On Medium: How Two Weeks On Vancouver Island Soothed My British Soul

My latest, over on Medium, is what happens when you leave the shores of the U.K and spend time in a place that values the acknowledgement of injustice. An excerpt follows:

“Due to a variety of circumstances, I had not travelled beyond the shores of Great Britain for a number of years. We decided that the summer of 2019 would be the time to shake that up, though, and headed to Vancouver Island, British Columbia, for a an epic two-week adventure. This was not my first visit to the region. We had undertaken a tour of the Pacific Northwest in 2000, which included driving across British Columbia — from Calgary to Vancouver. This time, however, we were heading further west to visit Victoria, Ucluelet, Tofino, and Nanaimo, before wrapping things up with two days in Downtown Vancouver.

The trip was beyond our wildest dreams, and we made memories to last a lifetime. Sunsets over the Pacific Ocean, hikes along the Wild Pacific Trail, listening to the Netherlands Centennial Carillon in Victoria Inner Harbour, spotting humpback whales in Barkley Sound, spotting orcas from float plane over Clayoquot Sound, spotting black bears around Ucluelet Harbour, crossing the Capilano Suspension Bridge in Vancouver… we certainly made the most of our time.

Clayoquot Sound, BC

But, when it was all over and we had settled back into our quiet North Yorkshire home in the U.K, I was struck by the overwhelming sense of being plunged back into conflict; of heading back into a battle, of sorts. I felt as though I was returning from a much-needed fortnight of respite — but not the kind of respite one gains from a regular break from the usual daily grind. This was far deeper than that. I felt as though my very soul had been soothed by my Vancouver Island trip, and this prompted me to ask the question: Why was this sensation so striking?

The answer was simple: Reconciliation and the acknowledgement of injustice.

While our own nation — the Britain formerly known as ‘Great’ — has been tearing itself to shreds with excessive austerity measures for a decade and with Brexit for three years, British Columbia — and specifically the cities and communities of Vancouver Island — has been taking a different approach to both social and environmental issues. As visitors, we were immersed in it from the moment we stepped off our Airbus 330 and into Vancouver International Airport: the simple act of acknowledging injustice, making a public commitment to inclusion, and demonstrating a desire to move forward in a better way, together.

In the U.K, ten years of Conservative government policy has caused the infamous British class divide to widen exponentially — with the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, and those in-between being pushed further down the economic ladder. Now, the National Health Service is in crisis, the education system is in crisis, there is a housing crisis, and teenagers are stabbing each other to death as a result of extreme cuts to the police, youth, social, and mental health services.

And then, there is Brexit — the burdensome weight that has been dragging us down since the 2016 referendum. It was a strategy implemented by then Prime Minister David Cameron as a way of addressing internal party divisions, which was then seized upon by right-wing elements who went on to win the referendum by a narrow margin with methods that constituted electoral law-breaking. The country has unravelled so much since that point that the Conservative Party just installed many of those very same law-breakers as Government, while the populace is riven with anger and frustration.

All of these issues have combined to create an oppressive country-wide atmosphere of discord and antagonism but, crucially, with nobody taking responsibility, the nation is effectively under a constant stream of gas-lighting from its government, in much the same way as the United States of America is, under the Presidency of Donald Trump. The facts of the injustices, law-breaking, and abuses of power are documented, and yet, the culprits are still installed in the highest office in the land, from which privileged position they tell us not to believe our own eyes and ears. Any respite from such a situation can only serve to pull the bigger picture into sharp relief, so it is no surprise, in retrospect, that I should be stunned at the incredible social contrast.

Just look at the airports. Some argue that airports are just travel hubs, and are largely inter-changeable, but I argue that this attitude does regions around the world no favours — especially Manchester in the U.K. Manchester is a major city in the north of England and Greater Manchester is actually the second most populous urban area of the United Kingdom. It also has a rich and fascinating history, having thrived during the Industrial Revolution. Everything from manufacturing and engineering, to political, philosophical, and economic theory was developed and put to use in the region, creating an economic and academic boom.

This success was irreparably damaged by the Great Depression of the 1930s, World War II, the Thatcher Government, and terrorism – but the Manchester of today is still often considered to be the second city of the United Kingdom. You would not know that from its airport, though, Terminal 1 of which is like a neglected municipal facility from the 1970s. There is nothing of the rich culture of Manchester in it, and at a time when the Conservative Government is waving its ‘Northern Powerhouse’ plan around like a vote-winner, this shows a disgraceful lack of investment. With Brexit looming large, and this run-down, grim facility being the first thing overseas visitors see when they step off the plane, it begs the question: Why would anyone else invest in Manchester when the U.K’s own government doesn’t seem to bother?

Vancouver International Airport is a shining example of the difference regional investment can make. The city received a significant economic boost as a result of hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics, and the airport is designed to welcome overseas visitors to this city that has a very specific history and culture. For example, upon descent into the Vancouver International Airport Customs Hall, travellers pass the giant Musqueam Welcome Figures. Created by artist Susan Point, these are a traditional Coast Salish welcome, and are inspired by historical Coast Salish house posts.

The world’s largest Coast Salish spindle whorl, titled ‘flight’ — Vancouver International Airport

Vancouver International Airport is filled with such art installations reflecting First Nations traditions and history, as well as the region’s unique relationship with its wildlife and habitats. It all combines to communicate a philosophy of reconciliation and co-existence, and this continued work now results of The Musqueam Indian Band — YVR Airport Sustainability & Friendship Agreement of 2017. This agreement reflects the fact that the airport stands on land that is Musqueam traditional territory, and that both parties are committed to working together in friendship for the benefit of the community. This philosophy continues over on Vancouver Island, and is perhaps best encapsulated by the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, which dedicates an entire floor to the anthropology of the region, in addition to its natural history floor.

These exhibits include First Nations own voices in their documentation of the true past of British Columbia — including the arrival of colonisers from Europe, such as George Vancouver from England. Facts are laid bare — from the devastating effect of European bacteria being introduced into indigenous communities, to the lasting impact of First Nations children being taken and ‘re-educated’ in Residential Schools to assimilate them into the culture of the colonisers.

First Peoples Gallery — Royal BC Museum, Victoria, BC

There is no apparent desire to shy away from these past crimes in the Royal BC Museum, or indeed Vancouver Island itself, and it is galling to a British tourist that we would have to travel over 4,000 miles to experience an objective presentation of this part of our own history. The impact of British colonialism in Canada and around the world is not taught in British schools, and it is not emphasised in our museums. There is simply no meaningful public acknowledgement or acceptance of such past injustice — the current treatment of the Windrush Generation being a particularly egregious case in point.

While the U.K is busy imploding and isolating itself from its neighbours, the federal and provincial governments of Vancouver Island have signed a Treaty agreement in principle with the Ditidaht and Pacheedaht First Nations. Once ratified by all parties, this would provide up to $60 million in cash transfers, 8000 hectares of Crown, reserve and National Park land, as well as rights of self-governance after 20 years of negotiations. This point has been reached as a result of a national push toward reconciliation, helped along by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada — established to acknowledge injustices committed through colonialism (especially with Residential Schools) and to determine actions to do better. The emphasis is on moving toward a respectful partnership between all peoples.

There have been, and are, many Truth and Reconciliation Commissions focused on various issues throughout the world — from Algeria to Uruguay. Even the United States of America has had two. The United Kingdom does not appear on any list of official Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, though. Indeed, for a country whose people are stereotyped as being overly polite and inclined to say “sorry” for no reason, we are very far away from truth and reconciliation.

This is not to say that Canada is perfect. Injustice and racism exists, and specifically, so many indigenous women have been murdered or declared missing that this particular crisis has its own acronym (MMIW), and had its own national enquiry. Poverty levels on reservations are notably high, and several First Nations do not have access to clean drinking water. The Neskantaga First Nation, for example, has been under a ‘boil water’ advisory for 25 years.

These are unacceptable human rights violations that result from colonialism, and they need to be addressed and resolved — but, there is value in the willingness of those in authority to admit to the problems in the first place, which the national public emphasis on reconciliation demonstrates. The existence of these injustices is no longer denied by authorities. There is evidence of progress in many areas. It is moving far too slowly, but moving too slowly is better than not moving at all — which is the stagnant situation afflicting the United Kingdom.

Acknowledgement of injustice — as demonstrated by British Columbia — paves the way to a future of reconciliation, which is a philosophy that extends to the relationship between humans and the Canadian landscape. While West Coast economies now thrive on tourism — notably ‘adventure guides’ and tour operators — each undertakes their business with an eye on the past. The conservation of whales, bears, wolves, and cougars on Vancouver Island (and across British Columbia as a whole) is at the forefront of activities — from the way in which vessels operate in the waters around the coastline, to the design of public trash cans on the street. All are well aware of the hunting that was once prevalent, and the efforts to now protect these animals and their habitats.

Most importantly of all, this national embrace of reconciliation is itself a celebration and honouring of First Nations cultures — upholding the idea of the connectedness of all things.

There is still a long way to go…”

Continue reading here: How Two Weeks On Vancouver Island Soothed My British Soul

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