Sunday, 31 May 2015

The Totems of Alert Bay

I took the Greyhound north out of Victoria, for nine hours up the east coast of Vancouver Island to a little harbour called Port McNeill where I hopped onto a ferry for Cormorant Island.

The journey took me all day but I finally arrived in Alert Bay about 12 hours after I left Victoria.  Cormorant Island is the home of the Namgis tribe, who are part of the Kwakwaka' wakw people, whose art work I looked at in the Museum of Anthropology while I was in Vancouver.
My distant island destination
I'm staying at the Seine Boat Inn - a wooden waterfront construction with its feet in the sea.

You listen to the ocean lapping underneath the floor all night and it's very soothing - just like being on a boat. Everything's made of wood, but utterly immaculate and the beds are a glorious, sinking experience - all kept by Colin, who emigrated here from Britain when he was 17 and hasn't felt like going back since.

You can keep an eye out for Orca while you have breakfast.
It's very cosmopolitan here - there are quite a few Americans, the cafe over the street is run by a couple from India, there are several Korean fishermen, Chinese store-keepers and quite a lot of Brits.  But it's the First Nation residents I've come to meet. On my first evening, taking a quick walk along the shoreline to shake the journey out of my legs before I went to bed, I came across an old cemetery with fallen totems.

The following day someone explained to me that they don't maintain these memorials.  They believe in a natural cycle of life, decay and death;  everything has its allotted time, so when the totems fall they're allowed to rot back into the ground.

There's a museum now in Alert Bay -called U'mista, which means 'that which was given back'.  The museum is built in the style of the traditional 'Big House'.

And the museum contains all the precious objects and ceremonial regalia that was taken away from the Namgis at the beginning of the twentieth century, when their ceremonies and celebrations were forbidden.  Most of it went to museums, or to private collectors, and a surprising amount (given how tightly they hold on to their acquisitions) has now been returned.  I was allowed to photograph the mask below, but the others are too sacred.

The most important ceremony for First Nation people was the Potlatch - a big party to celebrate a community event, but which also passed on important cultural knowledge, stories, songs, and tribal history to younger generations - often in the form of dancing with masks and robes, dancers acting out the traditional legends.  It was also part of the Potlatch for the family to give away personal wealth to the guests in the form of gifts.  This is how the tradition was summed up by one of the tribal elders.

"When one's heart is glad, he gives away gifts.  It was given to us by our Creator, to be our way of doing things, to be our way of rejoicing, we who are Indian.  The Potlatch was given to us to be our way of expressing joy!"  [Grandmother Agnes Alfred, community leader, Alert Bay]

Needless to say, the colonial authorities weren't happy with this and Potlatches were banned - participants being liable to imprisonment.  All the ceremonial regalia, robes and masks, dishes, banners and tribal emblems, was taken off to go to museums or to be sold to private collectors.

After I'd been to the museum - I went up to the top of the hill to see the tallest totem pole in the world and the Namgis' Big House, where they celebrate their contemporary Potlatches.  The tallest totem pole proved too tall to photograph!

The Chief's house has a housepole outside with his lineage on it. Part of it is an Orca with a man on its back.

Alert Bay is a strange little place, sitting astride two communities. At the end of May it's still not summer here and many places were still closed for winter.  Some also had For Sale signs outside.
A fishing boat leaving harbour early
It has the feeling of a place on the edge of something.  There's very little money here now - the days of the 'million dollar catch' are gone and the fishing is thin, but it's either that or logging and most people divide their time between the two.

A big fish cannery that was built along the shore has long since fallen into the sea, and there are notices all along the harbour warning not to catch mussels, clams or oysters since they're all contaminated with 'Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning'.  This comes from algal blooms in the Pacific, which used to be rare, but have become more frequent.

Emily Carr once came here to paint the totems that lined the bay and the painted war canoes pulled up on the shore.
Emily Carr: 'War Canoes at Alert Bay'
Now there are fewer totems, but I did spot one canoe poking its nose out of a shed, being repainted for summer.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Emily Carr's House in Victoria

Emily Carr is one of Canada's most famous artists and her distinctive work was exhibited in England only a few months ago at the Dulwich Art Gallery, called 'Between the Forest and the Sea'.  I've been fascinated by Emily ever since a friend lent me the Susan Vreeland novel 'The Forest Lover' based on her life, so one of the things I wanted to do here was to find her home.  Emily was born in a newly developing Victoria, in 1871 - the year that British Columbia was incorporated into Canada. Her parents had come from Kent, England, by way of California. Emily's father was a successful businessman who had a store, and built a substantial house on 8 acres of land hacked out of the forest.  Emily made fun of his desire to recreate a little England in Canada. 'Father had buried a tremendous homesickness in this new soil and it had rooted and sprung up English'. The house still stands, as elegant as it ever was.   It's now a museum dedicated to Emily.

The Carrs were an important part of the city community.  The street used to be called Carr St, but is now Government St, because the Parliament building stands on the corner of it.

Emily Carr, the youngest of 5 sisters, was an unusual child.  From an early age she refused to conform. She described the moment when her name was inscribed in the family bible with her baby brother's, like this:  'The covers of the Bible banged, shutting us all in.'  Her early life was hemmed in by religion.  She complained that her sisters were so prudish they had to wear bathing suits when they took a bath and even then, only in a darkened room!
Emily is wearing the lace collar.
When she was only a young teenager Emily's mother died, probably from tuberculosis, and her father followed 2 years later, leaving Emily under the guardianship of her eldest sister.  There was a great deal of friction.  Mr Carr had allowed Emily to have art lessons and cherish hopes of a career in art, but now she had to fight for what she wanted, sometimes consulting the family trustee in order to persuade her sisters to let her go to San Francisco, or Paris, or London in pursuit of her studies. There were a lot of arguments in these parlours.

The rooms have been wallpapered with the original designs chosen by the Carr family and are filled with the fussy details of 19th century colonial life.  Immigrants even had their pianos shipped the thousands of miles round Cape Horn.

Emily, stifled by the life she was forced to lead in respectable Victoria,  became fascinated by First Nation art.  She found a couple willing to take her to the remote islands by boat and spent months camping out in order to paint the decaying totem poles, villages and other relics of the culture that was being gradually eroded.  It is now a very important record of a vanished world.

But her paintings didn't sell, so Emily spent her inheritance to build a lodging house so that she could live off the rent.  It still stands, just round the corner from the Carr house.  She hated being a landlady.

Emily gave up painting for 15 years because she was so discouraged.  But, after a chance meeting with other artists, she took up her paintbrush again and this time her work was more in tune with the public mood.  After an exhibition of Canadian art at the Tate Gallery in London, in 1938,  the art critic of the Manchester Guardian described her as 'a genius'.

Her health declined through the late thirties and she developed a heart condition.  Advised to take life easily, she began to write and her memoirs and journals are as brilliant as her paintings.  I'm currently reading her journals, published after her death in 1945, called 'Hundreds and Thousands'.  She once told a would-be biographer 'No one is going to tell my hotch-potch life, but me!'

Emily's typewriter and a photograph of her as a child.
She died in a nursing home, just along the street from her childhood home.  It's now a guest house called the James Bay Inn.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Victoria and the Schools of Sorrow

I stood in the middle of the British Columbia Museum and wept.  I was reading the human history of the west coast lands, now known as British Columbia, and when I came to the period when the British began to 'colonise and consolidate' the land that Captain Cook and his lieutenant Vancouver had claimed, it was almost unbearable.

When they arrived the land was already inhabited;  and when British Columbia was annexed as Crown Territory there were still three indigenous people to every British immigrant.  Our justification was that - according to the first Commissioner for Land - the 'Indians' had no right to the land because 'they can put no value on it' and it had 'no utility for them'.  The ideology was that unless you can put a price on something or turn it into profit, you have no right to have it. Because the First Nation people did not exploit or cultivate the land and because land ownership was a totally alien concept, their land rights were simply taken away to be given 'to some industrious people' eg the British invaders.  What happened next has been referred to as genocide, but it was a complex process.

The exhibition I was looking at in the Museum, is called 'Living Language' and is placed at the centre of their permanent exhibition of the human history of the territory.  British Columbia once had more indigenous languages than any other country.  One or two of these languages have no relationship to any other language on earth - they are totally unique.  And so are the concepts that these languages express.  The word Put 'lt  for instance, means 'everything belongs to those not yet born' - a phrase you'd think that the colonialists should have listened to.  The indigenous people also believed that their language came from the land and was inextricably connected to it.  It also connects with their history.  One native speaker said to me, 'It is an invisible line from the heart into the past'.

The great power of language to connect people and communities to each other and to their land is demonstrated by the great lengths that the British Colonial authorities were prepared to go to separate the indigenous people from those languages.  To achieve assimilation and Europeanisation, the Canadian government worked with the churches to create and administer Residential Schools for First Nation children.

The openly avowed intention was 'to kill the Indian in the child' - but in many cases it also killed the child.  The death rate was around 40%, but attendance was mandatory for all children aged 5-15.  'Indian Agents' and the Police forcibly removed children from their homes and arrested parents who resisted.

These schools were known as 'the Schools of Sorrow'.  The speaking of aboriginal languages was banned, and the personal testimonies of survivors (more than 50,000 children died) makes grim reading.  They were subjected to abuse; physical, sexual and psychological.  They were under-clothed, under-fed, ill-treated, and subjected to excessive, often sadistic, corporal punishment. Many are now deaf or suffer eye and breathing defects because they were repeatedly hit over the head. Some lost limbs from frost-bite from being shut outside in winter as a punishment. They can now claim compensation, but no amount of money can ever compensate for what they suffered then and still suffer now.

Many of the children refused to be broken.  Two little boys stole a rowing boat and managed to row to another island.  There's a heart-breaking exhibit of two keys made from sardine tin openers that were made by enterprising children to break into the school's locked food stores.  And there was also, among all the terrible testimony, the underlining of the power of story-telling.  In every dormitory there was always one child who would risk punishment to tell the traditional stories and keep them alive.  'There were always storytellers', this woman says.

This is not in the distant past - the last school was closed in 1996.

Now you know why I was weeping.  And I haven't told you some of the worst things because they are unbearable.  That supposedly civilised people purporting to have Christian values could perpetrate such cruelty is hard to believe.  But we did and must shoulder some of the moral responsibility.  In 2008 the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, apologised, alongside the churches and representatives of the Police.
Unbearable testimony, but it needs to be heard. 
Against all the odds, the First Nation people managed to hold on to the shreds of their culture and their languages and are beginning to rebuild, through a process of what is called 'Truth and Reconciliation'.  Some First Nation people have even managed to regain the land that was never legally ceded in the first place.  But it's taken a long time and a lot of fighting through the courts.  It's interesting that the ones who are rebuilding most successfully are those who managed to hang on to their language - a language in which their identity, their values and their culture is embedded.

We don't deserve it, but there is considerable forgiveness and a reaching out.  This is the fabulous Haida musician Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson performing a traditional Haida Peace-making song which she will be singing in a concert in Vancouver this weekend.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Loving Victoria

I'm now in Victoria, at the south end of Vancouver Island and really enjoying this city.  The atmosphere is such a contrast to Vancouver - amazing what a difference a ferry ride can make!  I was tempted to come by plane, but it's much more expensive than the bus and ferry and you don't see as much. You also meet some interesting people on the ferry - one of my fellow passengers confessed that he was also a writer.  And then he told me what he'd written - almost every comedy slot on US TV from Bob Newhart to House and Frasier.  Needless to say, he was staying in the nicest hotel in Victoria, while I was off to a budget motel at the other end of town!

A lot of people travel by sea plane here.  They're buzzing around the harbour all the time.  Quite a few people seem to own them too - some of the local guys in the cafe at breakfast were swapping anecdotes about crashes and near-misses and insurance claims as casually as we'd discuss a couple of scrapes in a supermarket carpark.

Victoria has fewer high rise developments than Vancouver and it's much greener with more open spaces.  There are also more old buildings and quirky streets. I've been enjoying just wandering about.

One of Victoria's 'heritage' houses.
Down on the docks there's impromptu music - the Irish get everywhere!

One of the things I've come to see is the Museum of British Columbia and I've just spent several hours there in what is definitely one of the best museums I've ever visited.  In the natural history section the first thing that confronts you is a life size Woolly Mammoth that roars at you as you walk through.

 All the displays are 3D - life size and complete with sound effects and smells.  The rocks and sand on the beach (and the water!) are all real, plus the driftwood and the stuffed animals.

The museum has extensive displays on climate change and what it will mean for Canada.  There are maps of the changing ecology.  At the moment British Columbia is experiencing extreme dry weather and high temperatures as part of a recurring pattern.  Further north there are more than 80 forest fires burning.  The museum is trying to educate visitors about the causes of climate change and what human beings can do to mitigate it.

The Parliament building is next door to the Museum and people were demonstrating outside against pollution - many of them First Nation people.  They are rapidly putting themselves on the front line in environmental issues, not just in British Columbia, but in Alberta too.

Sadly, Victoria - like Vancouver - has a homeless problem.  This was only one of those I saw  while walking into town - many of them quite young people, like this girl.
Homeless, but with wheels.
I'm going back to the museum tomorrow to visit their 'Living Language' exhibition and extensive collection of First Nation documents and artefacts. There is so much to see.  And then I've got to go to Emily Carr's house . . .   She once wrote to a friend:   ‘Life is like a whole packet of firecrackers going off at once without even waiting for the match’.  It certainly is.

I'm beginning to love Canada.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Tuesday Poem: Poetry in Transit - Jennica Harper

Vancouver has a great scheme - posting poems on the buses and the mass transit system.  This one is by Canadian poet Jennica Harper


When he's gone she clicks the link, submits
her criteria through drop-down menus
2 or more bedrooms under 500k.
She waits for red dots to appear, a pox
she hopes to catch.  No unique questions here:
do we need a lawn to mow?  We would need a lawnmower.
Do we want a Korean girl in the lower, practising her
violin?  No matter:  no hits.  At best it's three quarters of a mil
for a teardown.  Or an Eastside special, kid sister with a lisp.
Still, there's hope in the glow . . . she rejigs, refines
her search, such fun at first, she knows she should stop when
the rub turns raw.  The grass always greener in Dunbar.
But maybe, maybe today there's a high enough ceiling.
Once more, knock wood for the happy ending.

Copyright Jennica Harper, from Wood published by Anvil Press
In 2014 Wood was awarded the Dorothy Livesay Prize for the best book of poetry in British Columbia.

 Vancouver - like many big cities - has a crisis in affordable housing.  On my first evening here there was a news item lamenting that most of the young people born in 2000 (the Millenials) will have to move away from Vancouver because there is no way that they can afford to live here.  Vancouver is a very expensive city for tourists as well as residents and I've witnessed a lot of poverty while I've been here - more people begging or sleeping on the streets than I've seen in London.

The Tuesday Poets are an international group who try to post a poem every Tuesday and take it in turns to edit the main hub.  Please click the link if you'd like to see what other Tuesday Poets are posting.  

Monday, 25 May 2015

Vancouver - demonstrations and disappointment

Many people love Vancouver - several have told me it's their favourite city.  But not for me.  It's too big, too confusing, too expensive.  I think you need to know where to go here and you need transport - the distances are just too great on foot.  This image sums the city up for me.

I consoled myself with breakfast in a Chocolate Cafe - about 2000 calories of waffles, cream and Belgian chocolate (best skip over that one!) - and made my way through the steel and glass canyons to find the Vancouver Art Gallery, where I stumbled into a massive demonstration against GM Foods and Monsanto Spraying. Apparently it's a big problem in Canada.

I sat for a while listening to some passionate, very well informed speeches and pledged my whole-hearted support for food that hasn't been poisoned. Even the trucks were non-gmo here!

It was a very well-organised, well-behaved demo - children waving balloons, stalls selling food, people picnicking. But the riot police were just around the corner and they didn't like me taking pictures.

Vancouver Art Gallery has some fantastic collections, so I had high hopes of a pleasant afternoon, but the reality was a big disappointment.  The gallery is being totally refurbished - builders everywhere and the 2 lower floors completely empty where the permanent collection is supposed to be.  I saw some labels about to go up that suggested Cezanne might eventually be located there and another for a room that would be showing Jacques Lipschitz.  But no paintings, just the relentless banging of builders.  The third floor had a very thin display of contemporary young Canadian artists and the top floor (which I'd specifically wanted to see) a few tree paintings and drawings by Emily Carr in one small room.  And I mean a few.  Having been charged the full price for admission, I felt thoroughly cheated.

But what made me very, very, angry, was the fact that the Art Gallery has no work by any Canadian artists, historic or contemporary, who are of indigenous origin.  The exhibits are all European art, or Canadian artists working in the European tradition.  It's a kind of Art Apartheid.  It's OK to have Emily Carr, a European who painted indigenous works of art, but ....  You want to see indigenous art? You have to go to the Museum of Anthropology.  Or down the road, where a gallery in memory of one of the greatest artists that Canada has ever produced, Bill Reid, is showing work by him and by other indigenous artists. The Bill Reid gallery is a small art-deco gem among the tall buildings and manages to survive the flashing neon sign outside advertising the underground carpark that serves the shopping mall next door.

No photographs are allowed, but I saw some beautiful sculpture, paintings, fabric work and jewellery and had a much better time than in the Vancouver Art Gallery.  Apparently a new Art Gallery is planned for 2021 which 'will connect the past the present and the future' and display 'a commitment to the diverse communities we live in'.  I'm not hanging about in anticipation.

Mythic Messengers - a sculpture illustrating the Haida saying 'Everything is connected'.  Bill Reid Foundation
Tomorrow I'm off to Victoria on the bus and the ferry, to begin exploring Vancouver Island.  Victoria is where Emily Carr was born and lived for most of her life, so I'm hoping to be able to see her home.

Meanwhile - here's a young musician and indigenous activist called Kinnie Starr, making an appeal for the oceans of the world.