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"You can't erase history"

Updated: May 23, 2022

Last year, I began to follow the conversation happening in the community of Powell River, a city located on the traditional lands of the Tla’amin People. The namesake of Powell River, Israel Wood Powell, never called the region home. However, during his tenure as the Superintendent of Indian Affairs in British Columbia, Powell did use his authority to delay the surveying of Tla’amin land in an effort to inhibit the Nation from protecting the right to their territory, and influenced the circumstances that allowed for the land’s wrongful sale. Tla’amin residents of the village site, tiskʷat, were forcibly removed and relocated to one of six newly determined reserves. This clearing created the circumstances that allowed for the land to be cleared and stripped of timber and minerals, and a paper mill erected. These economic stimulators were the catalyst for the creation of the city, which was officially established in 1910.

In 2021, a request was put forward by the Nation of Tla’amin requesting that the city changes its name from Powell River, as for many, the name is one that stimulates feelings of sadness, deceit, and oppression. This request has elicited strong responses from many in the region. For some with Settler origins, the name of the town inspires feeling of pride and connectedness, and many suggest that the loss of the name will lead to a loss of identity. However, it’s important to remember that these feelings were almost certainly experienced by the people of tiskʷat when the land ownership was originally reassigned.

This contentious conversation has caused me to ponder the statement so often expressed, that “you can’t erase history”, however erasure has been the intention of colonizers for hundreds of years. It’s only been since the name change conversation erupted that I personally became aware of the history of Powell and the Tla’amin, and came to know of the original village site name. These thoughts led me to connect with my dear friend, Emily White of the Tla’amin and Klahoose Nations, who has been participating in the conversation around the renaming. I explained to Emily my observations that, for all intents and purposes, there has been a deliberate and ongoing attempt to erase the history of the First People of these lands, while colonial histories take the front seat in town histories. Emily considered my thoughts and explained to me that attempted erasure happened not only through renaming, but systematically. She shared:

“Colonization was not a singular event; it is a system. A system we continue to live in to this day. One of the main objectives of colonization is erasure. If settlers could erase Indigenous peoples from these lands, they could settle, extract resources, and take the land as their own.

Erasure was done by several methods including, but not limited to: Colonial naming practices, child apprehension through the Indian Residential School system and the Sixties Scoop, land apprehension, blood quantum through the system of Indian Status, and the banning of Indigenous governance systems, languages, and ceremonies. These erasure practices still exist to this day. Colonialism is an active system that settlers continue to benefit from, and that continues to oppress Indigenous people and their voices, experiences, and knowledge.

We are in a time of reconciliation. Only Indigenous people can define what reconciliation is, and what more needs to be done. It is important for settlers to sit, listen, and engage in unlearning settler narratives of history, and re-learn Indigenous oral histories.

The re-naming of the city will not erase settler histories from this land. It will create a better, stronger, respectful foundation so both Tla’amin people and our neighbours can move forward in a good way. We are making history, not erasing it.

čɛčɛhaθɛč (I raise my hands) for being here, getting uncomfortable, and for being a good neighbour.”

These conversations can trigger many feelings for all parties, and it’s important that they are approached with kindness, humility, and respectful curiosity. It can be difficult to have our perspectives challenged, and for me calls to mind the quote, “just because you believe something does not mean that it’s true”. Nationalist histories have been pervasive throughout the colonial education system, and Indigenous voices intentionally muted. In this time of reconciliation, it is now that non-Indigenous people need to create space for these histories to be heard – with open hearts and open minds.

In learning,

Kim at Culturally Committed

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