Wild Mushrooms or Wild Land: Do you have permission to pick wild food on “Crown” land?

How a mundane practice like mushroom picking can disregard or disrespect First Nations rights and title. And how education can help.

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Earlier this summer, I stumbled onto a patch of resistance to reconciliation. My fellow settler neighbours did not agree that the “Crown” land behind their homes was the traditional, unceded territory of the Secwepemc Nation. My neighbours assumed that all non-reserve land had to belong to the government and therefore, what was on it, was theirs for the taking. This was despite a solid public school education on the history of how Canada was settled.

One of my takeaways from this interaction is that the education of First Nation issues needs to include discussions about how individual actions can respect First Nations rights and title. My neighbours knew the history of how Canada was settled and yet they assumed that all Crown land was Canada’s. This was despite recent new stories that the Supreme Court of Canada upheld a Specific Claims Tribunal decision that found that the Crown broke a treaty with the Secwepemc Nation and wrongfully took land from them (Williams Lake Indian Band v. Canada (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development), 2018 SCC 4; see https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/supreme-court-williams-lake-1.4516522). My neighbours and I live in a town that is literally on stolen land, and that big forests around us may be Crown land on paper but in actual fact it is the unceded traditional territory of the Secwepemc.

Not all places in Canada have the convenience of knowing whose land you live on and a Supreme Court case confirming that the land was wrongfully stolen. This information is accessible to everyone in my town and it made a splash in the news when the decision first came out. This information, coupled with the education that I assumed all my neighbours received about the historical injustice of colonialism, resulted in what I assumed was a common understanding that the land around them was belonging to the Secwepemc First Nation.

It was against this backdrop that we rolled into the early summer months, the first summer after the wildfires of 2017. For several months ahead of this summer, my husband Chief Russ Myers of the Yunesit’in band in Tsilhqot’in First Nation, had been working with his nation around setting up a permitting system for picking wild mushrooms in the Tsilhqot’in traditional territory (http://www.tsilhqotin.ca/Portals/0/PDFs/Press%20Releases/2018_05_18_MurshroomPermitPR.pdf).

The Tsilhqot’in knew that there would be many mushroom pickers coming into the area and that the Province of British Columbia would not regulate them. It was up to them to create a system to ensure that the mushrooms were picked in ecologically sustainable areas.

This system had already been announced when my neighbours made their own announcement on Facebook; these women had recently returned from the traditional territory of Secwepemc Nation and had picked basketfuls of wild mushrooms. They were happy to get some healthy, organic, (free) non-GMO food.

Their glee at picking wild foods was shocking to me. I sent them messages, asking if they secured permissions from the Secwepemc Nation. My fellow settler neighbours were either silently cold or hotly angered at these questions. One woman responded to my suggestion by posting her outrage on Facebook. My other neighbours chimed in. The 93 comment thread lay clear that many people believe that it was their right to pick wild mushrooms on “Crown” land.

When I saw this, I was reminded of a few paragraphs that the Chief Justice McLachlin wrote in the Supreme Court decision, Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia, [2014] 2 SCR 257. I had been reading this decision earlier in the year, and paragraphs 114-115 always struck me as infuriating. In these paragraphs, Chief Justice McLachlin, speaking for the Court, assumes that all non-reserve and non-treaty land must belong to the Crown because to assume otherwise would leave “no one in charge of the forests that cover hundreds of thousands of hectares and represent a resource of enormous value.” This assumption overlooks the number of treaties that were made and broken by the Crown, such as in the Williams Lake case. It also overlooks the evidence that we have that many First Nations in Canada were “managing” the forests and lands without Crown approval or knowledge. These Nations did this because they had been doing it for hundreds of years prior to colonial settlement.

It’s a funny thing to see the Chief Justice and a disgruntled white lady on Facebook arrive at the same blind spot. Two people, with radically different knowledges of the law, First Nations and history, both arrive at the same, unsupportive, assumption: if I don’t know this is Native land, then it must be Crown land.

Most of the land that we have today emerged from the historic wrongs that we all learn about in school. In schools, students look at these wrongs and perhaps will look at the current legal and political systems designed to address these wrongs. I think that this leaves students with an idea of what governments or industry need to do, but it doesn’t give the students a sense of what they need to do as individuals to respect the First Nations whose land they live on. How to live ethically if the land that you live on is stolen?

To ask permissions from the First Nation to harvest wild food is a practice that is small but potentially impactful. How one asks for permission to harvest wild foods is a delicate act; it requires taking the time to learn whose land it belongs to, to reach out and contact that First Nation, to listen and really try to hear the response, which might be in a language which is not yours. This process may not be easy, and there probably is not a universal approach. But by even trying to do this, settlers are showing government and industry and all our neighbours whose land and laws we are choosing to follow. An education that connects historic wrongs with how individual actions can help reconcile the past is one way that we can get other settlers to begin this kind of practice.

After I had sent my neighbour the questions, the Secwepemc Nation came out with a map of the areas where mushroom picking was allowed. Other Secwepemc bands have also put up signage instructing mushroom pickers and buyers that they were in the unceded territory of the Secwepemc people. In a move that shows how deeply people recent “Crown” land from belonging to Fist Nations, one of these signs outside of Lac Du Boise Grasslands Park near Kamloops was vandalized with a violent and crude message (https://www.kamloopsmatters.com/local-news/education-is-the-only-answer-to-ignorance-band-chief-responds-to-racist-comments-found-on-vandalized-sign-near-kamloops-973042).

How settlers pick wild mushrooms and other wild food can be a case study on how individuals can take small steps to recognize and reinforce (or deny and erase) First Nations right and title. Teaching the “Big History” or “Big Law” of First Nations rights and title is important, but may not be enough. In these lessons, there is an opportunity to also interrogate what mundane, everyday practices that settlers may be doing that disregards First Nations rights and title. It is in these small acts, as simple as picking a blueberry, or talking to your neighbour, that can help us all carry the responsibilities of reconciliation.

 

Top photo: Wild mushroom, known as a morel, growing on Fox Mountain, on Secwepemc territory, in Williams Lake, Spring 2018. Photo credit: Frances McCoubrey.
Many thanks to Rebecca Johnson and Gillian Calder for their helpful and patient edits and suggestions. 

“What is missing?”: Marie Clements’s New Opera about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Violence against Indigenous women and girls is pervasive in Canada. The National Inquiry  Interim Report, (Our Women and Girls are Sacred) cites an estimate that Indigenous women are “12 times more likely to be murdered or missing than any other women in Canada, and 16 times more likely than Caucasian women” (at pp. 7-8). And the Native Women’s Association of Canada points out that numbers alone communicate little about the lives of Indigenous women and girls, or the calamitous losses experienced by their families and communities.  As NWAC point out in their discussion of the Faceless Dolls Project,  “each statistic tells a story.”

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The cast of Missing (photo credit: Dean Kalyan)

In a new chamber opera that debuted in 2017 in British Columbia, librettist Marie Clements and composer Brian Current portray ongoing colonial violence against Indigenous women and girls and emphasize the need for difficult learning.

Missing, performed in English and the Gitxsan language, immerses audience members in a discomfiting comparison of the divergent life chances of two young women with similar aspirations. Ava, a white law student, passes by a hitchhiker on the notorious Highway 16, the “Highway of Tears” where so many women have gone missing. After a car accident, she glimpses the body of a high school student, a character Clements names only “Native Girl,” who stands in for the multitude of lost girls and women.

Ava returns to her studies after recovering and encounters Dr. Wilson, a guest lecturer, whose discussion of missing and murdered Indigenous women challenges students to move beyond fleeting sympathy to grapple with their own complicity. “What is missing,” Dr. Wilson asks the students, in a society that “can’t recognize another human being as another human being?” One of Ava’s classmates disavows shared responsibility for the structures and histories that make Indigenous women vulnerable to violence; she angrily insists that they are to blame for their own “bad choices.”

forever-loved-FINAL-cover-small.jpgThe student’s defensive reaction in the opera, and her reliance on problematic stereotypes, will be familiar to many instructors. Maxine Matilpi explains that “when we dispel lies and deal with the omissions from their prior education, non-Indigenous students tell me that they would rather we didn’t spend so much class time on colonization or racism; they find it uncomfortable and frustrating, even irritating” (See her article “Personal Political Pedagogy with Respect to #MMIW” in D. Memee Lovell-Harvard and Jennifer Brant, eds, Forever Loved: Exposing the Hidden Crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada (2016), p. 264).

But in the opera, Ava, is not defensive.  She has been transformed by her near-fatal accident, and is receptive to Dr. Wilson, who instructs her in the Gitxsan language and then mentors her when she becomes a new mother. The care and cultural teachings that Ava receives are further reminders of what the other young woman was deprived of by her assailant, while scenes of her mother’s limitless grief portray how badly she is missed. As Ava encounters Native Girl in uncanny ways, she learns to reach out to her, offering care and witnessing.

Marie Clements, an acclaimed Métis playwright (she is also the writer and director of the new film The Road Forward), when interviewed about Missing, said that her desire was to create a work in this Opera that would engage the empathy of Indigenous and non-Indigenous audience members by portraying “a Canadian story . . . one that we’re all responsible to.”

The disappearances and tragic deaths continue, and at the first hearings of the National Inquiry, families have described losses that extend across generations. Marilyn Dumont, a Métis poet and professor, commemorates Helen Betty Osborne, a high school student who had to move away from home to attend high school. “Betty,” Dumont writes, “if I set out to write this poem about you / it might turn out instead / to be about me / or any one of /my female relatives.”

Clements’ opera is a great resource for those looking for ways to engage with the difficult realities of our shared colonial histories in ways that make this story one that we are all responsible to.

SOME RESOURCES:

Chantelle Bellerichard, “New opera about MMIWG tells a story ‘that we’re all responsible to,’ says co-creator” (Oct 29, 2017) http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/mmiwg-opera-to-premiere-in-vancouver-next-week-1.4375797

Sarah Petrescu, “Power of Opera Gives Story of Missing Indigenous Women Emotional Depth” (Nov 21, 2017) http://www.timescolonist.com/entertainment/power-of-opera-gives-story-of-missing-indigenous-women-emotional-depth-1.23099825

Interim Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, “Our Women and Girls are Sacred” (2017) http://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/files/ni-mmiwg-interim-report-en.pdf

Highway of Tears Symposium Recommendation Report (2006) http://www.turtleisland.org/healing/highwayoftears.pdf

Jorge Barerra, “100s of Faceless Dolls Disappear” (Oct 10, 2017) http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/mmiwg-faceless-dolls-disappear-1.4363768