Taku River Tlingit First Nation

By Sandrine Murray

 

Within her home are visual proofs of what life on a reserve looks like. Photos of family members lost to suicide and alcohol are framed on her walls. Though racism and colonization have established lasting lateral violence in her community, Joan Jack and her husband Bryan chose to remain. They have been here for 25 years.

It’s 12 p.m. on Sat., July 8, festival weekend in Atlin, B.C., just a 10-minute drive away. Jack welcomes strangers for a late breakfast at her place. Though the small town is only about a two-hour drive from Whitehorse, the reserve system in British Columbia is a notable change from the self-governing nations of the Yukon.

An accomplished lawyer who graduated from UBC, Jack lives with her family in Five Mile Point Reserve, of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation. She grew up near Berens River in Manitoba, before moving to Atlin in 1991. Instead of accepting a government subsidy for sub-par housing, Jack decided to build her own home with her husband, who is also a carpenter.

“I said to Bryan, ‘If I can get us a mortgage, I want us to live in a log home’,” she said.

“And so we did it.”

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It has a porch looking out to Atlin Lake and beautiful mountains and glacial fields beyond. The hustle and bustle of many people in the house, both family and others, is a common occurrence. The open concept of the dining and living room areas means Joan's handiwork is displayed on the upstairs railing, where her workshop for sowing and beadwork is located.

Her definition of reconciliation cannot be simplified to one response. But using the words of her husband’s grandfather, Taku Jack, she expresses part of what it means to her. “It should be as if we all eat off one table. There is enough for everyone. But the White man comes to the creek and gets the gold and leaves, and then we miss him.”

Chief Taku Jack met with officials from the McKenna-McBride Commission in 1915. The royal commission visited each First Nation community in B.C. to determine what land they required and where they might create additional reserves, which often resulted in loss of land.

Commissioner MacDowall told Taku Jack the government wanted to give the Taku River Tlingits their first choice of land. If he refused, he would risk losing it to white men. Taku Jack insisted the government had no land to give to them, because what they offered was theirs already.

Even today, the legal framework in Canada requires the government to define who First Nations people are.

“It’s never enough for us to just say who we are,” says Joan.

“We have to have someone else say who we are. And that’s the idea of objectivity.”

Corporations, mining groups and other development agencies in Canada legalize prejudice, says Bryan. Their mentality is only about the economy. The legal framework, he explained, prioritizes corporations, so they can get away with what normal, underpaid citizens can’t.

Developers come in, build relationships with the First Nations, and then try to buy their trust. But he doesn’t want the money. It’s his land. He has been there since he was young.

“That’s my education,” he says. There used to be many moose nearby, but hunters coming from the South have changed that reality.

“You go up there now, and in two day's-time you’ll be surprised if you see one,” he says. “You connect all the dots and that’s where the truth is.”

Both Joan and Bryan says their hope lies in the youth of today.

“Reconciliation requires younger people to move into positions of power, and understand that the whole legal framework of the country has to be re-shifted,” says Joan.

It looks like a relationship between sovereign nation to sovereign nation, where the Canadian state and the Indigenous Peoples are on the same level.

“We’re equal. We’re partners.”

Like Taku Jack explained, we are all at the same table, she says.

Joan Jack could have refused to welcome five white strangers at her table. Instead, she offered them pancakes, eggs, hash browns and fresh strawberries.

Her summary: reconciliation is a personal thing. People need to stand up; youth need to speak up; Canadians need to put their self-interest aside so that fostering deeper relationships can happen.

“That’s how we reconcile, we love each other,” she says.