Saturday was the International Day to End Racial Discrimination.
As nice Canadians we pride ourselves on being progressive and inclusive.
We believe in a “cultural mosaic”—surely we don’t need a special awareness day to end racial discrimination?
Unfortunately, the truth is that we still have a long way to go. And when it comes to Canada’s First Nations people, we have a lot to make up for.
As I write this, I am in my office in Kelowna and would like to acknowledge that it is situated on unceded traditional territory of the Syilx. I say way’ liml’mt (thank you) for the opportunity to make my home in this beautiful area.
The Respect Network, funded by Embrace BC, seeks to make people aware that with respect we not only recognize our differences, but we allow them, understand them and invite them.
Respect isn’t about mere tolerance but about embracing diversity in our communities.
As part of the Respect Lives Here project, we have shared stories about people in our community that represent its diversity. Including a First Nation perspective was critical and it is a perspective we all can learn about more.
Jordan Coble, curatorial and heritage researcher for the Snc’wips (sen-ch-wee-ps) Heritage Museum and a member of the Westbank First Nation, makes it easy to move past a shy ignorance to ask questions respectfully and to reach a new awareness.
Born and raised here, Jordan has a lot of pride in being Okanagan, but there was also a time where he felt shamed for being who he was.
“Even up into the early 1990s, there was the perception that people should stay on the reservations,” he said. “There is still an underlying racism and naiveté that exists in society that keeps us on a lower level in our community.”
Through his work Jordan shares his knowledge and passion to create understanding.
He deals with questions about Syilx culture on a daily basis and chooses to view these as opportunities that he can use to connect with people and share his perspective.
He encourages everyone to come and meet his community.
“If you have questions, come and ask. We try to make this place as welcoming as possible,” he said.
“I love these questions because that’s where the education takes place and awareness is created. No longer can we make assumptions.”
Initially the Okanagan people and early settlers had a symbiotic relationship with everyone working together.
“We knew how to use the resources and we helped early settlers,” said Jordan.
“We come from a culture of learning and working with other nations and thought this would be a similar relationship but it wasn’t. When the Indian Act was implemented, it became a dangerous place to be and it has been a shaky experience for some time but as we share our perspective, an openness has started.
“Something has worked,” he added. “Even for my younger brother, he didn’t feel the same shame. Some people aren’t seeing colours, they are seeing the people for who they are. I hope my children won’t feel it but I will also prepare them so that they don’t feel the same as I or my ancestors did.”
When asked what myth he would most like to dispel, Jordan passionately responded: “That we were in need of help. We were doing very well—we had systems in place prior to contact and that is what our knowledge is based on. Our people and culture are very much still alive. We share our stories to benefit the greater community.”
Another issue Jordan identified is the “homogenization” of First Nation culture.
“There are over 600 nations across Canada and B.C. has some of the most diverse communities of all. People ask me about pow wows and totem poles but they aren’t part of Okanagan culture. We use hand-drums to tell our stories and to pay our respects, not for entertaining.”
The traditional greeting in Syilx is way’ or welcome and that is exactly what Jordan did when I reached out to him. He welcomed me to learn.
As he piut it: “I know there is a lot of negative history related to First Nations people and racism but there is a lot to be thankful for.”
Progress is being made and hopefully by continuing to learn, to talk and to listen, we can come full circle and live symbiotically again.