other people’s exhalations — despite glaring warnings of potential asphyxiation, oxygen deprivation, panic and contagion.
When he created the work, which he intended as a comment on how participation isn’t inherently positive, Lozano-Hemmer assumed nobody would try it. “We’ve shown it in five different countries. There’s a lineup and everybody wants to go in, to feel what it is to breathe this recycled toxic air,” says Lozano-Hemmer.
“In this piece, if you participate too much, you die,” he said. “And crucially, if you’re in that work, you make it more toxic for future participants.”
One of the works in Cercanía is an upside-down noose that works as a metronome, and swings every 10 seconds to mark every time someone in North America gets shot by a gun.
“By bringing these kinds of thematics that may be social or philosophical or historical or political, you make the works current. It forces you to think about data. It forces you to think about the idea that this is not all neutral and beautiful, but there are also some serious concerns,” says Lozano-Hemmer, pointing to surveillance, the erosion of democracy and racism.
Lozano-Hemmer’s disco upbringing made him want to draw people together, but also for them to reflect on how ephemeral it all is.
“There’s a Zapatista slogan. The Mexican activists used to say, ‘We’re not asking you guys to dream. We’re asking you to wake up.’ And I think that art is a little bit like that,” says Lozano-Hemmer, whose unforgettable works are in the collections of many top museums, among them New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Guggenheim, London’s Tate Modern and Montreal’s Musée d’art Contemporain.
There is a place for art to be dreamy and beautiful, and to distract people from their concerns, he said, pointing to Matisse, who believed that art should be like a good armchair in which to rest. But there’s also a role for art to be activist, and to ask critical questions about the moment in which we live.
“Brian Eno used to say that in a perfume you always have to have a pungent smell because that’s the one that captures your attention. If it’s all sweet and fruity, it’s not going to be a good perfume,” he said.
“A good perfume has to have a little bit of a punch.”
Digital lead producers: Tahiat Mahboob, Ruby Buiza | Copy editor: Brandie Weikle | Web development: Geoff Isaac | Video producer: Andrew Alba | Radio producer: Vanessa Greco | | Executive producers: Ann MacKeigan, Paul Gorbould
Ry Moran is the founding director of Canada’s National Center for Truth and Reconciliation, the repository for the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which completed its work in 2015. In that position, he faces a weighty task: To guide Canada’s journey to righting a horrific wrong. For decades, Indigenous children in Canada were placed in residential schools, where their culture was systematically stripped of them in a process of forced assimilation. Now, through the TRC, the country is working to reconcile these acts. But as Moran puts it, before reconciliation must come truth. See the transcript of this video here.
This story was produced by CBC q, a We Are Not Divided collaborator
Standing in front of an audience at last fall’s Toronto Biennial of Art, AA Bronson was nervous. As a member of the General Idea collective, founder of the NY Art Book Fair and a leading conceptual artist, the 74-year-old was no stranger to public performance — but this was different.
For the first time, Bronson was going to deliver his text A Public Apology to Siksika Nation — the culmination of a five-year project he had been “hurtling towards” for the last seven decades. It was so essential that when he started it, he stopped making other art.
Two-spirit Blackfoot artist Adrian Stimson, clothed in ceremonial dress, was among those who had gathered, along with several Siksika elders, all of them survivors of Canada’s notoriously brutal residential schools — including the Old Sun Indian Residential School, which operated on the Siksika reserve until 1971.
Bronson — who was born Michael Tims — and Stimson have a lot in common. They’re both queer artists working in a range of media; they’re both known for groundbreaking performance art; they’re both recipients of Governor General’s Awards and other high honors.
But their history dates back to over a century ago to the Alberta plains where their ancestors were sworn enemies.
Stimson’s great-great-great-grandfather was Chief Old Sun, a renowned Blackfoot leader and reluctant signatory to Treaty 7, the 1877 agreement with the Canadian Crown that imposed the reserve system and removed most of the Siksika’s rights to their traditional lands.
“He was highly suspicious of the newcomers,” Stimson says in an interview with q host Tom Power. “He didn’t want to sign the treaty, but in the end he acquiesced. He was a bit of a rebel and a very fearless leader.”
Six years later, in 1883, Bronson’s great-grandfather, Rev. John William Tims, became the first Anglican missionary sent to the Siksika nation, where he was tasked with building the community’s first church and residential school.
As was the case across Canada, Indigenous children were taken from their parents and forced into residential schools where they were physically, sexually and emotionally abused, creating profound intergenerational trauma that still ricochets through the community half a century after Old Sun closed. Many call it a cultural genocide.
“[Rev. Tims] took the children away from their parents, he forbade them to speak their own language or practice their own customs or wear their own clothes,” Bronson says of his ancestor. “And he did his best to destroy Siksika culture.”
In a bitter twist, the Siksika school was named after Stimson’s ancestor, Chief Old Sun.
“It’s ironic that his name would be used in an institution that was meant to kill the Indian in the child,” says Stimson, who himself suffered abuse at residential schools.
According to oral histories from both artists’ families, diphtheria and tuberculosis swept through the schools in 1895.
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“Children were dying, and sadly, Reverend Tims would not allow those children to go home,” says Stimson. “So you can imagine the sadness and anger the parents felt.”
An uprising followed, and the church and the school were burned to the ground. Siksika people warned Tims he should leave or he would be killed.
For decades, Bronson wanted to confront this history in his art. The combination of his advancing age, growing public awareness of Indigenous issues and a call from the Canada Council for works that marked 150 years of Canadian history spurred him to move ahead.
While various governments and religious groups have offered apologies, Indigenous people continue to be overrepresented in the country’s jails and prisons, face racism in policing, and have higher rates of violence against women, poverty and infant mortality.
So when Bronson first approached the community about making an apology, they hesitated.
“There’s the saying, ‘Walk the talk.’ And when apologies are given, often the walk afterwards is either nonexistent or very slow. So there is cynicism,” says Stimson, who took the idea to Siksika elders. Myrna Youngman, one of the elders, noted apologies were rare, and suggested they listen.
“The cynicism went away at that point, and we decided that this is important,” remembered Stimson. “Let’s listen to him. He’s approaching us in the right way.”
He invited Bronson, who stepped into his artistic alter ego Buffalo Boy — a wryly humorous and gender-fluid spin on Buffalo Bill — to the Siksika Nation for a special dinner.
At the table, Stimson and several elders asked difficult questions about the nature of apologies, and the painful history between Rev. John William Tims and the Siksika people.
“It’s really meaningful that you’re acknowledging what your grandfather did. He wasn’t made to do it. He did what he did and you’re acknowledging it, which means a lot,” says Youngman, pushing back tears, in an episode of CBC’s In The Making that documented the dinner.
Stimson also took Bronson to the school.
“I don’t know how it stays standing,” Bronson says. “If I were Siksika, I would burn it down again.”
Bronson, along with research assistant Ben Miller, spent months poring through archival photographs, journals, documents and news reports. Many accounts had portions destroyed or removed, in particular, those that dealt with the uprising.
“In the records of the Anglican Church, there was no such uprising — just Tims was reassigned to a different church after some vague trouble. It really was erased from history,” says Bronson. Through Miller’s diligent research, they pieced the story together.
“And of course, the story comes from the dinner table. It comes from stories that my father told and my grandfather told.”
In Bronson’s apology, which he published as a book, he speaks directly to Old Sun, Red Crow, Chief White Pup and other chiefs of the late 19th century; to the children who suffered at residential schools; to the parents who lost their children to abuse and disease; to the medicine men who couldn’t attend to the dying; and to those who participated in the Siksika uprising.
“I have no excuse for the slaughter of the buffalo, nor the genocide of First Nations,” he writes. “I have no excuse for decades of mass incarceration and abuse of children, disguised as residential schools, disguised as ‘for their own good.’”
Bronson also speaks to those in later generations who have experienced abuse, HIV/AIDS, suicide and murder. At the end of the book is a meticulously detailed timeline of events, an essay about the Siksika rebellion and archival photographs.
“It’s an invocation of the dead. It’s inviting the dead to join us in considering this piece of history. And I do believe we are a community of the living and the dead. We can’t escape that. The dead are part of us, and that needs to be acknowledged,” says Bronson.
“And that harm that my ancestors did to Adrian’s ancestors needs to be acknowledged and brought into the room. And we need to sit with that history.”
Stimson has heard and read the apology many times. But he is clearly moved when he hears Bronson read from it.
“It still resonates,” he says, his voice cracking.
“When the government apologizes, that’s fine, and a lot of people did a lot of work around that. But the real acts of conciliation happen between individuals.” (Stimson prefers to say conciliation, arguing that conciliation needs to be achieved before reconciliation is possible.)
“It’s the people themselves who have to take it upon themselves to find ways of creating relationships,” he says. “And it may not always end up in an apology. But it’s so important to understand that history, and look to ways of repairing or creating new relationships into the future.”
As an artistic response to the apology, Stimson created Iini Sookumapii: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, a recreation of the dinner table where he and the elders first met with Bronson, which was also on show at the Toronto Biennial.
Stimson asked Old Sun survivor Gordon Little Light to build a table similar to one that might have been found at the school, then appointed it with fine silver and dinnerware — a stark opposite to what Indigenous children would have experienced.
“Then I put a little bronze bison on each plate, sort of looking at the diner as a way of interrogating,” explains Stimson. For millennia, bison were a primary source of food, clothing, commerce and ceremony for the Blackfoot people; white settlers wiped out their population, leading to deprivation and starvation.
“A lot of my work deals with the slaughter, which is very analogous to what happened at the table.”
A vase of white roses with one red rose, symbolizing the government’s aggressive push for assimilation, also sat on the table, while a light from the Old Sun school hung above.
Behind the table, a large photograph featured a group of boys at the school, some of them looking despondent, others smiling.
“It really struck me that all of those boys are now our fathers here on the nation, many who have passed and some who are still with us,” Stimson says.
“Although many were smiling, you could only imagine the heartache that existed from being taken away from their families and having to live in that school — and I certainly know that from my father’s own stories of being in that place.”
While the collaboration was first brought into public view at last year’s biennial, it didn’t end there. After witnessing the apology, Stimson and the elders shared it with the Siksika community. The book has also been widely distributed within the nation.
This spring, Stimson had planned to host a powwow where Bronson would make the apology directly to the community. But the Covid-19 pandemic put those plans on hold.
Of course, no apology could ever properly address a genocide, Bronson says.
“There’s no way to make up for what was done,” he says. “That’s impossible.”
Still, their collaboration speaks to the power of individual action. Recently, Stimson had to prepare a statement about the abuse he suffered at residential schools — a task that invariably triggers profound sadness and anger. But in the process, he realized working with Bronson has been healing.
“I know for the elders who were present, they’ve felt very much the same. They really felt somebody listened to them. And in listening to them, that hurt and that anger, that resentment, all those things that come with that history are somewhat lessened,” says Stimson.
“It never will ever go away. But at the same time, as you build trust, as you build friendships, as you come to know and come to understand that in the hearts of many people, there is a willingness to change and to address these things and move forward in a good way,” he says.
“Seeing that certainly gives us hope that other people will start doing this, and actually really start walking the walk of an apology.”
Digital lead producers: Tahiat Mahboob, Ruby Buiza | Copy editor: Lakshine Sathiyanathan | Web development: Geoff Isaac | Video producer: Andrew Alba | Radio producer: Cora Nijhawan | Executive producers: Ann MacKeigan, Paul Gorbould
This story was produced by CBC q, a We Are Not Divided collaborator
Simone Saunders and Tekikki Walker have never met each other in person. But the two artists found much in common with each other when they connected as part of a long-distance collaboration.
Their project is part of the Long Distance Art series, an initiative that connects different artists online, kind of like a matchmaking service for creators.
“Tekikki’s work was just mesmerizing to me: the Black content, the color palette, the vibrancy of her work,” Saunders, who is based in Calgary, tells q host Tom Power.
For Walker, who lives more than 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) away in Cleveland, the professional admiration was mutual.
“I love her work pretty much for the same reasons — a lot of the content and the vibrancy,” she says. “She just seemed like a really dope artist. And I was like, I’m so excited. I want to work with her.”
Saunders and Walker were put in touch with each other by Torontonian Nick Green, creator of the Social Distancing Series that spawned the Long Distance Art Series.
The series connects artists from a variety of media and artistic disciplines from around the world as a way to build bridges between artists and art-lovers as the Covid-19 pandemic makes in-person meetings difficult to impossible.
Both artists submitted a series of images in their preferred medium — digital collages from Walker, and textile “rug tufting” from Saunders.
The project also includes personal essays from both that compare and contrast their experiences with systemic racism and the unique ways that racism has manifested during the pandemic.
Saunders says they drew inspiration from a Washington Post story in April that described two Black men who were followed by police through a Walmart for wearing protective face masks.
They were particularly struck by Kip Diggs, a 53-year-old Nashville marketing consultant who chose to wear cloth masks in bright, pastel colors like Carolina blue and lime green to appear less intimidating to passersby, including police.
“It says a lot for someone like Diggs, a marketing consultant, to think about the ramifications that stems from stereotyping and how one’s appearance or wardrobe could warrant danger in the face of another crisis,” Walker wrote in her essay.
The story highlighted the fact that some societal schisms have been widened by the pandemic, rather than uniting them.
“We started talking about the pandemic itself … especially in terms of marginalized communities and how they were not receiving the equitable care that was deserving of them,” says Saunders.
“Unfortunately, [Covid-19] has had a greater impact on those in our community who face greater health inequities,” Toronto’s medical officer Eileen de Villa said in July.
Saunders and Walker began working together in the early days of the pandemic. But soon after, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis — and the ensuing resurgence of the Black Lives Matter protests — put these considerations into even sharper focus.
“Excuse my language — I’m frankly pissed about everything,” says Walker.
She said she uses contemporary and historical imagery in her digital collages to signal the importance of history and historical context in our current dialogues about systemic racism.
“I want to keep talking about those issues … layering with things that may have happened with Black folks in America and in past times,” she says.
In her essay, Saunders acknowledges that the Black experience in Canada isn’t exactly the same as her peers’ in the U.S., such as Walker.
She’s thankful for her relative economic privilege and access to health care during the pandemic, and put a spotlight on racism that Indigenous and other communities suffer.
Despite these differences, however, they found their causes had more in common with each other, and could strengthen each others’ voices by speaking as one through this project.
“I think that was the most poignant thing, was that two Black women were able to connect over this line in the sand … across borders and really talk about a Black history and what was meaningful to both of us,” says Saunders.
Despite the remote nature of the work and the difficult, personal subject matter, Saunders and Walker consider their contribution to the Long Distance Art Series a success — and, hopefully, the prelude to more collaborations.
“I really do hope that Tekikki and I can stay connected and to keep that sisterhood, because we really are here for one another, even within these two different countries,” says Saunders.
Digital lead producers: Tahiat Mahboob, Ruby Buiza | Copy editor: Brandie Weikle | Web development: Geoff Isaac | Video producer: Andrew Alba | Radio producer: Vanessa Greco | Executive producers: Ann MacKeigan, Paul Gorbould
This story was originally published on The Tyee, a We Are Not Divided collaborator
Linda Coady was front and center as long time antagonists tried to reach a deal to preserve a stunning swath of nature called the Great Bear Rainforest. Asked whether it ever felt like the whole effort would collapse, Coady laughs, then says that in the early negotiations between logging companies and environmentalists, “There was never any shortage of drama.”
At stake was a large, mostly intact forest on Canada’s Pacific coast. Where the companies eyed timber, profits and jobs, the environmentalists saw a precious, threatened ecosystem in need of protection. The two sides started in stark opposition, but together would make a path to common ground — one that would recognize and involve the stewardship of Indigenous Peoples who had lived in the region for thousands of years.
There are stories of all night sessions, angry flare ups, negotiators storming out of meetings and quitting the process for a time. One source close to the action remembers the talks felt doomed every 15 minutes. But many times people pressed forward, came back together, built trust and worked out differences.
Coady was key to discussions as vice-president of environmental affairs and enterprise for big timber companies MacMillan Bloedel and Weyerhaeuser. Often the harshest criticism came not from opponents, she recalls, but from people who were on the same side. “The people who did the work got the most incoming fire.”
It took the better part of 19 years — and the participation of five major forest companies, environmental groups including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club of British Columbia, First Nations, unions, foundations, the provincial government and local governments — to arrive at a compromise and a plan everyone could endorse.
Completed in 2016, the agreementcovers 6.4 million hectares (15.8 million acres) on British Columbia’s Pacific Ocean coast from near the northern tip of Vancouver Island to the border with Alaska. It’s a region with a maze of islands, long ocean inlets, rugged coastal mountains and giant trees.
Some 3.1 million hectares (7.6 million acres) are now completely off limits to logging, about 85 percent of the forest ecosystems in the area. Around 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) are available for forestry, but governed by ecosystem-based management rules requiring the companies to manage the land for objectives that include protecting waterways, endangered species and cultural values.
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Though not without its critics from the start — and ongoing arguments about whether logging companies are meeting their commitments — the agreement has attracted international attention and is widely seen as a major step forward that shows the possibilities of balancing divergent interests. There’s hope elements of it can be adopted to help resolve other complex conflicts.
To the participants, getting there at many times felt impossible. It required long conversations and difficult decisions in lots of rooms over many years. Eventually it would need government approval and consultation with First Nations, but it started with the companies and the environmental groups realizing they had more to gain through negotiating than through fighting.
At the time, a so-called “war in the woods” had been raging in the province for decades, valley by valley and island by island. Direct action at places like Lyell Island, the Carmannah Valley, Meares Island, the Stein Valley and the Elaho Valley had delayed logging, forced negotiations and added to protected areas.
When the Great Bear negotiators started talking, fresh in everyone’s minds were the mass arrests in 1993 of some 900 people blocking a logging road to protect Clayoquot Sound near Tofino on Vancouver Island, still considered the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. The action led to reduced logging in the region, agreement to log in an “ecologically sound” way, and the eventual sale of logging rights for half the area to a company owned by local First Nations.
The days when logging companies could clear cut old growth forests in remote areas without drawing public attention and condemnation had ended, and Indigenous people and environmentalists had made it clear they could make business-as-usual difficult for industrial loggers, even if they couldn’t always stop them.
Moving on to the central and north coast, environmentalists came up with the Great Bear name, keying off the fact the area is home to a white subspecies of the black bear as well as grizzlies. They then waged a “markets campaign” targeting household names like Home Depot to discourage customers from buying wood from the area. It was enough to get the forest companies thinking about how to do things differently.
In Coady’s estimation the environmentalists were ready to talk too.
“We each realized we had the ability to stop the other from achieving their goals, but neither of us had the influence or power to actually get to a solution,” Coady says. “Meanwhile we were very well aware that coastal communities, the government, workers, First Nations, were getting very fed up with all this dispute and they did want to get to a solution.”
The sides reached a “standstill agreement” that saw the logging companies stop development in 100 intact watersheds in exchange for the environmental groups no longer asking the companies’ customers to cancel their orders. But a truce is not a solution.
Getting further meant building trust and overcoming the stereotypes each side held about the other. Outside of the formal negotiating sessions, the mediator would invite people from each side to join him for dinner, a venue where people could talk about their children, their lives, and simply connect on a human level.
A breakthrough came at a January 22, 2001 Elton John concert at what was then GM Place, now Rogers Arena, in Vancouver. The mediator had booked the owner’s box and invited the key negotiators from the environmental and industry sides.
One person who was there recalls it feeling like a middle school dance with both sides sticking to opposite sides of the room until about a third of the way through the concert. John had launched into “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)” when forest industry consultant Patrick Armstrong asked Jody Holmes, the lead scientist on the environmental side and director of the Rainforest Solutions Project, to dance.
Holmes has been quoted in the National Observer saying she agreed to the dance with a joke that it was on the condition Armstrong would negotiate keeping 100 valleys in the Great Bear pristine. “I said, ‘You know what Patrick? I’ll dance with you, but I need four watersheds to go off the table, you guys can’t log in them.’”
The response got a laugh, broke the ice and let everyone loosen up in how they related to each other. It turned out to be a key turning point towards building the relationships that would make reaching a compromise possible, work that would still take years to complete.
In the following months the parties agreed on a framework that deferred logging and committed that future land use decisions would be based on the best available independent science. There would be a move from conventional forestry to Ecosystem Based Management where the priority would be sustaining healthy ecosystems.
Other components included involving First Nations in decision-making and providing funding for economic diversification.
By one account from participants, working out the details that would make the framework real took another five years, a dozen committees and thousands of hours of meetings.
Environmental activists had proven nimble at a critical moment, recalls Valerie Langer, a key Great Bear Rainforest campaigner. Having created pressure that got people to the table, they had to “pivot to a different approach when the context changed. We understood we alone would not and could not solve the thorny problems of land title conflicts and forest degradation.” That meant shifting “from a very noisy public campaign to a very delicate set of negotiations that were concurrently driven by First Nations title rights and by science-based conservation targets.”
Because the companies and the environmentalists aren’t the legal decision makers for what happens on Crown land, it wasn’t until 2016 when the provincial government signed land use agreements with more than 20 First Nations on the northern and central coast that the work could be considered done.
For the First Nations involved, the experience was transformative, says Dallas Smith, the president of the Nanwakolas Council that includes five First Nations.
“Because there hasn’t been really any treaties in the area, the Great Bear’s huge,” Smith said. “The Great Bear has given the governments of First Nations and the governments of British Columbia and of Canada a sort of common bowl that we can talk in. We know when we get together we can have these discussions.”
Somewhere between 26,000 and 30,000 people are part of the 27 First Nations covered by the agreements, he said. For many years people in those communities felt stuck between the environmentalists and the companies, a feeling that remained throughout the early years of discussions.
Communities like Smith’s at Rivers Inlet had been “buttonholed” to reserves that were maybe three percent of their traditional territory. Through the treaty process they might hope to have title recognized to 11 percent of it, Smith says.
But the Great Bear process instead provided a means to have a say on the complete area. “It just brought more to our rights and title,” he said. “We could see [our land]. We live on it. We depend on it. We work with it. That’s real now because of the Great Bear.”
The discussions were happening at the same time that Indigenous nations in other parts of the province were advancing their rights through the courts, and the nations involved in the Great Bear went from being seen as one of several stakeholders to ones that needed to be met on a government-to-government basis.
The process could be a model for what reconciliation with Indigenous people can look like, Smith said, including the sharing of forest revenue and management. There’s still a ways to go towards joint decision making, he added, but the movement in that direction can be traced at least in part to the Great Bear process.
A key to getting First Nations to agree to the plan was the establishment of the Coast Funds endowment, Smith says. The fund was created in 2006 with a $60 million endowment to encourage stewardship and a further $60 million to help fund the creation of First Nation-owned businesses. The money came from the provincial and federal government and six foundations.
With the fishing industry in decline, historically the biggest source of work in the region, communities were reluctant to sign agreements that would limit their opportunities for jobs in logging. The fund allowed people to instead set up eco-tourism businesses, guiding trips and providing other services they wouldn’t previously have imagined themselves doing, Smith says.
Through the years of negotiations the First Nations rebuilt confidence and pride, Smith says. “Now we know what we want, we know what we’re trying to achieve and if we have to go through another Great Bear type scenario we’re going to be a lot more efficient at getting what we need at the end of the day.”
The certainty the agreements provide about what happens on the land is welcome, and people are generally optimistic about how things are going, says Smith. “It’s a living thing. It still has some sore points. It still has some healing, and it has some areas that are very strong still.”
Valerie Langer warns vigilance is crucial. She waits expectantly for a five-year review of the agreements slated for 2021. “The devil is in the details,” she says. “Any system can be gamed.” Governments must “make the data transparent” and do what it takes to “ensure the conservation model developed in the Great Bear Rainforest is living up to the honors it received when announced back in 2016.”
Linda Coady, who left the industry a few years ago and now works for an environmental organization, says the Great Bear deal was no quick fix, but it was significant. “It was a big achievement.”
Dallas Smith offers his measure of what’s been accomplished. “I think there was a disconnect between First Nations and their cultural connections to their land and resources. The Great Bear’s re-established that for us.”
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