Small steps towards greater understanding, opportunities

British Columbians used to like to complain that B.C. is 3,000 miles from Ottawa, but Ottawa is a million miles away from B.C. But within B.C., and within the Sea to Sky region, the distance between First Nations and non-aboriginal communities has often seemed like a million miles. Things are starting to change.

A couple of weeks ago there were three separate press conferences in Whistler on one day and all involved members of the Squamish Nation. The opening of the Brandywine Creek hydro project and the Nita Lake Lodge sod turning both included prayers and blessings by Squamish Nation leaders. The blessings were more than symbolic acts; the Squamish people have a stake in both projects. They will also be presenting and interpreting native history in the corridor for travellers on the Whistler Rail Tour trains that are part of the Nita Lake Lodge development.

The third press conference was to announce plans for a First Nations botanical garden, part of the First Nations cultural centre that the Squamish and Lil’wat Nations have proposed for Whistler. The cultural centre, which has been in the works for a few years, will likely become the most visible sign of the bridge between what has been two solitudes, but there are others.

A couple of years ago bus service brought Whistler, Pemberton and Mount Currie closer together. Financial support from Whistler-Blackcomb helped make the service possible. Part of the motivation for the bus service was to make jobs in Whistler available to people in Mount Currie and Pemberton.

One of the reasons the 2010 Olympic bid was successful is that it included First Nations involvement right from the start. The Olympic effort continues to bring together federal, provincial and local governments, including the Squamish and Lil’wat Nations, which has helped make things like the cultural centre possible. A commitment of land in the Callaghan Valley has also been made to the First Nations.

Of course, not all members of the Squamish and Lil’wat agree with this approach. Some see these efforts as further erosion of their culture and legitimizing non-aboriginal governments that they don’t recognize. For these people the new opportunities that are emerging are, perhaps, points that can’t be won through debate but only through demonstration. It is here that the cultural centre and botanical garden will be crucial.

The culture of the Lil’wat, Squamish and other First Nations is closely tied to the land. In this respect, the cultural centre and botanical garden are more important than, say, a First Nations golf course in the Callaghan – although a golf course could be a significant source of income and hence another opportunity.

But as Randal Simon of the Squamish Nation said, the botanical garden is about preserving culture and sharing knowledge. When Capt. George Vancouver landed on the coast one of the first things his men traded with the First Nations was botanicals and medicines, Simon said. "The non-natives learned our language fluently," he added. "They had to to survive."

Russel Wills, who has designed and implemented projects for indigenous peoples in Asia and Africa, said the botanical garden will be an educational tool for all cultures. And the garden may be only part of the picture.

Wills has written extensively about the economic returns that can come from forests without cutting trees. Things like medicinal fungi, herbs and mushrooms are in high demand around the world. The Japanese consume about $300 million a year worth of one fungus extract found in the B.C. coastal forests he said.

"A lot of Japanese mainstream physicians use a lot of these things, and can’t believe we don’t," Wills added.

The botanical garden is where some of this knowledge and culture may be seen by visitors, but a working medicinal garden might be part of Whistler’s Interpretive Forest or perhaps the Soo Valley area that has been proposed as a protected area and part of the 2010 Olympic legacy.

There is obviously still a long way to go in creating greater understanding between aboriginal and non-aboriginal cultures and in protecting these cultures, but small, positive steps are being made.

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