Yesterday, I spent a delightful hour with seventeen eager, committed and super smart students from Quest University, Canada’s first independent, not-for-profit secular university. The students left their spectacular coastal mountain community in Squamish at the crack of dawn, and arrived on Bowen Island to spend the day with Maï Yasue who teaches their Communities and Conservation course. Maï, a conservation scientist with a focus on how to motivate people to conserve natural habitat, organized a marathon day with guest speakers popping in every hour to run the gauntlet of questions.
The guests included John Reid, a well-respected land developer, author and biologist Alejandro Frid, Simon James, Indigenous storyteller and creator of Raven Tales, Owen Plowman of the Bowen Island Conservancy and Melanie Mason, municipal councillor.
I arrived mid-afternoon to a packed high-energy room. It seemed wise to begin with a quiet moment of gratitude for the Squamish Nation and their ancestors who have cared for Howe Sound/Atl’kitsem for thousands of years, and gratitude for the land, the waters that provide for us. I could feel the reverence these students also held for the land. I knew right away we were going to have a deep and satisfying conversation.
Quest students are diverse. Half come from Canada, the other half from 42 different countries. They are also from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. “There are students who are super privileged,” Maï tells me, “and also students with very little financial means.” Her students are in the 3rd and 4th years of a Bachelor of Arts and Science degree. The Communities and Conservation course, like all courses at Quest, last 3 ½ weeks and by the second week they were already writing an 800-word research essay. I looked at the syllabus for the course. It’s demanding. The pace is fast and thorough. And the students are up for it.
They asked questions about the perceived conflicts between development and conservation. Was it possible to have conservation and development on the island? Yes, if the developer listens to the needs of the land and listens to the needs of the community. Opposition to a development doesn’t necessarily stop a project from happening but can help to make sure the development is completed in a good way.
We talked about reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians and how this has been influenced by what one student identified as Indigenous resurgence. We are still in the Truth phase of Truth and Reconciliation. There is much we have yet to learn about our true history. The students were aware that reconciliation will be challenging, but it’s necessary work if we are to heal Canada’s biggest wound.
One student brought up the really hard question we will have to deal with in any discussions around reconciliation. Land. She mentioned the case of a First Nation wanting to take over a conservation area, to use it for logging and resource extraction and not allow anyone else to do the same. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
It’s what Europeans accomplished for 150 years in BC. Barging into “Indian” territory to fish and hunt and mine and log while forbidding the “Indians” to do the same and keeping all the profits. There is no easy way through this malaise. It will demand open hearts and open minds and a strong constitution for conversation. An hour with these intelligent students gives me hope that all this is possible. Thank you Maï for inviting me, and thank you to the seventeen bright shining faces and spirits who spent this unforgettable hour with me.
One regret: I did not sing the waltz I wrote for Howe Sound, a song that teaches us the two Squamish Nation names for Howe Sound. Here it is. Any musician out there who wants to add some instrumental?