From a wish and a prayer to the hard work of creating something better

Ha-Shilth-Sa, February 12, 2009

On day one of the social issue forum held at Maht Mahs gym Jan. 28 and 29, participants were divided by gender into two groups. Anne Robinson led the women in a brainstorming session on Nuu-chah-nulth culture while Ray Seitcher Sr. did the same at the other end of the room with the men. The groups talked about how people once worked hard gathering food and everything else it took to survive . "There was never any waste because people appreciated all the hard work that went into getting and making things," said one person Some noted there was a disconnect between the generations that has occurred. "We have youth centres here and elders centres there and everyone else is just in the middle," said another.

Port Alberni — 



Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could wave a magic wand and live in the community of our dreams? What would you wish for?

That was just one of the questions tackled by participants of the social issues forum held over two days at Maht Mahs gym on Tseshaht territory.

Nuu-chah-nulth-aht gathered on Jan. 28 and 29 to do the heavy lifting of building Nuu-chah-nulth communities up for a better tomorrow.

Wishing and dreaming were just two activities on the agenda during the Magic Wand exercise. Self-analysis, self-reflection, and the pain of facing flaws and foibles and frailties, were also part of the process. It made for some intense and emotional work. The result, however, was a plan to move forward for Nuu-chah-nulth communities and instructions to the leadership to help their citizens find their way out of unacceptable circumstances.

Nuu-chah-nulth people are desperate to live in communities where their cultural roots run deep and their families grow strong, healthy and happy.

Some forum participants believe the key to achieving these communities is found in the language and culture of the Nuu-chah-nulth. They say going back to cultural practices will help people regain their sense of identity, develop self-esteem and build respectful relationships with one another.

Participants said an integral step is for Elders to teach the dances, songs and stories of the Nuu-chah-nulth peoples so that the youth are fortified by them.

But just as critical was the commitment to learn. “This time I will listen,” promised one participant.

Another echoed that sentiment.

“People talk about loss of language, but it is what we make it to be. If we want to keep it alive, we’ve got to make time to go learn.”

Language and culture, said the mother, is passed through the generations and she wanted to pass her knowledge to her daughter, but there were gaps in her education about Nuu-chah-nulth culture.

 “I feel that I did not learn enough and I want to learn more.” She said she yearns to fill in those gaps.

Some participants wanted to see language nests established, and others wanted language nights held where games and other activities would be conducted in the Nuu-chah-nulth language only.

They wanted to see a commitment in the schools at home, and in the urban centre schools, to teach the language.

But they put the onus on themselves. One person wished to set an example for other Nuu-chah-nulth-aht, and be a great teacher.

High on the agenda of the forum participants was a healthy leadership that could model positive behaviors for the people. Some wanted a return to traditional government, with the devolution of decision making to the ha-wiih from the elected chiefs.

Healthy communities also meant living free of all forms of abuse, and feeling safe as lives are lead in those communities.

There were many suggestions on how to accomplish this. Talking circles, life skills training, and elders teachings would benefit and build up support systems, some believe. Parenting programs were needed, said others, as were reading supports.

A return to traditional Nuu-chah-nulth laws and restorative justice approaches would contribute to safer societies.

Earl Smith reminded the group that Nuu-chah-nulth-aht had been working on a restorative justice model for several years. He urged people to get back to work on the model and asked the tribal council to partner with the RCMP.

Constable Theresa Thompson of the Port Alberni RCMP detachment, a former psychiatric nurse, who now specializes in suicide, sexual assault and child sexual abuse issues, made a presentation at the forum on Jan. 28. She said she liked the idea of restorative justice because work is done to resolve the issues.

“The parties get together and deal with the incident; the offender corrects the harm that was done and makes peace with the community,” she pointed out.

In beginning her presentation, Thompson acknowledged that sexual abuse is a difficult topic to talk about. Sexual assault, she said, means forced sexual activity, or sexual activity without consent of the victim. It ranges in severity from first degree sexual assault, where there are no physical injuries resulting from the assault, all the way to aggravated sexual assault, which involves violence resulting in injuries to the victim.

According to Thompson, sexual assault can be so rampant in some communities that it can become perceived as acceptable or normal behavior. Some people, she said, don’t want to or are afraid to come forward to report assaults out of fear or shame.

Before Thompson could finish her presentation, several speakers rose to talk about personal experiences with sexual assault crimes. They urged the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council to work in partnership with the RCMP to do prevention work in the communities.

Iris Sam suggested that Nuu-chah-nulth victims of sexual abuse form their own support group which would meet in one location.

“I love my people and I hate to see them suffer,” she said.

Drug- and alcohol-free communities was another big dream. There, too, participants said supports were needed, including programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, and access to resources like detox centres and cleansing initiatives.

Some suggested a way forward was to hold people up and acknowledge their successes.

“My wish is that the fighting would end,” said one participant. “That my people would find a harmonious way to deal with all things, be they big or little. That those belittling, childish behaviors would stop, said one person.

Another major concern was the economic situation facing many Nuu-chah-nulth communities.

One person wished he had a fish boat so that he could provide for the elders, his family, and the rest of the community.

Another wanted a self-sustaining community in 10 years; that person envisioned increased tourism opportunities and locally-trained talent that could be put to work in that industry.

When it came to training, education and employment, forum participants wanted the training brought to the communities.

It was also believed that people should become fully aware of their territories and resources so that they could develop ventures that promoted cultural awareness while generating wealth for the people.

“My wish would be to bring each and every member home to a sustainable and complete community,” said one participant. “One that has housing to meet each family’s needs. A job for each member, and a complete community with everything in it to sustain itself.

The social issues forum was held after 12 of the 14 Nuu-chah-nulth communities held individual gatherings to discuss concerns.

Vina Robinson traveled to each Nuu-chah-nulth community in December and January.

Each community was asked to complete four tasks:

1. Identify three key social issues in your community

2. Identify the barriers your community faces

3. Identify recommendations or solutions

4. Tell what your vision of a healthy community is

Of the 12 communities, six key issues were named as hindrances to healthy community:

1. Safety (dangers in community, racism, elder abuse, lack of sufficient health care, violence and sexual abuse).

2. Alcohol and drug use (addictions in all ages, drug dealers/bootleggers, lateral violence, and fear of reporting).

3. Education (racism–Nuu-chah-nulth children being targeted by fellow students and staff, lack of communication between parents and school staff re: school programs, lack of cultural programs, lack of support services for parents and students, lateral violence).

4. Culture and language (at risk of losing; haahuupa, himwitsa and elders presence missing; no longer practice Nuu-chah-nulth laws).

5. Unemployment (lack of job opportunities and mental/ emotional issues that come with long-term unemployment).

6. Wiisak shulth (bullying amongst our own people; power/control/envy; racism).

By Debora Steel

Ha-Shilth-Sa Reporters