Knowing What We Now Know

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“Knowing what we now know, what will we now do?”

It was a picture-perfect autumn day—all slowly-detaching leaves and refracted golden light gleaming through tangled branches. We held hands as we sipped our coffee and floated in and out of shops chock full of antique globes, eucalyptus bath salts, prickly cacti. It had been a busy week and so we savoured this slow meandering, lips lightly filmed with oil from farmers’ market perogies. Glory.

Eventually we made it to the historic fort in Fort Langley, which we learned is the “birthplace of British Columbia.” Here the declaration that British Columbia was to be part of the British Empire was signed. It was later in the afternoon now and I instinctively pulled my thick scarf tight.

The longer we walked around the beautifully manicured site, the more I felt a nagging sense of unease. We read about the friendship between the indigenous Stó:lō peoples and the incoming Europeans under the umbrella of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). I heard the deafening silence of untold stories. We read about marriage between Stó:lō women and Hudson’s Bay employees being part of a “strategy to improve friendships and trade relations between the two groups—the words, written in simple, child-friendly English beside illustrations of Stó:lō women happily basket weaving alongside genial husbands as gaggles of children wove around them. Is this a responsible way to tell this story? I thought, as unease grew into indignation.

In a later room, the very room where the British Columbia Declaration was signed, we read that the discovery of gold brought in a wave of hungry prospectors—willing to savage the land and its people in their pursuit of it. The board mutedly describes the violence enacted by them against the Stó:lō and of the threat this posed, both to HBC’s claim to the area and to their “otherwise unproblematic friendship” with the Stó:lō people. Outside, we walk quietly through the beautiful grassy grounds, ending up at the statue of James Douglas—a worn plaque commemorating the 1858 B.C. Declaration.

By this point, indignation had unfurled into grief. This is not the whole story. Are we still so unwilling to tell the truth?

A beloved professor often asks us the question: “Knowing what you now know, what will you now do?” This question has become an important north star for me, one which reminds me of my own agency and responsibility. To do nothing is also a choice.

Knowing what I know, what will I now do? What can I do?

Impossibly mundane and small as it seemed, that day, I could fill in an evaluation form. As we left, we found some by the gift shop: “Tell us of how you enjoyed your visit and how we can make it even better.”

And so we did, pencils scratching our too-small forms, demanding a fuller story. If reconciliation is to be possible, we need to tell the truth. To allow the truth to devastate and expose us, to allow the truth to do its slow work in beginning to set us all free. We need to hear the truth. Please, tell us the truth.

I had never thought of an evaluation form as having any part in the resistance before, but as we scribbled in the corner by the gift shop, it felt deeply important to write out all that we felt had been whitewashed. To write of the trauma that may be retriggered when such stories are read by those suffering the intergenerational effects of HBC’s arrival and praxis. Of how perhaps Stó:lō women did not want to marry these unfamiliar men. Of how it diminishes all of our personhood when we hear a lean narrative, devoid of the horrific injustices committed against indigenous peoples; of infested blankets, of the decimation caused by imported diseases, of the devastating effects of alcohol as an item of trade. Of the catastrophic impact of the land of your ancestors, the land of your body and spirit and blood, being signed over under the authority of a queen who is not yours at a ceremony to which you are not invited.

We dropped our forms into the clear plastic box, the action feeling impossibly small, and walked out into the evening sunshine. I gasped as I saw it coming through the trees—that last burst of golden light before it dipped over the horizon. Glory.

At the crossroads back in town, we fourd our feet turning right– drawn toward the light on the other end of the Fraser River. Over the river, our feet moved through wide open grassland; no antique shops, bookstore-cum-cafes, or expensive bath salts here. Just a few small bungalows, one with flowers blooming around its perimeter, and the brown-white wooden church we had seen from the Fort earlier. A small fishing boat, its loud motor breaking the stillness as it came ashore, some kids kicking a ball, a family of whiskey jacks soaking in the last of the sun. Glory.

As we walked, we soon realised we were on Kwantlen reserve, and so, not wanting to intrude, we began to walk back across the fields, back over the bridge. As I walked over the soft grass, the tears suddenly came. I thought of how impossibly beautiful this evening was, and of all that is not yet right. As I looked back, I saw the white brown church and dotted houses, looking positively transcendent in the honey-amber glow. I thought of the endurance and resilience and strength and courage and survival and grief and laughter and grit that this land has seen, that carry its people through generation after generation of intergenerational trauma in a culture still struggling to tell the truth.

Back on the other side of the bridge, I squeezed my husband’s hand and felt grateful for the gift of prayer on evenings like these. For a God who hears when we cry, “How long, O Lord?” A God who is not silent. Who is himself the promise of Immanuel, God of glory incarnate.

God of glory with us: in the rubble, in the reimagining, in the rebuilding.

***

We did receive a thoughtful response from the new manager of the Fort Langley site, assuring us that this is something she is aware of and is very much on her list of priorities to address.

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Naomi Pattison-Williams
My name gives a clue as to the English and Japanese in me, but my favourite thing about it is the Hebrew meaning: “pleasant,” a reminder that somehow I am pleasing to my Creator. My heart is a little bit in the various corners of England where I’ve spent most of my life, a little bit in the cherry-tree’d loveliness of Japan where my family is from, and a little in the wide open spaces of my husband’s native Western Canada where we are now making our home. I am currently studying at Regent College in Vancouver–a dream several years in the making–and feeling wildly thankful for it. You can find me on my blog naomipw.com or on Instagram @naopwilliams.
Naomi Pattison-Williams

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