If there’s one word that describes First Nations communities it is resilience: an interview with Chief Shawn Atleo

shawn_atleo-high-resAn interview with Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, Shqwi Qwal, Vancouver Island University; a Hereditary Chief of the Ahousaht First Nation in British Columbia and a former Chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Canada.

By Lily Yumagulova

Lily: Your community has gone through an emergency response situation to a capsized boat and the subsequent rescue which captured national attention. Could you please take us back to that moment and tell us what changes have happened since?

Chief Atleo: I am not aware of any changes occurring with exception to announcements that were made by the provincial government and we at Ahousaht signed an agreement with the provincial government In the past there’s been many incidents like this and I think that’s the first thing to say. Second, what I think is different is that this is an event that happened that really was brought into the public eye. So I think the context of your question is really important. First Nations all across the country, and Indigenous people across the world are so embedded in their local ecology and landscapes. It’s easily recognizable that if you have an incident happen on the water in and around my village that at any given time there’s a number of boats on the water. There’s fishing boats, there’s people going out and gathering seafood; it’s because our community is off the west coast. We are a boat dependent community and Tofino is not only the nearest [town] but it’s also the nearest Coast Guard station.

So to bring attention to this I think was really important, but it also reflects a change of consciousness of Indigenous peoples in general in this country and the place that we’ve occupied forever in our respective territories and in a place like Ahousaht. It’s absolutely second nature to help for search and rescues; it is not even something that is talked about beyond common sense. I sort of begin there. I think when I bumped into my relative Curtis Dick who was in the press afterwards, he very much participates in search and rescue on a policy perspective, as well as things like firefighting (our community is very well known for participating in firefighting efforts). We’re well trained and this is in large part because when you live in communities where the large services don’t exist for emergency response then by the very nature of your reality, you become very self–sufficient.

It’s just the way our peoples always have been. It’s embedded in our culture. There’s nobody that knows the nooks and crannies of the rock and you might be able to read a chart and get around a territory but because it’s such ancient knowledge: the winds, the tides, the tendencies at different times of the year, the moon… You know, our people just know so much about what’s going on and you’re raising one incident which is Ahousaht and the Premier came and we signed an agreement with the provincial government and we gave her a name in ceremony and she acknowledged that rescue, and recognition was given to those that provided the rescue and I think that’s very important. But I do underscore that this has been happening forever. All the time growing up, Ahousahts have been deployed in search and rescue missions and all under the cover of normality.

I think what’s changing now in this context, and this is where I’m really pleased to be speaking with you, is just how safety had to take its rightful place close to 25-30 years ago and we’re still searching for zero incidents with many organizations. The first thing you do is have your safety moment, to have First Nations who’ve not felt safe structurally in their lives, in their communities, politically as well.

There’s a link between policy and safety, of course, somebody like you and your publication would know this well. So I think that’s where I wanted to begin answering the question and it’s brought the elected Mayor and the local chief and council more closely together.

There was a follow up with a campaign to build a skateboard park in my village so the tragedy brought the community together and it puts a highlight especially on isolated communities and the challenges communities face. So many have said to me “Well, Shawn, they should just move to the cities maybe”. Well, no I mean we come from where we come from. Its where we want to be and sometimes living in these isolated rough areas it can be challenging, but it’s home, it’s the only home we’ve known and by virtue of where we live in fact people are draw to come on whale watching boats because it is so beautiful and it’s rough and it’s remote, but it’s also risky.

And if It’s risky then there has to be the appropriate plans in place and so Ahousaht not only has the traditional knowledge of our territories but also possesses a lot of very modern search and rescue as well as first responder skills for dealing with hypothermia to the kind of care that’s needed before somebody is transported to a bigger facility and of course there is still a demand, getting to your question, for an increase in, a call for a better response and our tribal council is involved in that because the Coast Guard wasn’t on the scene for something like 45 minutes, but you know what that’s always the case. We never expect it, so it’s really hard to…you can’t blame anybody. It’s the way the system is setup and of course it’s fortunate that the Ahousaht community were there. So there is more that’s required and there’s more that’s been promised, but I don’t know if that’s been followed up to the extent of satisfaction.

Lily: You have traveled from coast to coast and worked with many communities across the country. In your experience what defines the resilience of Indigenous communities? What are some of stories that inspire you?

Chief Atleo: Well I think if there’s one word that describes First Nations communities it is resilience. The very meaning of that word talks about the ability to absorb great trauma or change and to be able to recover from that and it’s only been a generation, we’re only a generation removed from people like my dad being sent to Indian Residential School for 12 years and suffering all of the horrors and abuses physically, mentally and emotionally and being ripped from the arms of family and that happened for generations and it’s a very real recent painful history.

As I’m speaking with you I’m looking at a picture of myself on my wall with my great grandmother. She had 17 children, of which my father is the eldest, and my late grandmother is the picture of resilience. What our people have endured, the men and women, but particularly the women, with the onslaught of external oppressive forces is horrific. It’s traumatic and it’s left a deep and lasting scar on families and we are in the midst of that resurgence if you will, recapturing the very best of what we know our ancestors had, and that was an ability to adapt an ability to come to grips with the reality of the situation and the world around you and while maintaining strong cores values of things like response, a close core connection to the living environment around you, that all things are living and we are connected. A real sense of balancing the individual rights with the rights of the group. The responsibility of citizenship and as such the responsibility to be included in the governance systems of your people because of our hereditary chiefs.

It’s a system entirely based on the full inclusion of the citizenry and I think that this time in history, you know you’re talking to me about an event that probably wouldn’t have ended up on the national news stories, we’re talking for a national magazine around the topic of resilience and safety when the incredible irony and a very positive potential of this moment is that First Nations themselves have not been safe. A community like Ahousaht which is like so many communities that I’ve visited in northern parts of Manitoba, northern Ontario, Northwest Territories, northern Quebec and the Atlantic coast are so resilient and always so giving and willing to help while at the same time they go home to meet poverty and in stark contrast to many of the community members, it’s fair to say, wouldn’t be able to afford the price of a whale watching boat and would be happy to perhaps own a whale watching business but we don’t have even have many instances of whale watching businesses. I think that on the upside is that we’re in a period of resurgence right now.

There is a great feeling of optimism that is being driven by a very youthful demographic. More than half of our community are under the age of 25 and that’s growing. So we have a burgeoning youth population that is pursuing education while maintaining a link to their culture and identity and wanting to maintain their languages and if you think about my father at age 5 telling the story of having a fellow student having his tongue pricked with a pin for speaking the only language that he knew that is really the most egregious sense of a lack of safety, being taken out of your home, punished for being who you are, and those same children growing up and ending up being the uncles and the aunts of those young people that did the rescue that day, it really is a snapshot of by and large an incredibly generous kind and caring people who are incredibly resilient and on ‘the comeback trail’ if I can put it that way.

And it is true right across Canada because you’re right I’ve visited hundreds of villages and I’ve witnessed this over and over again and even though we have headlines today that we have issues with suicides in northern Saskatchewan, I think the one thing that’s different today is that we’re hearing about it and we’re actually talking about it and there is where understanding begins: it’s with real conversation. I’m actually really happy to be talking to you about this.

Lily: What role does youth play in this process? What leadership roles can they play? And what advice for you have for them in terms of this desire to get engaged and build resilience in their community?

Chief Atleo: I think to support young people to recognize that they are inheriting a reality of a lack of safety in the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the rest of the world and for a while it’s ok to, I think it’s really important not to ascribe blame, there’s that old adage about the man and woman who take a walk down a road and fall down a hole. The first chapter is that they didn’t see the hole. They fell down. It’s ok. They’re ok. They didn’t see it. It takes a long time to get back out and they go on their way. In the second chapter they go down that same road and they fall down the hole a second time. They realize that they’ve made a mistake: they should have seen the hole, it’s not good. They get out and they’re on their way. In chapter 3 they go down that same road. They see the hole, and this time, they still fall down the hole and it makes it extremely difficult now because they recognize that there was a pattern, but it was like it was unavoidable. And chapter 4 is that you’re going down that same road, see the hole, walk around the hole and everything is ok. And Chapter 5 is you go down a new road.

It’s really a bigger story about- to look at the risks and hazards you talk about and topics like resilience – if you scope back to the large, big picture, we are in the process of a major transformation in First Nations communities and the young people are leading it because they are less encumbered by the direct pain and suffering in my and my parents’ generation. And so my children are my closest example, but I’ve seen children all over First Nations in this country, my son is 30 he just finished getting his business degree and he helped negotiated some of these agreements I’m referring to. My daughter is 27 and she’s getting her Master’s degree in environmental economics at the University of London and wants to bring that home and continue to work on inclusive prosperity and build reciprocal and regenerative economic environments in our territories, which is a really powerful theme.

So young people are recognizing that the first thing required for innovation, to be truly innovative, requires safety. You cannot be innovative, truly innovative, unless you are safe. And the big explosion in innovations in areas that like technology etc. is because the systems have created and encouraged an environment for those rich opportunities to flourish. Whether it’s Silicon Valley, growing up beside Stanford… you have that washing back and forth of major institutions that are helping to propel society forward. Well, now it’s time for that same support to be there for First Nations.

And particularly, in the theme of education, to be there for young First Nations. So back when home, we have our tsunami drills, we’ve got our big horn that blows and everybody gathers at my auntie Rebecca’s house and everyone knows that they have ‘X’ number of minutes because back in 1964 a number of our people—it was before my time I was born in 67—remember that last tsunami.

When I travelled to Banda Aceh I remember the Indigenous peoples saying they want to go back to their same homelands that were destroyed, lives were lost, but that’s where they come from. There’s a growing awareness to recognize that old traditional knowledge, because there are Indigenous communities that were aware and knew how to react to the tsunami based on traditional knowledge. But here in Canada you had such an onslaught of an effort to dispute and discredit traditional knowledge that that is actually turning around now and being seen as a tremendous value. Everything [including] how our Indigenous people in the east would have controlled burnings in various territories to ensure regeneration, so they’re actually engaging in burning of the forest order to manage the forest.

And we can extrapolate this to so many different areas here, where even major resource projects being built in this country, the time to plan is at the very beginning and I’ll give you one tangible example from an industry partner that we work with. We’re telling industries and companies “you need to work with Indigenous communities”. There was a tragedy of a person killed on a site by bear mauling and soon after this tragedy there were conversations with the local communities, and First Nations in that area said: ‘Well, where that happened is a common bear corridor, were you to have spoken with us we would have suggested a different construction configuration and for your fences to be placed in different areas”.

Now that might seem like a very minor thing, but it goes to show you that everything from how a project is planned, the original vision, the genesis of the concept needs to be co-shaped with Indigenous peoples in a manner that is safe and that encourages innovation because that’s the very nature of the foundation of Canada, that’s what this country was supposed to be founded on and so in my view we’re just returning to our roots, because the first settlers could not safely make it through the first winters without the support of Indigenous peoples of the St. Lawrence Seaway. So these rescues and this support, it’s been going on a long time because of Indigenous peoples’ close and intimate relationship with the landscape.

Lily: You traveled around the world so in addition to Banda Aceh, what kind of lessons can we bring to Canada from the Indigenous people of the world?

Chief Atleo: I think it’s also what kind of leadership can Canada demonstrate in a way that’s empowering to Indigenous peoples in other parts of the world? It’s obviously well known, some of the first challenges I learned about as a child were about Indigenous peoples of South America and how they would just get moved aside and literally killed or wiped out to make way for deforestation or mining or major projects. And we’re seeing a global shift in that of course because of the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and there’s over three thousand environmental groups who I would credit largely for working with Indigenous peoples. But I say it only with a small asterisk, because there are some who would say that is also another form of manipulation or oppression on First Nations. But the example in Banda Aceh – the threat of rising waters and flooding of small countries around the world – is really impacting principally Indigenous people who have a high level of reliance on sustenance of the natural environments. India I did a march with 24,000 Adivasi, representing 80 million landless poor people in India and helped the leadership there lobby the Indian government to at least establish for the first time a table so that the tribal communities would have a say, because they don’t have access to health care, they don’t have access to clean drinking water, adequate housing or food. And I was invited over there as a tribal chief and saw firsthand what the kinds of challenges that these communities are faced with.

So what Canada should do well first is to address these issues in its homeland because Indigenous peoples are linked to a global network, Peru and Chile, Argentina, all over Africa, all over Asia. We raised a totem pole in China where they had the earthquake and that earthquake devastated a community. When we brought our drums over there and drummed with them at the opening of an Elders Centre near the earthquake site, it was incredible because we saw each other’s culture and that community doesn’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin – they speak their own distinct language. They are their own distinct Indigenous group in China and they are a great example of incredible resilience.

It’s quite natural, the ability of our communities to withstand change because we come from environments where you quite naturally are subject to the power of the environment. Our houses we built out of planks taken from a standing live tree and then would be made into big houses that could then be transported from summer to winter housing locations, but if there’s also a big earthquake that house, with its 4 corner posts, will be left standing and what will happen is there will be rattling on the outside. So, very smart embedded understanding of your existence in the local ecology which we don’t see replicated in cities like Vancouver. The high school that I went to is one of the most potentially deadly if Vancouver was to be hit with an 8+ on the Richter scale earthquake. There would be tremendous loss of life. So I’m just making this very small minor comparison.

First Nations views of the world around them can be so quickly dismissed: “well, you don’t have grand architecture, you don’t have these great buildings” and “well, that’s because there was the ‘live lightly on the earth concept’” as well as if you’re in the Ring of Fire you don’t find Indigenous peoples with structures that would be massively damaged due to challenges with flooding or earthquakes. A very high level of intelligence with how to successfully live with the environment around you.

 Lily: They now call it ‘Indigenous science’ rather than ‘local knowledge’ so that it has equal weight. Thank you for sharing these examples of built-in resilience design principles. So much to learn from you. My final question is about you and your personal journey. What gave you strength all along this way? Where does this strength come from?

Chief Atleo: My grandmother. My late grandmother. The resilience of both my parents. My late grandmother, to this day I’m still amazed by her. She passed on a few years ago, it’s actually getting more than just a few years ago, but I remember in 2008 we were in the House of Commons listening to Stephen Harper express an apology to First Nations who had attended the residential schools. I was holding my grandmother’s hand, we were sitting in the House of Commons, and I had my traditional regalia with me and she grabbed my hand and with real earnestness and I think real encouragement she said to me “Grandson, they’re just beginning to see us, they’re just beginning to see us.” I think that for myself personally with the encouragement of late grandmother, as well as my son by the way, because this is the role that the youth are playing, they’re encouraging fathers like me and the elders in their family with the recognition of what’s been gone through, the pain and the difficulty, but also the beautiful resilience that we exhibit as a people. And springing out of resilience comes hope and promise and then all of a sudden you’re excited to think about how you can shape the world in a better way.

And what’s so interesting speaking with you is that my grandmother raised 17 children in a very unsafe time in the history of our people. And she made it through. Not only did she make it through, every single one of her 17 kids is doing well today. Every single one of them is coming through the healing as are their children, which would be my generation, of the trauma and fallout and before you know it the conversation is shifting from focusing on the pain to saying ‘that is actually just a part of the narrative of this country’ and in order to move forward we actually need to have an integrated cohesive narrative, but you’re speaking with me and by talking with Indigenous communities about the topic and theme of the work that you do with the magazine, you are helping to stitch together the cohesive integrated narrative that is required for this country to become whole and to become what I believe it can be. And that’s what my late grandmother gave to me.

All of a sudden I feel proud to have inherited this and I now have the attitude that it’s never too late to have a happy childhood, and I look back on my life with such relish and I’ll be in my village of Ahousaht this weekend and I’ll be able to tell some of those rescuers directly that you and I spoke. I’ll be getting on the water taxi in Tofino tomorrow morning and travelling from where I am, here in Vancouver, and I’ll be able to tell a story: “Look, I got a call on the topic of safety and resilience and the very first sentiment that came out was what you guys did,” and I know I’ll get a smile and they’ll feel good about it and then they’ll turn around and do their business and if a rescue had to happen tomorrow they would be there without any expectation of accolades or recognition because it’s just the right thing to do. It’s the way our people are. It’s the way we were all raised.

So I’m really glad to speak with you. I really am honoured that you took the time to reach out and allow me to make a small contribution to this topic. It actually has become close to my heart because my message is that what safety was 25 years ago, was the beginning of a real movement that required a cultural shift, a major transformation. It is probably not a bad analogy to the massive shift that we’re just starting on the full integration of Indigenous peoples and vice versa with the rest of society. I’ll cap it by saying exactly what you said, that Indigenous knowledge is being seen rightfully for what it is, as a science, and standing side-by-side with brilliant thought from the Western realm. Not to diminish either – they actually should be equally lauded, appreciated and equally problematized as it were, but both seen and respected and what else is there in terms of aspirations of Indigenous peoples than to be able to shape your world. And we absolutely do that and we’re going to continue to do that under the leadership of the next generation.