First Nations and pipelines

by Karl Perrin

Abridged from a sermon delivered May 21, 2017, to the Unitarian Church of Vancouver

Chief Seattle once said: “This we know. The earth doesn’t belong to us, we belong to the earth. All things are connected, like the blood that unites one family. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. We did not weave the web of life; we are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”

We are meeting today on the unceded territory of the Musqueam First Nation.  Unceded: what does that mean? Never conquered? Never sold? Never given away? So are we guests? Perhaps we are guests of guests, of our 2- and 4-legged relations, our finned and winged cousins, the lords and ladies of the deep, the whales who inhabit this home. We owe a debt of gratitude to all our relations. Thank you.

In “A Native Hill” farmer and poet Wendell Berry wrote:

“We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world. . . .

We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. . . .  

For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.

On that very theme I take you back to 2004 when I had an insight into the spiritual rebirth of Coastal First Nations. I recall an exhibition at the UBC Museum of Anthropology entitled The Abstract Edge featuring Haida artist Robert Davidson. He had a new collection which used the Haida alphabet of shapes, myths and heraldry but which he had deconstructed and reimagined with a 21st century global sensibility.

Some pieces of his new collection featured an old shape with a new meaning. The tri-negative or tri-neg was traditionally used as a three pointed filler in negative space, i.e. the background, to add fluidity to the form lines and to simply frame the foreground. Robert Davidson’s innovation was to take the tri-neg shape and, through colour and position, turn it into foreground, i.e. into positive space instead of negative space.

At that point I had a revelation. I realized that just as Robert Davidson had demonstrated with his tri-neg space filler that foreground and background were interchangeable, so too were our cultural perceptions of the First Nations. Based on our cultural history we colonizers had seen the so-called wilderness – the heathen, dark pagan forest – as negative space. We thought it empty, devoid of Christian civilization, devoid of Europe, which was the only reality which made any sense to our collective wisdom. And the denizens of this emptiness were to us simply negative people lacking our blessings and the salvation of our Bible. We settlers saw them as un-settled.

But as First Nations broadcaster Candy Palmater has taught me: “We were not “settlers”; when we arrived this place was already settled. We didn’t settle anything!” Likewise, whenever I see old Haida representations of white men they look ridiculous. Not intentionally ridiculous, but the hats and beards seem odd as if they were copied but not understood. We were in fact lacking Haida culture. We were the negative space; we were the devoid and lacking savages.

Everyone had the same view of Captain George Vancouver on the deck of the HMS Discovery, whether it was the First Mate, a Musqueam warrior looking up to the ship’s deck, or a random eagle circling overhead. But what did the view mean to each? Captain? Devil? Friend? Foe? Disgusting? Maybe delicious? The visual information was the same, but the meaning was completely different.

As we know today only 40% of our vision is what is actually out there, the remaining 60% is what we expect to see. That’s why we have optical illusions – our biased brains just insist that our eyes must be wrong until proven otherwise. Usually we just categorize what doesn’t make sense as simply “wrong” and what does make sense as obviously “right”. Whether something is wrong or right is determined by our culture, our language, our fashion, popular history and mythology, our religion, and sometimes by what is called our “slow thinking”. Evidence and logic together make up our weltanschauung or worldview. And worldviews don’t appreciate tinkering or correction, e.g. creationist vs. evolutionary worldviews.

What does any of this have to do with the Kinder Morgan pipeline? It all depends on how you look at it. Does another oil pipeline mean development and jobs, or does it primarily mean tar sands exploitation, more corporate colonization, plundering our common ground, killing our Mother Earth bit by bit by bit? It all depends on how you look at it, your weltanschauung.

I won’t review here the litany of smallpox, addiction, residential school cultural genocide, and social fragmentation which has maimed First Nations since George Vancouver first appeared on the horizon. I do want to point out the prevailing, cumulative, corporate colonialism represented by the industrialization of Burrard Inlet, the Fraser River and the Salish Sea. Where was the “free, prior, and informed consent” to pollute this unceded native land? Where was the respect for the Tsleil Waututh clam beds and the Musqueam fisheries? Where is the invitation from First Nations to dredge Burrard Inlet for huge dilbit tankers?

As we approach the 150th Anniversary of Confederation we can remember what Tsleil-Waututh Chief Dan George said 50 years ago at the 1967 Canadian Centenary: “When I fought to protect my land and my home, I was called a savage. When I neither understood nor welcomed his way of life, I was called lazy. When I tried to rule my people, I was stripped of my authority”

What did John A. MacDonald, our first prime minister, say about Indians in 1879?  “When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

My goal in terms of stopping the Kinder Morgan (Trans-Mountain) pipeline expansion project is to speak truth to power. The Unitarian fourth principle encourages free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and the seventh principle is to respect the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part. My goal is to fulfill my vow to my son and to his generation that I will do EVERYTHING in my power to prevent his premature death due to global warming.

So, take courage my friends. The way is often hard, the path is never clear, and the stakes are very high. Take courage, for deep down there is another truth: You are not alone.

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3 comments

  • Wendell Berry’s comment about changing our lives is the crux. I’m reminded of Buckminster Fuller’s quote, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
    To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” If we don’t do it, nature will.

  • Thank you. There is hope.

  • Thanks, Karl, this is poignant, powerful, and provocative. Possibly promising too!

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