I’m sitting on a coastal rock looking out onto the endless ocean along the coast of Ucluelet, a small town on Vancouver Island in Canada. The waves are rolling in and crashing onto the black rocks in front of me.
I see someone approach me. He looks young – he’s in a tank top and wearing a headband and shorts, with a backpack. I’m cautious – I’m by myself, near water and there aren’t that many people around.
We start up a conversation. I quickly learn he grew up in Ucluelet – a town full of tourists and non-locals. He used to even do his homework on the very rock I was sitting on.
He asks what I’m doing today. I tell him I’m walking along the Wild Pacific Trail and he immediately offers to accompany me – he knows it well, he says, and had no plans that day except to drink. Still wary, I accept.
He leads me through the trail, apologising (as he drinks a beer) for having smoked up earlier that day. He points out various plants along the way. The mud from this tree’s roots can be used for this. The leaves of this plant when prepared this way can be a medicine for this. I’m amazed by his knowledge of the local plants here. Yes he grew up here, but is this just common knowledge?
So I ask him. He tells me he’s a First Nations (an Aboriginal Canadian). I plead ignorance. I know absolutely nothing about the First Nations – the history, the current political situation, why they’re called First Nations…nothing.
He happily answers all my questions, whilst pointing out more plants along the way. I learn that he and his family make an annual trip down south to the west coast of the US every year to meet other relatives they have there. I learn that he doesn’t know his mother tongue that well, and that he thinks the language will die out soon. I learn the government is trying to silence the first nations people and wants to pretend no problem exists. I learn he’s part of quite an important and prominent nation in that area, and that his father is quite a respected figure, despite him not having that close a relationship with him.
I also learn about his nation’s history. He tells me his nation at one point was growing too large, and his nations leader approached a neighbouring nation’s leader to try and negotiate for more land. This failed, so his nation invaded and killed all the people in that nation and took over the land.
We make our way to a tree with a hollow center. I learn trees were set on fire from the inside in order to hollow them out so the wood could be used for boats, and that it looks like this tree was too big to be used. We climb inside, he cracks open another beer and we just chill out.
We soon part ways – I have another activity booked that afternoon.
I begin to think. His nation conquered another, killing everyone just for more land, and this was acceptable. This was just how things went down in past times. Then the British invaded them and made peace instead of killing them all. Yet for some reason, there’s a need to support the First Nations and to respect them and give them land, tax breaks and opportunity.
Is it so un-politically correct to say, well, you were conquered, just as you conquered others? Your conquerors have no obligation to you once you’ve been taken over, right?
Yet I know there are real issues with the First Nations, and people’s impressions of them aren’t great either.
But as always, I don’t have solutions – just thoughts that don’t seem to lead anywhere…