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Scott Clark of ALIVE stands underneath a viaduct in False Creek in Vancouver, March 31, 2013. (Jeff Vinnick for The Globe and Mail)
Scott Clark of ALIVE stands underneath a viaduct in False Creek in Vancouver, March 31, 2013. (Jeff Vinnick for The Globe and Mail)

FIRST NATIONS

Long-shot longhouse dreams gain support Add to ...

It’s been more than 100 years since anyone built a longhouse on the point of land known as downtown Vancouver, but that day may come again if a concept being discussed by native leaders and urban planners gets political traction.

The Coast Salish village of Xwáýxway, or Place of Masks, is thought to have stood for thousands of years on Burrard Inlet near Lumberman’s Arch, before it was knocked down in the 1800s. Its spirit is recalled by the totems in Stanley Park, but the longhouses are long gone.

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Now Scott Clark, executive director of the Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society, says the time has come to rebuild.

A proposal that is being discussed within the urban native community, and with city planning groups, would see up to six longhouses built in the Downtown Eastside.

“I think there’s a great deal of potential to make it happen,” said Mr. Clark, who sees the village becoming a focal point for Vancouver’s large aboriginal community. It could spark tourism business opportunities and provide a meeting place for First Nations and other cultures.

“There seems to be a sense of the importance of native history in Canada today. And you could do so many things with a village, you know, tourism, small-business development, cultural awareness. … It is a really exciting concept,” he said. “It would be reaffirming of who we are as a people and it could also be used as a place to let everyone who comes to Canada learn about first nations. We could tear down these walls of misinformation and stereotypes.”

And Mr. Clark said it is hard to overstate how important it would be to native people.

“It would just mean so much, honouring and respecting the first people by putting the village in a highly visible point, right in the middle of the city,” he said. “I don’t know of any city in Canada that’s done anything like this. It would be huge.”

The Inner City Aboriginal Network, a group formed as part of the city’s Downtown Eastside local area planning process, has endorsed the concept.

And in a recent paper, Nathan Edelson, a former City of Vancouver senior planner and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia, argued that the Carrall Greenway would be a good place for a longhouse village.

Mr. Edelson said the concept has been around for many years and was studied under the Vancouver Agreement, a partnership between the city and senior governments.

He wrote that the Carrall Greenway, which links False Creek to Burrard Inlet, crossing through Chinatown, “was historically an important trail for first nations, and also contained several important places where they and non-native people formed relationships of survival.”

Mr. Edelson stated that after the Gastown fire destroyed much of Vancouver in 1886, “it was the Squamish [Coast Salish] people who helped the white settlers survive the winter.”

He also noted that natives who lived in Vancouver forged a close bond with Chinese immigrants because both were victims of racism.

“The Chinese were not able to own land outside of Chinatown,” he wrote. “But the Musqueam allowed them to farm on their land to get fresh vegetables for the local businesses.”

Mr. Edelson said that because of such historical connections, a longhouse village should be built in the vicinity of the Carrall Greenway.

He also said that aboriginal tourism businesses in B.C. are researching the interests of Chinese tourists “to see if there is a way to attract more of these visitors to first nations cultural facilities throughout the province.”

The idea that tourists could make first contact with first nations in longhouses in downtown Vancouver is just too great an idea to let slide. The concept needs a political push – and of course it needs government funding.

Given what happened to Xwáýxway, this is a chance for a small payback.

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