Vancouver is confronting its historic role in erasing First Nations culture from Stanley Park and other spaces with a process described as a “colonial audit” of the city’s park board.
The board hopes the audit will be used to make amends for the ways First Nations were erased from their own settlements and that it could lead to changes in how parks are managed.
“We are now in the reconciliation process, looking at the truth-telling stage,” board chair Stuart Mackinnon said. “From that, we will look at where our practices need to go.”
The board approved a report this week that concluded the elected body, which was created in 1888, has played an active role “in the dispossession and erasure” of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.
“It has also imposed a narrative on these lands that erases much of the history of people of colour throughout the recent era of foreign settlement in this region,” the report said.
It’s a move that, for now, is largely symbolic, but one local First Nations representatives see as a significant step forward.
“We applaud institutions responding to the calls for reconciliation,” said Khelsilem, a Squamish Nation councillor. “Some things are symbolic, but I do think it is about the relationship.”
Khelsilem said the three First Nations from the Vancouver area hope the park board’s initiative will lead to a “conversation to bring some of our practices back.”
Stanley Park used to be home to a village called Xwayxway that had several longhouses and was a base for First Nations who fished and gathered plants in the area.
The main sign of Indigenous presence in the park now is a set of totem poles that were brought in from elsewhere and are not part of the culture of local First Nations.
Cities and government agencies across Canada have been working to acknowledge injustices inflicted on First Nations since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada called for such actions in 2015.
The park board has involved the three First Nations in discussions about managing Stanley Park since 2016.
Recently, park planners revised their plans for a major new park in the downtown area of Northeast False Creek by adding components such as a longhouse, a canoe-landing site and other elements that would encourage Indigenous people to use the site for their own traditional practices.
Mr. Mackinnon said there are many sites around Vancouver where the board needs to do more work to understand traditional uses of the land and what can be changed.
“One of the areas pointed out to me by the Musqueam is Spanish Banks,” he said, referring to one of the beaches on the city’s west side. “It was a gathering place for hundreds of years for them. But it’s named after people who were here for a couple of days. That’s been a sore point.”
The park board’s report accompanying the proposal for a colonial audit outlined some of the ways the city’s new arrivals erased the Indigenous presence in what became city parks. It listed dispossession, archeological disturbances, the elimination of First Nations cultural activities and giving priority to non-Indigenous activities in parks as the main issues the board needs to address.
“The erasure of Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh occupation and presence in this territory is accomplished largely through the layering of activities and physical entities on the landscape,” the report said. “The Vancouver Park Board has contributed to this erasure through the building of facilities and infrastructure, permitting and programming of activities and events in public parks and community centres, accepting donations of monuments and memorials on sacred sites, and acts of cultural appropriation.”