By LEA WEIR, MELANIE FURMAN and MOLLY MURPHY
Last weekend we had the amazing opportunity to spend some time with Qwiaqwulthw (Robert George) and other elders of the Quw’utsun peoples of this territory. Invitations had gone out to community leaders within the Black, Indigenous, people of colour community, including settler supporters, to take part in an anti-racism camp with about 30 others from Salt Spring and the Cowichan Valley at Xwaaqw’um (Burgoyne Bay) for the weekend.
Lea: As a woman of colour in this community, and in the world, it is immensely challenging to understand where I fit in this journey of reconciliation that is the work of the human species at this time. It was a truly beautiful thing to sit in the presence of these wise elders and look around a circle of faces of people — Quw’utsun (Cowichan), Japanese, African, Indian, European descendants of all ages — who are all wondering the same thing: how to find their place and do this healing work well. With the incredibly kind and immensely generous guidance of the Quw’utsun elders we were able to move deeper and deeper into a place of understanding and connection.
Melanie: After setting up the kitchen and making a fire, all were welcomed and brushed off with medicine shared by Qwiaqwulthw. Seairra, one of the facilitators, started the circle by asking what is needed for everyone to feel safe. How can we make a container for everyone to speak and be heard? This discussion was well thought out by all and led to safety agreements which were revisited on a few future occasions as the weekend unfolded. The time, patience and care it took to create safety and opportunities for connection with each other was at the heart of this workshop. Often, we don’t truly ask of ourselves and others for the time and space required to feel safe in our lives. When safety is overlooked to accommodate productivity, our consumption and destruction relationships between each other and the environment occurs much more frequently.
Lea: Most, if not all, participants recognized that respect, understanding and reconciliation is the groundwork, the base upon which all anti-racism work rests. Racism is all about building up false barriers, and anti-racism, so much of it, is about taking the time to tear those down with time and integrity. In fact, integrity was the word that kept ringing in my head the whole weekend.
Melanie: Daily meals and stories occurred around the sacred fire from Friday through Sunday. The Xwaaqw’um cedar dugout canoe was a central part of the weekend. The big canoe was paddled with a small crew from Xwaaqu’um over to Maple Bay on Thursday night before the gathering. The next morning a full group of paddling camp participants steered the dugout canoe back towards Xwaaqw’um. The carving of the canoe, led by master carver Joe Martin, was worked on by many hands over the two previous years. At the end of the weekend we all worked together once again with the canoe by lifting it out of the ocean back onto the waiting trailer. Everyone agreeing to take a little bit of the weight of the canoe achieved a larger shared goal. Qwiaqwulthw reminding us to work together as one throughout the weekend was reminiscent of how in our own small community — by sharing our unique gifts and practising care of heart and mind — together we can achieve lasting moments of inclusivity and integrity.
Molly: There were magical flashes that have been etched in our minds forever. There was a moment when Joe Akerman had taken all the young ones out on the big canoe for a paddle around the bay. We adults, deep in our reflection, were sitting around the fire by the sea. The tide was low, the canoe came towards us, and all the paddlers had their oars vertically in the air. It was like time stopped. To see our children out there paddling together in the same old ways of the first people of these lands was powerful, heavy and surreal. Then watching from shore, we heard the paddlers thump the handles of their paddles on the bottom of the canoe with the cascading sound filling the bay. It was a glory to behold.
Another profound moment of the gathering was the healing ceremony that took place as a result of a young girl who burned her foot on a hot rock from around the fire after the last workshop of the day had finished. A decent-sized blister was developing and she was in a good amount of pain. After the immediate medical needs were taken care of, Qwiaqwulthw gathered everyone around to share his teachings of ensuring no hard feelings were felt by anyone, child or parent. A blanket was wrapped around the girl and witnesses were brought to the front to observe what was taking place, to remember the teachings shared over the next half hour and to ultimately oversee the care offered and received. The young girl wore that blanket for the rest of her stay, she felt special, held and looked after.
Group: Being and staying on the land as the classroom was important to this process of integrity. This land that was stolen from Quw’utsun people is slowly and carefully being restored with the leadership of Quw’utsun elders and knowledge keepers, including Tousilum (Qwiaqwuthw’s older brother), Sulsameethl, T’uwaxwiye’ and many others. Indigenous plant and animal habitats, water ways and human relationships are all being healed at Xwaaqw’um. In fact, it is good to be reminded of the relationship between the land and people by local Indigenous folk that lasting reconciliation and healing needed in today’s world must come from our deeply woven relationship between all species who inhabit the earth. Showing daily respect to each and every living being, including humans, regardless of race, genders and other diversities, we realize the very complex relationships we weave throughout time are firmly held up by our dependence on and responsibility to the land and each other.
Right now we are immersed in some extremely potent times. With the pressing realization that race relations in so-called Canada are not as advanced as some of us liked to imagine, the climate crisis and the unsettling and even the uncertain future of the COVID-19 pandemic, we all have a lot we can choose to stay engaged with. It was also a compelling weekend, where people of all ages, skin colours and backgrounds sat, listened, learned and shared. Receiving local Indigenous guidance and leadership from the small island we live on is a great honour. This unique anti-racism camp has encouraged us to keep learning the truth of the past and present here on Turtle Island, and motivated us to look forward to the healing work we have in front of us all. We can continue building a much stronger community. We have the resilience needed to get through what is to come.
Thank you to Qwiaqwuthw, Joe Akerman, Seairra Courtemanche and all the volunteers and participants that put on this incredible by-donation gathering.
The three writers attended the workshop on anti-racism and diversity held on the July 3-5 weekend at Xwaaqw’um. They said, “We chose to write this collectively to honour the teachings of the Quw’utsun who always work together: Nutsamaat Shqwuluwun — “one heart one mind.” Lea Weir is of African/European descent, Melanie Furman is of European descent, and Molly Murphy of Eastern Europe/Guyanese descent.