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Reconciliation: Pulling together

November 29, 2021  By Fiona Wilson

Photo credit: Rita Buchwitz

An active reconciliation between Indigenous communities and British Columbia’s public service agencies

In a time of increasing awareness of past injustices and present inequities suffered by Indigenous peoples, the Pulling Together Canoe Journey represents 21 years of reconciliation between Indigenous communities and law enforcement through relationship building and active engagement. Spanning 10 days each summer, the Journey is hosted and planned by Indigenous communities in B.C. and the Pulling Together Canoe Society, with support and participation from municipal police agencies, the RCMP, the Royal Canadian Navy, and other public service agencies. This event sees the reunification of canoe families from across the province, as Indigenous communities come together with public servants to traverse the waters in a traditional way.

Over the course of the Journey, traditional Indigenous protocols are followed to share and preserve knowledge and understanding. By sharing teachings and ceremonies with all participants, each of the Indigenous communities visited contributes opportunities for reconciliation, helping to foster understanding of Indigenous cultures and customs, while encouraging development of deeper, more meaningful interactions. Meanwhile, public service agencies provide operational and logistical support to facilitate the Journey, and engage in active reconciliation through participation and relationship-building. By embarking on the Journey together and sharing in the cultural teachings and customs of host nations, participants are afforded the opportunity to relate to one another, whether in sharing a meal, in ceremony, or in the canoe.

A weekend in Skwxwú7mesh

The 2021 Journey took place from July 16-18 with a total of four canoes making the round-trip from Porteau Cove to Camp Potlatch in Howe Sound on the southern coast of B.C. Youth from the local host nation, Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation), attended alongside the Vancouver Police Department (VPD), West Vancouver Police Department, and the Royal Canadian Navy, with approximately 70 participants total. Additionally, a number of other nations were also represented on the Journey this year, including xʷməθkʷəy̓ əm (Musqueam), Katzie, Lílwat, Cree, Anishinaabe, Kwakiutl and Tahltan nations.

While the 2021 Journey was a small representation of the size and scale of past canoe journeys, it maintained the integrity and purpose of Pulling Together. At Camp Potlatch, the sharing of gifts, song and dance took place during “protocol”, whereby each canoe family takes turns expressing their gratitude. Thanks to host nations and other families, this year’s participants were also fortunate to take part in a traditional naming ceremony. Taking place on Kwum Kwum Island (Defence Island), a sacred Skwxwú7mesh burial ground near Camp Potlatch, the naming ceremony saw two police officers and two community workers blanketed and gifted with Indigenous names in honour of their significant contributions to local Indigenous communities. Upon returning to Porteau Cove, the VPD canoe NCH’7MUT – Skwxwú7mesh for “One heart one mind” – further explored the ancient Indigenous pictographs found on nearby rock walls at the shoreline. The Journey provided everyone with an incomparable experience of what true reconciliation can look like.


Timing is key

In the wake of a VPD training day that included various accounts from female survivors of residential schools, as well as the more recent acknowledgement of unmarked graves of Indigenous children at sites across the country, I was moved to participate in this year’s Journey. During this challenging time, I wanted to hear firsthand the personal stories and impacts of intergenerational trauma. I wanted to understand more about the unceded land that I live and work on, and to learn more about the relationships interwoven into the cultural fabric of Indigenous communities. I wanted to recognize where and how policing takes up space in the community and to learn how we can do more to support Indigenous peoples.

The VPD has been involved with the Journey since its inaugural year (2001), and I have always been extremely proud of the work of our members in taking central, active roles as board members, planning committee members, and participants. I knew that the lessons to be learned on the Journey, about the injustices of the past and the lasting ramifications in the present, would carry me in leadership and decision-making in the future. I recognized the need to learn more about the significance of a forced abolition of protocol and ceremony, and the lasting impacts of the loss of language, culture, and family. I also really wanted to be a part of the reconciliation, to help build relationships and construct the requisite trust needed for community members to have faith in law enforcement, especially amongst those who have been historically oppressed by the state and its agents.

A personal journey

Going into this year’s Journey, I felt a mixture of enthusiasm and apprehension, knowing the significance and importance of my participation and yet hesitant about how well I would fare. I must preface my experience by explaining that I am the epitome of a city slicker, accustomed to creature comforts rather than the wilderness of a temperate rain forest. While I love being outside, I will readily admit that I had not slept in a tent in over two decades, prior to this experience. I also had not been in a canoe in over 30 years and was anxious about ensuring that I would be able to physically contribute in a meaningful way. Of greater concern was my uncertainty over the reception I would receive as a Deputy Chief with the VPD, in light of the ongoing challenges and strained relations between law enforcement and Indigenous communities. I was not sure whether my genuine interest in learning would come across, whether my efforts would be accepted and understood to be authentic, and whether what I was feeling was even worth considering, given the comparative inconsequence in light of the magnitude of suffering inflicted upon Indigenous peoples for centuries.

Knowing what I know now, I acknowledge that no amount of research, knowledge, or consideration could have prepared me for the reality of my experience. In addition to being supported to overcome my initial discomfort with camping outdoors, I was welcomed with open arms into the community and embraced in my learning of ceremony and protocol. I was immediately accepted, not just in my role and my occupation, but in my humanity, my individuality, and my presence. I experienced connectedness and kinship, sparking a newfound optimism for continued relationship and understanding. I was endlessly inspired and encouraged by the wisdoms imparted by Elders and other knowledge keepers, who supplied countless stories of both hardship and triumph.

Understanding these lessons, and countless others shared during the course of the Journey, I recognize now that my initial apprehensions were more telling of my own expectations, rather than the reality of what reconciliation and honest dialogue, relation, and respect looks like. The Journey offered me a humbling adjustment in perspective and presumption; where I was assuming more controversy and volatility might exist, I found only acceptance, warmth, and openness to relationship. I acknowledge my own privilege in having the opportunity to bear witness to such incredibly rich, storied cultural ceremonies, and I recognize my responsibility in sharing what I have learned with others in my community. My greatest hope is for my colleagues in law enforcement to take part in the Journey wherever possible and to share in the wealth of knowledge available to them so that we may each make efforts to be culturally competent, compassionate, and kind throughout our careers as police officers.

Fiona Wilson is a Deputy Chief Constable (DCC) with the Vancouver Police Department (VPD), responsible for overseeing the investigation division. DCC Wilson is a provincially accredited Team Commander and holds both bachelor and master of arts degrees in criminology from Simon Fraser University.

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