Elders Voices Summit - learnings from Vancouver Island

Fergus Walker
23rd November, 2015

At the end of September (26th-28th) a Scottish delegation, including Fergus and Mags from Common Good Food, attended an international Elders Voices Summit on Vancouver Island in British Colombia (BC) in Canada – a gathering of people from all over the world, looking at how we can learn from indigenous ways in building greater social and ecological resilience.

The event was organised by the University of Victoria and was hosted by the WSANAEC people (pronounced Saanich), on the ancestral land of Tsawout First Nation on Vancouver Island. Most of the delegates were from Canada and USA, but there was a large contingent from Aotearoa/New Zealand and also from Scotland. There is a rich mix going on here in terms of the global geographic spread – and if I asked you which one is the odd one out regarding representation by ‘indigenous people’, you may well point to Scotland. The definition and historical basis of the term ‘indigenous’ was at the heart of the issues raised at the conference.

Common Good Food were invited to take part by Iain MacKinnon, a research fellow at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University. Iain’s doctorate was on the internal colonisation of the Scottish Gaidhealtachd, looking at the circumstances that led up to and beyond the setting up of the crofting system in the Highlands, and his current work is on the Governance of Land and Natural Resources. Iain was invited to the conference, and thought it such a unique and important opportunity that he put together a delegation of young people – some Scottish ‘youngers’ who were keen to learn from an international gathering of elders. These were Robin Haig, film-maker and young crofter, Cheryl MacIntyre, primary school teacher and aspiring crofter, and Fergus Walker and Mags Hall from Common Good Food. By some funding wizardry, Iain was able to secure passage and board for the entire delegation from the Canada UK Foundation and Coventry University.

The scope and depth of the conference was ambitious and very thought provoking. Just having a browse through the programme, it is clear that the people behind this conference are not the stereotype of the detached academic, content just to theorise from afar – this is a connected conference. The abstract begins with ‘our common human calling’:

We as human beings are at a critical juncture in our relationship with each other and our earth community. Elders, scholars and innovators of different cultural traditions name this call to action in various ways. Some refer to this era as the ‘Great Turning,” a time when we must shift to life-sustaining ways of being. Others call for a re-orientation to eco-centrism within human governance systems and the significance of safeguarding our common global ecological system for future generations to come.

The intention of the conference was to kick-start an International Resilience Network that is very much informed by traditional cultures – the call for abstracts talked about “infusing Indigenous world-views into the field of socio-ecological innovation”. There is an idea of shifting entire worldviews – by allowing “practices of deep-interconnectedness” to begin to join up the disconnected specialized silos that continue to dominate much human endeavor. There was also a strong message of openly inviting new contributors - youth, emerging scholars, social innovation pioneers.

But all of this sounds quite dry and academic: much more what the event looked like from afar, and much less what is was actually like when we arrived.

British Colombia is stunningly beautiful, and is a particularly densely wooded part of Canada. Across most of Vancouver Island stretches unbroken forests of Douglas Fir and Cedar. Bears, wolves, cougars and many other wild animals roam freely, only occasionally disturbed in their passage.

When we arrived we were warmly welcomed at the airport, despite being delayed by three hours. The deciduous trees were already beginning to turn, and maple blazed red. The hospitality was incredibly generous - we were put up in an enormous hotel, the Grand Pacific in downtown Victoria, and all the transport had been meticulously organized. However, nothing could prepare us for the immersive, mind-expanding nature of the whole visit – every day we had many opportunities to tread new neural pathways!

We had a day of getting used to the new time zone (where we were waking up at 5 in the morning and nodding off by early evening!) in which several of us went to visit the Royal British Colombia museum. The permanent exhibition is interestingly divided into two sections – First Peoples and Becoming British Colombia, a colonial ‘before and after’ as it were. This was a recurring theme of historical interpretation on the island – indigenous people are described as if they only existed in the past, as are prehistoric people in Europe (our estranged ancestors). There was also a fascinating new exhibition on ‘Our living languages’, about the 45 distinct native languages in BC. A beautiful film immediately opened a door to a different way of thinking about language and culture. “These languages are born of the land. If they disappear, the voice of the land disappears”. A characterful Cree man talks about how his language is his invisible connection from the heart to the past, to community and place – and he carries it with him wherever he goes. One of the languages has a word called Put’lt – “Everything belongs to those not yet born”

On our second day (the first day of the conference) we took part in a Colonial Reality Tour by Cheryl Bryce, a firebrand of a woman from the Lekwungen tribe, whose traditional land is now urban Victoria. She began outside the museum, telling us that who is now tarmac used to be a bay where people from all over would gather annually to collect mussels. She proceeded to show us round several sites, including their traditional site for harvesting a wild lily called Camas in what is now a municipal park. Cheryl has been battling park staff in removing non native species (such as daffodils) to restore the land. Something that really struck me was her description of the harvesting process. She talked about how it was important when harvesting the Camas bulbs (which were a staple carbohydrate), it was important to handle the bulbs, sort them, and put back the bulbs – as the bulbs would respond to human interaction and grow bigger as a result. However, the standard horticultural explanation would be that the bulbs would be that the bulbs grow bigger because they are stressed. So is food a gift or is it a conquest?

Listen to Cheryl talking about the Camas (or Kwetlal) here:

That evening, the conference proper began. There was a feeling that this event was providing a meeting on a much deeper level than the mere exchange of ideas – in fact the most important part was not the programmed talks but the human connection. The conference programme was packed, but as ceremony was as important than academic discourse, this programme had to frequently be re-arranged to suit. There was much thanks-giving, gift giving and, most memorably, songs of praise from the Maori community. This was a highly emotional event, and speakers and delegates alike frequently broke into tears.

The first evening called on the power of the arts in beginning to heal some of the horrors that indigenous peoples have endured under colonialism. We dived straight into the heart-rending subject of the Canadian residential schools, which operated a systematic cultural genocide of First Nations peoples until 1996 – via an inspiring art project called The Child Taken – working with high school students to explore and document elders’ experiences.

There was a lot of discussion of how to undergo a process of reconciliation between settlers and indigenous people – and even a process of reconciliation for people who are estranged from each other and their lands. Conference leader Lewis Williams called for us all to find a way to become ‘indigenous to place’ again, and moving away from the ‘economic fundamentalism’ of consumerism. Dr Iain MacKinnon talked about how in Europe we have been undergoing a process of internal colonization for centuries – beginning in the UK with the Norman conquest. Okanagan author and activist Dr Jeannette Armstrong talked about how you cannot theorise, you have to actualise, describing the very different learning experience that takes place when you are out on the land. She goes out teaching her granddaughter about the multiple uses of native plants – for food, for medicine, for materials. “The world changes when we are out there picking berries”, says her granddaughter. In the following video from a TEDx organised by Okanakan College in 2011, she talks about how reclaiming an idea of ‘indigeneity’ is ultimately to recognize that we need to re-learn that every specific place is different from every other place: 

The most memorable day of the conference was the Land-based learning, when a group of us got up at 6am to go and dig a fire pit on Tixen Spit, a sandy point with views out to the islands of the Haro Strait.  The fire pit (or steam pit to be more accurate) was where we cooked a feast of freshly caught salmon (the first run of the autumn) and root vegetables for the delegation to eat for lunch. We spent the day on that sandy point, listening to WSANEC tradition bearers sharing stories and traditional knowledge of their culture. The fire-pit making was a lovely example of intergenerational learning. It was the young people who were the keen diggers – but all under the kindly watching eye of WSANEC elder Earl, and storyteller and plant expert JB, who made sure that everything was done properly.

After the day on the land, the whirlwind continued. On returning to Scotland, the intervening weeks of reflection have left some parts standing out strongly in my mind. The Maori contingent were particularly memorable for their immense energy. Poet and spoken word artist Te Kahu Rolleston is probably one of the most energy-full people I have ever met – and you could see clear parallels with the historic role of the Gaelic bards in inciting warriors to battle, as he sent thrills down the spines of the delegates with his words.

The part of the presentations that has stuck with me was the concurrent session by the youth delegates. This was quite a small gathering in a back room (at the same time that discussions of all sorts of other fascinating subjects that I wished I could have attended were happening –the Commons, Food Sovereignty and Resilience, more…). In this session, I talked first about the Crofter-fisherman elders of the islands and how it feels like their wisdom is slipping from our grasp; Robin Haig presented her film on the Young Crofters, and talked about how a possible forum for intergenerational exchange of wisdom was being planned. But then Arianna Waller and Te Kahu Rolleston gave a presentation on 'Ngai Te Rangi Youth Resilience: Identity as the vessel to unlocking potential' – which just blew us away. This was an astounding example of everything we had talked about rolled into one: empowerment for Maori youth, building intergenerational resilience, science services for Maori Iwi, education for Western scientists about Maori ways. The project is called Science Wanaga.

One of the most wonderful parts of the conference was the continual presence of ceremony. When we arrived we were welcomed like long lost cousins, when we ate there was a blessing for the food, the people who had grown it and the people had prepared it. There was a blessing for each occasion - in fact we had to learn to relax and go with the flow, for the connection between people was more important than following a strict itenerary.  When we left we were showered with gifts – from everyone, hosts and fellow guests alike. I felt like I had just discovered a new global family.

There are many thoughts and conversations that run on from this event, and I feel like it has been a galvanizing experience in challenging preconceptions I had about the world. Going to this conference has really helped me understand my relationship with the elders in my life, and to rethink the importance of connecting to land and knowledge of our ancestors in Scotland. These are exciting times and I hope that we can continue to broaden and deepen this discussion.

Within Common Good Food, there is much food for thought. We have already put much thought into complementary ideas – the commons, food sovereignty, agroecology. However if we are to move our understanding of ecology from an intellectual pursuit to a cultural norm, it is our collective connection to land that we must explore most deeply and most urgently.