On Privilege: Reflections on the Douglas Treaties Conference

Gordon Lyall

To start, I want to acknowledge that I live, work, and go to school on the traditional territories of the Songhees, Esquimalt, and WSÁNEĆ peoples; specifically my house is located in close proximity to a sacred Songhees spot on the Gorge Inlet. This is unceded land and I am privileged to call it my home. I grew up in Victoria. For years I roamed around blissfully unaware of my complicity in the settler-colonial takeover of this land. However with each day, I experience an ever-evolving sense of myself as I learn about the place in which I cultivate my family’s roots.

After attending the recent Douglas Treaties Conference, hosted at the Songhees Wellness Centre in February 2017, I have been given an opportunity to reflect on privilege. The most recent leg of my journey started on the Songhees Land and Sea tour, organized by Mark Salter as part of the Treaties Conference. While touring my hometown, I was reminded of how much I still have to learn about this place. I am particularly amazed by all the archeological evidence (right in front of our eyes) that proves human use of the land for thousands of years. For example, it is not difficult to observe middens at Sitchanalth (Willows Beach), or to unearth fire-cracked rocks near the fortification site at Meeghan (Beacon Hill). But for me personally, having grown up a few blocks from Pkols (Mt. Doug), I was astounded at how much of this evidence exists at that park. I will admit that my youth was spent quite frequently in that park and all I saw through my colonial eyes was the last bastion of untouched earth in the middle of sprawling urbanization. Pkols provided a magical place for me because the forest offered an escape from the exigencies of modern life. Never once did I think of it as a thriving hub of cultural activity.

The tour helped lift back the veil; I now see a very different place I call my home. Mark Albany enthusiastically showed us naïve tourists how most of the trees in the park near the beach had either been culturally modified due to bark stripping; or, had been tested for hollowness with searcher holes. It is the holes that really impress me; if a cedar tree is hollow, it is no good for canoe building. Many of the trees still standing in that part of the park have these searcher holes. So, the trees that stand in the park don’t stand because they are nice trees, fine examples of an ancient forest, they stand because they are no good for human use.

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The Douglas Treaties Conference offered a unique event where history was not only talked about but made. The Lekwungen- and SENĆOŦEN-speaking people each translated their treaty – peace agreement, verbal arrangement, or land sale (there are multiple interpretations) – with Vancouver Island Governor James Douglas into their own language and presented the new document to the British Columbia Archives. These versions, featuring First Nations articulation of the arrangement, will reside in perpetuity alongside the original treaties at the Royal BC Museum.

The ceremony surrounding this historic event and the conference generally made the whole weekend unlike typical academic symposiums. Indeed it was framed as a “hybrid” due to the mix of First Nations’ perspectives on the treaties, dances, amazing generosity in the food that was prepared for us – meals sponsored by the legal firms and prepared by employees and volunteers at the Songhees Wellness Centre – legal discussions, featuring passionate lawyers advocating for indigenous rights, and academic presentations, providing some legal, cultural, bureaucratic, and political history.

For those familiar with the Landscapes of Injustice (LOI) institutes, this would not seem entirely novel; the blending of academy with community is ideologically and pedagogically the strongest element of the project. But for the Douglas Treaties conference, this was certainly a unique event and a chance to test the relationship between Salish Sea communities (First Nations and Settler) with scholars. It did not happen without a few awkward moments. For example, after Adele Perry presented some of her research from her recent book, in which she argued that Douglas and the treaties can be analyzed within the context of global-colonial networks, a young man from a western-island First Nations group took the Q and A session to express his disapproval at how the conference was proceeding. He argued it was a shame to subject the elders to these kinds of “boring” lectures, and that they were leaving because of them.

My initial reaction was that this yoColonial Land Poster (1)ung man had made unfair accusations. This panel spoke just after an amazing lunch and I myself was feeling quite sleepy. I didn’t think much about anyone leaving at that point of the day, especially any elders. I also felt that we had all been warned that this was a hybrid conference and there would be a bit of everything, including “dry” academic lectures. Perry had given one of the best academic presentations of the weekend and it appeared to me as disrespect not to acknowledge her with a dialogue about her research; instead she received a jeremiad about how useless the academy is. To me this outburst appeared uncalled for and delivered at an inappropriate time…

I went home and reflected on the matter. I missed the point.

There are a lot of justifiably angry young people from these communities who do not appreciate grand judgements from the Ivory Tower. WSÁNEĆ elder STOLȻEŁ (John Elliot) commented on this in his keynote speech with an anecdote about the anger his cousin carried around with him until his death. Elliot admitted that he too was once an “angry young man” but turned to teaching the youth language and tradition as a way to cope with the complex feelings associated with the injustices of colonialism. The problem of colonialism directly affects Elliot’s, the young man’s, and all First Nations’, daily lives and the future of their children and grandchildren. I have the luxury of going home and forgetting about the whole conference specifically and our colonial situation generally if I so choose because I am a beneficiary of dispossession. My privileged position allows me to be critical of this young man who was speaking his truth.


Douglas Treaties Conference. Photo credit: Spencer Pickles.

I constantly need to remind myself of my positionality both as a researcher and as a human being who lives in a colonial-state but has not suffered the hardships of the power imbalance created by this settlement. As a historian I have never considered myself an activist. I feel that this position is slowly changing. Being a part of projects such as the S & A Forum, LOI, and my own research, is leading me down a path that is necessarily confronting issues of social injustice. The greatest injustices facing us right now are those produced by our colonial history. There is much confusion and little clarity in this entanglement.

Colonial relations, over time, have developed a very complex society full of people with variegated racial heritages, a wide array of family histories, and multi-faceted worldviews. This makes obtaining a clear identity for those of us with multi-generational lineages in North America a bit illusory, but it is important to attempt to locate one’s historical and contemporary position within the settler-state. For example, my paternal genealogy can be traced back to Métis fur traders at Fort Chipewyan from the late-eighteenth century throughout the nineteenth. Métis status was lost to my father’s grandmother, Edith Ellen Loutit, when her father, Peter, signed scrip in 1901. He got $80 in exchange for her acceptance of Canadian citizenship. In 1912, at the age of sixteen, Edith married a twenty-five year-old Scottish settler named William Lyall. From that point, her Métis heritage was “forgotten” until the twenty-first century when my uncles investigated their grandmother’s mysterious background. I share this not to make any claim to First Nations ancestry; I do not see myself as a descendant of some Chipewyan “Pocahontas”, nor do I wish to face the type of scrutiny that Joseph Boyden has. I share this because it shows how, like many people with a diasporic lineage, I have no firm grasp of my own family history and current identity. Many of us are lost in the woods and this uneasy disconnect between our current situation and our colonial past is a contributing factor to much of our modern confusion and cultural insensitivity. So, while I am cognizant of this distant interracial history, I identify as a white cis-male Settler Canadian – what that means exactly I am never entirely sure.

Signifiers such as “Settler Canadian” seem to always be in flux. With a poststructuralist understanding of semiotic fields contingent upon historical contexts, I see terminology as social constructs; it is worthwhile to constantly take stock of meaning in relation to power. While scholars of settler-colonial studies have debated definitions and seemingly made a case for the validity of “Settler-Colonial” as a label for people with colonizing heritages, at the recent IRAR symposium hosted by the Centre for Indigenous Research and Community-Led Engagement, I was again presented with an intellectual perspective that further muddies the colonized water. Glen Coulthard expressed dissatisfaction with the term “Settler Canadian.” He sees it as part of a white-centred discourse and a “performative liberalisation” of more transparent descriptions such as “colonizers” and “thieves.” I am not sure I entirely agree with Coulthard that “Settler Canadian” should be abandoned, but his statement has given me food for thought. I see it as an important reminder that language can serve the purpose of obfuscating hard truths. Academics  still risk repeating old patterns of Eurocentric knowledge production by presenting subjective research positions under a cloak of objectivity. Nevertheless, some kind of identification that situates my position of privilege is important; I am of Settler heritage (a colonizer if you will) and have a position of power that can be utilised for good or evil. How exactly to utilise this power for good is a work in progress, but I think I have veered in the correct course.

I admit that I once felt defensive of my status as a settler. I am guilty of uttering the oft-heard phrase, “I was born here, this is my country too.” And while I refrain from vocalizing this in any insensitive manner, the statement is still true; there is nowhere that I can go. I have no traditional territory; I cannot be “repatriated” any more than Nisei Japanese-Canadians could have been “repatriated” in 1946. (The layers of injustice in Canadian history are quite frankly disturbing). The old world is not my home; this is my home. But it is important to find a more spiritual connection to this place as opposed to the rapacious track record Canadian society currently owns concerning resource extraction and land stewardship.

Many of us are born here but it is our settler heritage and general support of the Canadian Nation-state that makes us responsible for the current disasters of salmon depletion, forest de-population, ecosystem failures, and socio-economic disparity that matches third world levels of poverty. For me, Adam J. Barker articulates our position best in his “Open Letter to my Settler People.” He observes,

 “All of us – every person who lives on and benefits from the theft of Indigenous lands – is a Settler.  We all live on someone else’s lands, and almost all of us do so illegally.  Everyday that you live in Canada or America, every day that you make a living, have freedom of movement, and enjoy a standard of living much higher than most of the world, you are part of settler colonization.”

Further, he reminds those of us with our “variegated” racial heritages that “It does not matter if your family has been here since the Mayflower landed, or if you just recently moved to Toronto from abroad: you are part of this.” We may not be literally stealing land in our Lockean understanding of property rights, but that logic misses the mark. We are participating in a hostile land takeover that started five hundred years ago. Barker asserts that “it is not our Indigenous hosts’ responsibility to challenge this colonization”; the colonial mess is ours to clean up if we chose to. This choice is privilege.

Better relations between indigenous and settler communities is not irretrievable. However, it is incumbent on settlers to demonstrate a true willingness to listen and learn. First Nations tours are a start. I encourage those who are ready to confront the colonial-present to seek out these kinds of excursions in their own communities as well as to find other ways to volunteer. In Victoria, for example, there are opportunities to help in the removal of invasive plant species and reinstate Indigenous food systems. This activity elucidates the wide variety of uses for native plants and offers alternative food and medicine options which can assist locals in loosening the commercial-produce and pharmaceutical chains while cultivating healthier traditional ecosystems. Also there is important literature from the Indigenous Resurgence stream that can be read. Authors such as Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Taiaike Alfred, Jeff Corntassel and Coulthard decentre western epistemologies in indigenous-rights discourse. While all these scholars recognize a false dichotomy developing between “cultural resurgence” and “political resurgence”, Simpson in particular best demonstrates the political power of stories and songs in reaffirming traditional connections to place and community in response to a neo-colonial world. Resurgence is First Nations’ business but an appreciation of the process can help inform the outsider on indigenous perspectives in decolonizing efforts.

To conclude I turn to Barker’s key challenge:

“Can you conceive of letting go of your nationalism and patriotism, seeing them for what they are: expressions of our shared settler colonial privileges?”

I can. With the celebration of Canada 150 on the horizon, I find myself wondering at times, what are we celebrating? I think Canadians can use this anniversary as a jumping off point towards new ways of conceptualising this place we call home. But we have a long way to go. The first step is recognizing settler privilege: if we can’t see it we can’t fix it. The second step is teaching our children. History is important. If we are going to move forward we need to teach them, first indigenous history (ideally informed by indigenous epistemologies), and then Native-Newcomer history (ideally problematizing essentialized indigenous/settler binaries) so that our youth can appreciate where we are and where we can go. Hopefully the more we do this work the closer our two communities come together. For better or worse, we are in this together.


Douglas Treaties Conference. Photo credit: Spencer Pickles.

Much thanks to Kaitlin Findlay and Nicole Yakashiro for their thoughtful review and comments. Of course all opinions expressed here are solely my own.


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