Post image for Borders

(This post is part of the Canadian theatre salon curated by Chantal Bilodeau for the World Theatre Day 2014/Crossing Borders salon series.)

Underneath the odd lines separating states and provinces, laws, ideas, commerce and cultures, an older matrix of lines persist. Buried beneath the structure of the Americas are the remnants of the ancient and persistent borders of the original peoples of this land.  

Before Canada and the United States, before Britain, Portugal, Spain, and France, before these great peoples coalesced and evolved into the great Nations of Europe, there were Nations already established in North America. These “First Nations” as they are called in Canada, had borders that were known and recognized by their neighbors. These Tribal boundaries encompass far more than just the reserves that have been allotted to them through the brutal processes of colonization and settlement of the “New World.” Vast portions of Canada are in fact un-ceded tribal territory. These lands were not surrendered in battle, nor were treaties signed. British Columbia, Alaska and the Northern Canadian Territories were the last places in North America to be colonized, and it is here where these land claims remain mostly unresolved. The legal battles have gone on for so long that the status quo is taken for granted. However, these ancient borders persist.

You see, the treaty process that enabled the settler governments to barter land from the Native peoples of Canada, stalled at the Rocky Mountains. The First Nations got wise to the scam.

In the bad old days, the Canadian Government waged a quiet campaign that has been described as genocidal by the United Nations. In contrast to the American genocide of Native Americans, the Canadians opted for a more passive-aggressive approach, in the guise of education, medicine and economic paternalism. First Nations populations were made essentially wards of the state.  They were relocated to often inadequate Indian Reserves, each with a government-appointed Indian Agent who governed all of their affairs. First Nations people were barred from leaving their reserves without the approval of the Indian Agent.

For much of the last century, tens of thousands of aboriginal children as young as 5 years old were forcibly removed from their families and raised in government-sponsored, church-run, boarding schools, where they were stripped of their dignity, culture, language and family ties. Parents who refused to surrender their children to these schools were jailed. Once surrendered to the school, the children were assigned a number that replaced their name. Many were systematically malnourished, physically and sexually abused, humiliated and violated in an attempt to brainwash them into rejecting their families and ethnicities. Many died at these schools. Recently released documents by the Canadian Government have revealed a legacy of crippling medical experiments conducted on native children at these schools.

The record of brutalities committed at the Indian Residential schools is still being written. Built in every province and territory throughout the nation, the stated goal of these schools was to “kill the Indian in the child.”

In the 1960’s and 70’s, another strategy emerged whereby the Canadian Government would simply abduct native children from their parents (many of whom were, of course, Residential school survivors). Under the umbrella of Child Welfare, tens of thousands of children were removed from their families, stripped of their legal “Indian status” and placed into predominantly white foster homes throughout the country. This program of mass abduction began in the 60’s but was used extensively until the late 80’s and is now commonly referred to as the 60’s Scoop.

So what does this have to do with Borders? These are a few examples of a campaign of cultural genocide motivated by the drive for resource extraction on native lands. The goal of this campaign was to brainwash generations of First Nations children to reject their families and their cultural identities, in the hopes of severing their connection to the land.

 Today, wherever traditional teachings have survived in Indian Country, opposition to resource extraction and development has been the strongest. However, these communities tend to be deeply impoverished.  On the flip side, for those First Nations who have managed to opt into the economy, resource extraction can be a much-needed source of revenue. However, the cost of a resource extraction economy is on the environment, and finding a balance is difficult. Some First Nations support the extraction and export of Liquefied Natural Gas, but draw the line at Oil Pipelines. Others have supported, and are benefitting from, mineral extraction on their lands, while others utterly reject it. And so it goes, nation by nation.

My production company, Savage Society, is co-creating a new play with ITSAZOO productions in Vancouver that explores the human impact of this explosive issue. The focus of the piece is on the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline. The Pipeline would transport diluted bitumen from the Northern Alberta Tar Sands to an as yet un-built oil terminal on the wild North West Coast of British Columbia to access the Asian market. It would cut through some of the most remote and sensitive wilderness areas in the world, bringing VLCC (Very Large Crude Carrier) Traffic into treacherous narrow channels and some of the roughest waters and weather along the north coast of British Columbia. The region also happens to be prone to very large earthquakes.

The proposed Pipeline would cut through dozens of un-surrendered tribal territories from Northern Alberta to the Pacific Ocean. So far, the majority of these First Nations reject it. In fact, First Nations opposition to this pipeline may be the biggest impediment to its construction.

This conflict is current, and it is heating up, pitting the world’s most powerful industries and the government of Canada against some of the nation’s poorest people. At a time when the world is still bingeing on fossil fuels in a futile attempt to run away from a catastrophic carbon hangover, the First Nations may be the only ones who can put the plug in the jug on the Northern Gateway Pipeline, by refusing to allow it to cross their tribal boundaries.

At sporting and cultural events in Vancouver, it has become customary to publicly acknowledge the First Nations whose traditional territory the Metro Vancouver region now occupies. This custom originates from the Aboriginal protocols of recognition and acknowledgement that are done at feasts and gatherings.  It’s really just a polite way to acknowledge the people whose land we are all prospering from. It reminds us that the lines that have been drawn are neither permanent nor absolute, and that the first nations of this continent, remain.

Kevin is N’lakap’amux (aka, the Thompson Indians) from Lytton, BC. He’s an actor, playwright and freelance writer based out of Vancouver. He’s a graduate of the acclaimed professional theatre training program Studio 58 in Vancouver, and the Full Circle First Nations Performance Ensemble Training Program. As an actor he has performed in numerous plays across Canada, including the world premieres of Marie Clements’ plays Burning Vision, Copper Thunderbird, The Edward Curtis Project, and the National Arts Centre Production of King Lear featuring an all aboriginal cast where he played the villainous Edmund in 2012. He was an ensemble member of the National Arts Centre English Theatre Acting Company and was a Playwright-in-residence there in 2010. Kevin is a recipient of numerous awards including the 2005 Vancouver Arts Award for Emerging Theatre Artist, 2007 Herman Voeden prize for playwriting, Syndney J. Risk Prize, Jessie Richardson Award for Outstanding Original Script and the 2009 Governor Generals Award for his first Published play Where the Blood Mixes.

Kevin co-wrote, co-produced and co-hosted the feature-length documentary Canyon War: the Untold Story about the 1858 Fraser Canyon uprising between invading gold miners and the N’lakap’amux People of the Fraser Canyon. This documentary was nominated for a Golden Sheaf award, won Best Director at the New York Independent Film and Video Festival, and Best in Category at the Houston International Independent Film and Video Festival. Kevin is also the Artistic Director of the Savage Society, a non-profit production company dedicated to telling aboriginal stories.