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Seeing history through a 2021 lens in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh

Problematic plaque downtown sparks deeper conversation about telling our collective stories.
Editor’s note: This story contains information about residential school abuse and quotes problematic language for clarity that may be troubling to some readers. Please take good care proceeding.

Please contact The Indian Residential School Survivors Society toll-free 1 (800) 721-0066 or 24hr Crisis Line 1 (866) 925-4419 if you require further support or assistance.

Squamish Nation knowledge keeper Randall Lewis shrugs when asked about a plaque that, until recently, was seen in downtown Squamish.

"For me, it's kind of status quo," he said. "I grew up with that." 

Lewis is referring to a plaque put up as part of a 2008/2009 Squamish Heritage Walking Tour project that involved the Downtown Squamish Business Improvement Association, Squamish Historical Society and the Squamish Public Library.  About 24 plaques were put up around town. 

Recently, the sign has been called out as inappropriate and problematic due to its depiction of local Indigenous Peoples.

The sign, previously on Cleveland Avenue, has since been removed. 

It’s a plaque that has a photo of "Harding's Barber Shop," which is now Anna's Interiors and includes a quote by Squamish settler Gwen Cash from her 1938 book I Like British Columbia.

Quoting Cash, the sign says that Indigenous locals didn’t live in some government-constructed homes that were built for them, because they "preferr[ed] the reserve in North Vancouver and any old place, tent or dugout, in the summer. And, of course, whites couldn't live in them. So there was a shortage of houses in Squamish, there were also a good many unoccupied.”

The sign does not include an Indigenous perspective of the issue, nor does it relate to the building in the photo, it seems.

Late this summer, North Vancouver historian and author Mary Tasi Baker stopped in Squamish on a trip back from Whistler with her husband Wade Baker when they stumbled upon the sign and were troubled by it.

Tasi Baker wrote a letter to District council. 

"A couple of other visitors were reading it as well and we were all quite shocked at this wording from 1938 in the current truth and reconciliation climate in 2021," she wrote.

"1938 was a time of extreme malice and cruelty to Indigenous and Indigenous-settler mixed-race children and families. As you know, it was illegal for them to attend public schools from 1920 to 1959. Any parents who resisted were imprisoned. So, there are many reasons those new homes may have been empty at certain times in those troubled decades," she added.  

"Many of my husband's Baker and Joseph relations were forced to attend the residential institution (St. Paul's) in North Vancouver at that time where children were locked up for years and subjected to multiple abuses. As mayor and council, l am sure that this is not the type of historic signage you wish locals and visitors alike to be reading, particularly in light of the tragic finds across the country at these institutions. As a historian, l know how certain quotes are chosen at certain times out of malice, stereotypes and political agendas."

In a follow-up interview, Tasi Baker said that she hoped her letter opens the door for further conversation in town. 

It is about telling the truth of history, she said. 

She said when she and her spouse, who is Indigenous, approached the plaque, they thought they were going to be reading about a barbershop and instead, there was an “inappropriate, out-of-context” quote from the 1930s, she said.

Chepximiya Siyam (Janice George), a Squamish hereditary chief said in an email to the paper that she would like to see plaques such as this one changed.

"I would like to see them inclusive of the First People of the territory. Let's not continue misinformation and judgments from people who don't really know the information on one plaque is from a woman who was passing through Squamish. Squamish youth and children don't need to read, learn, or hear those messages," she said. 

(Though asked to comment for this story, the Squamish Nation council was not able to respond, citing a freshly elected new council getting its bearings.)

What now?

"The way you move forward is you have a working group with Squamish Nation cultural knowledge keepers on the group who are willing to sit with settlers and have those difficult conversations, critical dialogue," Tasi Baker said. "Disagree respectfully."

Lewis said he agrees with this approach. 

"They are right," Lewis said. "Our children are reading this... I think about our youth — the younger ones. I don't want this to be normalized like I am so normalized with it. It is not right.... It is actually something and it is concerning, absolutely." 

Lewis added that plaques like this reflect badly on the town, more than anything. 

"They allowed this? Why? It is a reflection on the community," he said. "Why didn't they edit it to be more friendly to all of society of the day, not just First Nations. You know you say all this stuff is concerning First Nations — absolutely — but it has to be done with a collaborative society approach."

He supports sitting down to address this plaque and others.

"Sit down for coffee, tea, or, you know, go for a walk like this? 'What do you think?' Yeah, let's put some honourable words on there," he said, during a recent interview while hiking at the estuary to discuss the issue.

In context

Lewis puts his initial reaction to the plaque in the context of the extent of racism he has experienced. He has normalized racism, he said. 

Lewis, who is in his early 60s, described the racism he faced in town, growing up.

"You know, I remember going to the movie theatre here in Squamish as a young kid and we had to sit in the back and all the white kids are in the front, because they're privileged. So we'd be in the back... Indians and whoever else in the back. That's the way it was, you know." 

Lewis talks about the "conspiracy legislation" and a long line of injustices done to First Nations in Squamish and beyond. 

There was racism in fisheries legislation and more, Lewis said.

For example, Lewis talks of how youth puberty rights ceremonies were stopped, along with potlatches, which the government outlawed. 

These ceremonies were a rite where young people were given a traditional name. The community would gather and the youth would stand on a blanket for hours, showing respect and listening to the teachings of the Elders who had come from near and far to be part of it. 

There has been much written that is racist, Lewis noted. 

"You read the log of Captain Vancouver? Yes, you read the log of Captain Cook. You read the logs. Christopher Columbus — [they called Indigenous people] ‘savages.’" 

"But when we talk about society, post-contact, we're talking about a society that grew up reading all that kind of literature — 'savage,' 'Indian.' It was normal, you know, and we listened to that.”

Lewis recalled he didn't go to residential school because his father stopped the RCMP from taking him when law enforcement and an Indian Agent showed up at the door. 

His father had been sent to residential school.

Lewis tells of his father sitting him down in the mountains to have a talk. It was the first time his father shared some of what had happened to him in the government and church-run institution.

"He talks about home being taken, watching his parents disappear in the backseat of a car, not speaking English, getting beat and getting whipped all the time because he didn't know he wasn't supposed to be speaking the language and he couldn't understand why he was getting beaten, whooped and locked in closets three days and three nights. Watching his friends get raped by priests...You could hear the footsteps and [the kids would] be hiding under the blankets."

Lewis said that his father didn't know some cultural traditions because they had been lost to him through residential school. 

He said while he feels and has always felt anger over racism, he deals with it through exercise, sweats and prayer. 

He works to pass on what he knows and to be an example for youth. 

He also said he has encountered good people throughout his life, of all stripes.

“I had, and we had, a lot of friends who weren't disrespectful to us. We were great friends who played soccer, lacrosse together..sports," he said, adding he made good friends in college too, he said.

What does council say?

District council discussed Tasi Baker's letter at its meeting on Sept. 7.  (Last item at the 4:40 minute mark).

Council directed the letter be forwarded to be addressed by the original organizers of the project. 

Coun. Eric Andersen, who was involved in the original project as an amateur historian, explained the origins of the plaques. 

He also sent the newspaper a copy of the letter he wrote to Mayor Karen Elliott and senior staff regarding the project.

The District had no involvement in the original project other than to endorse the general initiative, he said. 

Installation of each of the plaques downtown was cost-shared between the DSBIA and building/ business owners. Plaques for which no sponsor was found were installed in the Squamish Adventure Centre, where they are still on display today, he said. 

"In her 1938 book, Gwen Cash was making a commentary on the shortage of housing at Squamish. Other interviews with local persons preserved in the library's archives also discuss a housing shortage during the 1920s to 30s and refer to the higher standard of houses on the two reserves, relative to what existed at the time in the Squamish downtown — tar paper shacks," he wrote, of the particular plaque in question. 

"Gwen Cash was a pioneering woman journalist. She later wrote extensively and very sympathetically about the Haida people, her neighbours on Haida Gwaii. Her professional photographer son Jack Cash produced some well-known portrait photos of Squamish Nation personalities, including Dominic Charlie and Matthias Joe Capilano. There may be issues of tact in the selected quote from Gwen Cash and missing context for the Heritage Building Marker Project plaque, but not racism — I suggest."

Andersen also said that an "accurate rendering of our history is part of our Truth and Reconciliation efforts." 

Coun. Armand Hurfurd said in council that, thanks to the letter, he went to see the plaque when it was still up, and was also "taken aback" by it. 

"Perhaps it is a worthwhile mission to take a look at some of the other plaques around town that would have gone up as part of the same process. Just to see if there is something we should be proactively dealing with, instead of waiting for a complaint from the public," he said.

Squamish Historical Society

Bianca Peters, executive director of the Squamish Historical Society and former DSBIA executive director (from September 2014 to October of 2017), said in an email that the association was the lead on the project before 2008 with a grant and a summer student. 

Former Squamish Historical Society board members worked on this project on behalf of the society to provide copy. The DSBIA vetted the final copy of what went on the plaques, she said. 

"As for the Squamish Historical Society, we have worked collaboratively with the Squamish Nation since our inception. Tswaysia Spukwus (Alice Guss) was an original board member and has been a tremendous resource, including educating local schools during our past Squamish Culture and Heritage Festivals and throughout the province. Before we moved forward with the [heritage festivals], we had a meeting with the Squamish Nation Elders and received their support. In fact, the SHS was speaking directly with the Squamish Nation about residential schools in our collaborative documentary "Squamish Nation Stories from the Heart" which has been showcased on the Sunshine Coast and more recently, a clip of the movie will be shown at an exhibit at the North Vancouver Museum soon," she added.

"It's a terrible shame that the plaque, and Gwen's words, [have] been taken out of context. It is an example of the language of a bygone era that we can learn from and do better with moving forward. I don't believe anyone would use those words today, and, of course, it has been taken down as our country navigates its responsibility towards the First Nations people." 


Kerry Neil, current executive director of the Downtown Squamish Business Improvement Association (DSBIA) said that, like many in recent years, the members of the board have been reflecting seriously on these matters.

"Downtown Squamish BIA have been doing much learning in the current truth and reconciliation climate to do better, and were dismayed to have such wording on a historical plaque associated with our organization,"  said Neil in a written statement.

 "We are so glad that Mary Tasi Baker brought this to our attention. As you know, these plaques were created in 2009, and we have learned so much over the years and even more so in recent months of the residential school system and the extreme cruelty indigenous children and their families were subjected to," she added.

"Our intention is to work with the Squamish Library, Squamish Historical Society and the Squamish Nation to update the plaque with accurate and authentic 'decolonized' information but, in the meantime, remove the plaque to not cause any further harm. We will be addressing all of the other plaques that were part of the initiative back in 2009 to ensure that they also share the truth in an informative and non-harmful way."

Traditionally, the BIA was responsible for organizing such community events as Canada Day. This year, however, it was decided against organizing a celebration on July 1 after hundreds of unmarked graves were found at former Indigenous residential school sites in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, she noted. Instead the DSBIA decided to join the Nation in a day of reflection, she noted. 

Squamish Public Library

Hilary Bloom, director of library services at the Squamish Public Library, was not at the helm when the project was initiated but understands the library provided source material for the plaques. 

"We weren't involved in deciding what was going to be said, or what was being included. In the same way we provide primary source materials for other initiatives if they are wanting some historical photographs and things like that. We just ask that credit be given to the library. That was essentially our role in the bigger initiative," she explained. 

She said rather than be defensive about it, she sees the discussion around this plaque as a huge opportunity for growth and learning.

"It really highlights the problematic aspect of using historical information without providing context around it. I think that is one aspect, but, also, as we learn more and reframe our perspectives and look at what is around us through the new lens of endeavouring to decolonize our surroundings, things look different," she said. "The general approach is that as we learn and become more aware, it is important to do better and address anything that inaccurately or offensively depicts members of our community. It is a learning process and it is about being open to looking at things in new ways and then using these opportunities to work together to come up with a more inclusive, decolonized depiction of our heritage and our history." 

Going forward, Bloom said she sees this as an opportunity to collaborate.

"It is one example of many things that are probably needing us to be thinking about as we move along," she added. 

"I really see this as an opportunity as having the Squamish Nation lead and identify how we move forward and what is a meaningful change and new approach to sharing our community's heritage." 

The Library and DSBIA have sent a letter to Squamish council about taking the sign down and they reached out to the Squamish Nation to help bring all the parties together to work out a way forward. 

"We really think it is important to respectfully listen and learn and use the opportunity to do better and acknowledge that it is not an appropriate thing to have had hanging in 2021, but rather than dwell on that, proactively now think about how we use this as a really positive opportunity for more meaningful signage," Bloom said.

Current library staff work collaboratively with Squamish Nation members and spearhead many learning opportunities, such as hosting Nation Elders who spoke of residential school to mark National Truth and Reconciliation Day.