An Utterly Canadian Experience (with a taste of Guatemala)

Donna and me ready to enter the Maya world in BC

During the past couple of months, Jorge and I have traveled about 4,000 kilometres visiting friends and family – all the way from coastal British Columbia to the heartland of the Prairies – and back again.

We attended my nephew Mitchel’s wedding to beautiful Kelsey; and afterwards, knocked back slammer-shots (YIKES!) with our young nieces and nephews at the vdG cabin on Wakaw Lake. The next day, we followed the fool-hardy escapade with my brother, John’s personalized tour of Saskatchewan’s farms and smoke-houses.

We spent the lion’s share of our time in BC at the “Kamloops apartment with the Amsterdam staircase”. We ran errands, gardened, took lots of walks along the Thompson River and enjoyed ourselves at Allison Lake, wining and dining with my sister, Barb and husband, Craig. We iced our holiday cake with two days in Vancouver, staying with friends, Ramona and Tom. They took us to Lynn Canyon Park so we could swing on the Suspension Bridge; to Cyprus Bowl for a spectacular view of Howe Sound; to Horseshoe Bay where we feasted on fish & chips; and to breathe the invigorating salty air of Stanley Park and Ambleside Beach.

With sadness, but also with gratitude, we attended the funeral of Rick Jones, the brother of my long-time friend, Marilou. Since meeting Marilou in Grade One, she and her family have been a huge part of my life; I feel bereft knowing that I will never see Rick again. And I am not alone; he will be missed by all who knew him.

Jorge returned to Merida 10 days ago, but I have stayed on for a bit longer. I wish I could see everyone I love on during this time, but I am overly-blessed with more friendships than days I have for visiting. However, while in Vancouver, I did get to stay with my friend Mary, and as always, we logged hours of walking, talking and of course, we went shopping. Mary and I met in Peru, just shy of 50 years ago. But that’s a story for another day.

From Mary’s house, I rode the ferry to Nanaimo and then drove the scenic highway to Duncan, where my mother is from. This small city is located in the Cowichan Valley, about 65 kilometres from the southern tip of Vancouver Island.

Being in Duncan always brings back so many funny and poignant memories from my childhood. I would have liked to stay longer, but my cousin Donna and I wanted to see the new exhibit at the Royal BC Museum, in Victoria, which is the capital city of British Columbia. Many tourists get confused because the name of the island and the province’s biggest city are identical.

So, to clear up any lingering doubts – Victoria, the capital city of BC, is situated on Vancouver Island, which lies slightly less than 100 kilometres, across the Strait of Georgia, from the mainland – where the city of Vancouver is located.

Now to tell you about the exhibit Donna and I wanted to see at the Royal BC Museum.

My friend Lori joined us on our outing to the exhibition of impressive Maya objects from Guatemala – more than 300 precious jade, ceramic, gold, stone and textile artefacts – reflecting classic and contemporary Maya culture.

The exhibition is called, “MAYA – The Great Jaguar Rises”. It coincides with UNESCO’s Year of Indigenous Languages and highlights the thirty Maya languages that are still spoken today, by roughly half the population of Guatemala.

It is the largest Guatemalan exhibit ever shown in Canada, and one of the aims is to demonstrate the continuity of Maya culture from its beginnings in the second and first millennium, before Christ, until the present day. It focuses on the relevance of the Indigenous languages of Guatemala, and the resilience of these languages, a topic which of course resonates in Canada.

The majority of the exhibit focuses on Maya culture between the second and ninth centuries AD. Well preserved, innovative art, jewellery and architecture are featured, and all but a few pieces are original. A portion of the exhibit also shows the culture of contemporary Maya people.

Over the years, I have seen many displays pre-Columbian cultures, especially the Maya. The exquisite design, the excellent condition of each piece and the curator’s tasteful approach to the display of such a large exhibit impressed me. If you travel to Victoria this summer, I highly recommend you go to see “MAYA – The Great Jaguar Rises”. Opened on Friday May 17th, it will run until December 31st , 2019.

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National Indigenous Peoples’ Day

A detail of the new totem dedicated yesterday at Edmonds Community School

In Canada, June 21st is not only the first day of summer; it is National Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Formerly called National Aboriginal Day, it celebrates the unique heritage, diverse cultures, and outstanding achievements of the First Nations.

Indigenous peoples in Canada have traditionally inhabited six cultural areas. One of these – the Northwest Coast – is home to several distinct nations.

The earliest settlement of the Northwest Coast probably was established following the last ice age, around 14,000 years ago, Societies centered around hunting and gathering, with the most valuable resources being salmon for food, and cedar for construction and artwork.

First contact with non-Indigenous peoples on the Northwest Coast likely occurred as early as the 16th century. However, recorded interaction between First Nations people and European explorers / traders began in earnest in the late 18th century. Unfortunately, the Europeans brought smallpox that killed large numbers of the land’s original population. In fact, from the 1770s through the 1860s, epidemics took the lives of thousands. The most devastating outbreak occurred in 1862 at indigenous camps around Victoria. Authorities forced those infected to move back to their home communities; the illness spread, and eventually killed approximately 20,000 people. As well, other diseases dramatically reduced the population throughout the 19th century and early 20th century.

Of all the cultural areas in Canada, the Northwest Coast peoples had the most diversity in language. These include Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and Salish languages. Enforced assimilation — the policy of missionaries and government administrators until the late 20th century – outlawed many Indigenous Peoples’ traditional practices. Compulsory education in centrally-located residential schools forbid the speaking of traditional languages, which had devastating effects on the students as well as on community structure and socialization. From 1885 to 1951, the “Indian Act” also banned cultural practices; and as a result of the policies forced on the Indigenous culture, most First Nations peoples in the Northwest Coast area now speak English as a primary language. The ancestral languages and their dialects are critically endangered.

Northwest Coast Indigenous people associated music and decorative arts with both sacred and secular activities. Songs, sometime accompanied by dance were associated with every activity. As well as the pivotal role the songs played in ceremonies, they transmitted family and society traditions – soothing infants, playing games, expressing love and sorrow. Whistles, drums and horns sometimes accompanied the voice.

Sculptural and decorative artwork was also part of daily life. Artists embellished tools, houses, baskets, clothing and items made to represent the supernatural. Wood sculpture and painting are probably the most distinctive Northwest Coast art form; totem poles are the largest examples.

Hewn from millennia-old logs, totem poles are sacred. The carvings often symbolize and commemorate ancestors; they recount cultural beliefs and familiar legends, clan lineages, and / or notable events. The poles may also serve as functional architectural features and welcoming signs for village visitors. They may embody a historical narrative of significance to the people carving and raising the pole. Given the complexity and symbolic meanings of totem pole carvings, their placement requires careful thought.

Yesterday I was invited to pole dedication at Edmonds Community School in South Burnaby, which borders Vancouver. This area is home to residents from 48 countries, and is recognised as Canada’s most diverse nighbourhood. Led by the school’s community coordinator, John Nanson, it is proof that multiculturalism DOES work and that it is a positive and enriching way of life.

Supported by the federal Member of Parliment, Peter Julian, funds were procured for the commission of a totem to commemorate the values of the community.

Jackie ­­­­Timothy is the carver who was selected to create the masterwork. He told the crowd that at 4 ½ years of age, he was forced to attend a residential school, where he remained for seven years. He was not allowed to regularly visit his family or speak the language he had learned in his home. He was not even called by his name; he was known as “Number 51”. Corporal punishment was the norm for even minor infractions. Unfortunately, Jackie’s treatment was not unusual; and after years of such abuse, it is understandable that the children who attended these schools had great difficulties re-adjusting to life back home. In an emotional voice, Jackie spoke of this experience. “When we were allowed to return home, we were rejected,” Jackie continued, “Many people said we had renounced our heritage, but we were just children. We did the best we could to survive.” Over the years, Jackie learned carving from his elders and with the support of his wife Kim, he has done much to reclaim the heritage that had been taken from him and his peers.

The couple’s three adult children all have University educations, and the grandchildren are their greatest joy.  Jackie Timothy’s totem depicts his personal, as well as his peoples’ journey through life. It vividly portrays the goodness and abundance found in this part of the world. But it also testifies to the pain inflicted on some who live here. Ultimately the totem pole depicts the artist’s hopes for reconciliation, forgiveness, and a rebirth of harmony in our shared community.

The totem resonates like a chant – like an eloquent prayer for peace – may it come in our time.


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The Wide Open Skies

As the crow flies…

The grand majority of our family has travelled by train, car and aeroplane – to Foam Lake, Saskachewan – for the wedding of Mitchell, our youngest brother’s eldest son. We have filled up all the rooms at the local motel and still more of our group are in their RVs and tents at the campsite across the road.

The bride is Kelsey, whose family live in this prairie town. And a charming place it is. Getting here from Kamloops took all day, but what a glorious trip – especially the 250 km drive from the Saskatoon airport to Foam Lake – I now know the meaning of WIDE-OPEN SKIES!

The following slide show does not live up to the images and impressions in my mind, but you’ll get an idea of the space of this place.  Tomorrow, after the wedding, I’ll hopefully be in shape to tell you more about this marvellous gathering.

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