I learned a new word this week: teechma. It’s the Nuu-Chah-Nulth word for heart, but it conveys a deep meaning when you hear an Elder in her village talking about why she thinks something will work, why she is hopeful about changing the system solely because we spoke about it from our hearts, our words coming from teechma.
I was with my mates Wally Samuel, Kris Archie and Kyra Mason this week in three isolated villages on the north west coast of Vancouver Island, Oclucje, Ehattesaht and Ka:’yu’k’t’h’. We were travelling there on behalf of VIATT to hear what these communities, so forgotten in many ways, have to say about the work we are doing to reclaim the decision making authority over Aboriginal children and families.
These communities lie far away from the mainly populated east side of Vancouver Island. To get to the west coast, you have to drive an hour or so over a graded logging road to the little town of Zeballos, perched at the head of Zeballos Inlet. Zeballos was a gold mining town almost a hundred years ago and there is a little fishing there now and mostly logging. In the summer, there are tourists who roll into town heading out for fishing charters or kayak trips. Zeballos itself is a funny town…everything there seems to be in a state of half renovation. The Zeballos Hotel, in which you can get a great meal (french fries being a speciality) has tables that are too high and banged together out of particle board, which makes you feel like a kid when you are tucking into your burger. It forces one to have something in common with the Ehattesaht kids who mill around IMing on the two computers in the corner. They even have half finished haircuts, which was amusing for my friend Kris who found kindred spirits! Across the lobby, the bar is a great place for a bottle of beer, still smoky and also half finished. Across the street is a general store run by a cranky Bulgarian who makes you test the batteries you buy from him before you leave the store. His shop is also half finished, and a half eaten jar of pickled sausage sits on the counter next to the cash register. And the batteries fail on you anyway, the moment you put them in your camera.
This is the end of the world – most regulations don’t apply in practice. Even when the RCMP strides in from across the street, nothing really changes and no one pretends that anything is otherwise.
From Zeballos, we headed out to the communities which lay around the town. Each of the three meetings was a little, different, each held in slightly different kinds of buildings, each with different people there. At Oclucje, a small Nuchatlaht village about 30 minutes from Zeballos, we met in a building that had been condemned. The guy fixing the floor was a Heiltsuk carver who stopped his banging away at the mold and took off to go work in his shop, returning a half hour later with a moon plaque for me. During the meeting, my mates Wally and Kyra and Kris talked to the Elders and I lay on the floor with the kids drawing on some flipchart paper. We drew pumpkins and snakes and men and women and they borrowed my fine Staedler pens and coloured in a “Welcome to the Hall” sign, the hall that was falling apart under our feet. When we asked them what we could bring for the meeting, they said “donuts,” and two dozen Tim Horton’s trucked all the way from Campbell River were consumed in short order. Once the sugar rush hit the kids they all streamed outside and I rejoined the meeting, listening to the tale of a seven year struggle to have one child returned to the community. The effort involved everyone, and the goal posts have changed all the time, so the job is still unfinished. This is what our work aims to change.
That night we drove back to Zeballos and held a meeting in the half-finished youth centre at Ehattesaht, which is on the other side of the inlet from the town. About three dozen people showed up, most of them kids initially, but after supper arrived – chili and spaghetti and ham and salad – more adults and some youth showed up. The kids kept running around, in an out of a door that led to the top of an unfinished second story staircase. I had paranoid visions of them plunging off the landing onto the gravel below, but it didn’t happen. One of the kids, Margaret, took my camera and shot all kinds of great pictures of her friends and cousins. It’s sweet to see the world through her eyes.
On the way home we passed a sign that warned us to watch out for children and wildlife. In the middle of the road was a deer skull, and a bike lay tipped in the ditch. There are great signs around Zeballos.
We lodged at the Mason Lodge, where I took my half-filled room reservation, letting myself into room number four only to find it already occupied by a suddenly nervous man. This was remedied by Kris and Kyra sharing a room and I took Kris’s room. Customer service is sort of a novelty in Zeballos. Hospitality means that the guests are free to self-organize their sleeping arrangements. It worked out just fine and breakfast in the morning was quite nice.
After breakfast we headed over to Fair Harbour to catch the water taxi to Ka:’yu’k’t’h’. Fair Harbour got battered by 11 hurricanes this winter. The worst of them, which actually had an eye, topped out at winds of 159 knots, strong enough to rip the top off one of the wharves and to pick up gravel and sandblast all the trucks in town right down to the bare metal. Wednesday though, the weather was beautiful, the water glassy calm and the wind just a zephyr.
The water taxi trucked us through some beautiful little islands and inlets and we got our first glimpse of the open Pacific Ocean. Wally’s mum was born here and although she died when he was three, he spent his summers in the area and he has a name from this territory, so it’s like a second home for him. We took a little detour to visit the old village site of the Ka:’yu’k’t’h’ people. One one side is the ancient village and the present day summer village, a broad beach with a grave yard at the top, on the lee side of a little island that backs onto some reefs and the open ocean. Across the water is the old reserve village with some houses still standing. The people left this community thirty years ago, moved because of fresh water needs to the present site which is actually on Vancouver Island proper, on the very northern tip of Kyuquot Sound.
After we noodled around the old village, we headed for the present day one and sat with Elders parents and hereditary and political leadership in a circle and talked about our work of putting children at the centre of the system of child and family services. On our more optimistic days, we call this work “practical decolonization” and judging from the response we get from the Elders especially, this label is my favourite. The Elders all week have been talking about the hope that they have taken from hearing about our work and hearing how it comes from our teechma, helping communities and agencies to be able to serve children and families without the provincial government making all the policy decisions. That’s what makes this stuff worthwhile to me and what drives me and my mates to a high level of accountability.
We are planning on visiting all 52 communities across Vancouver Island this year, including a batch more on the west coast around Clayoquot Sound. I’m looking forward to it.