By Justin Wilson
On January 11, 2016 I was called as a witness, and blanketed, by a Musqueam Matriarch, Gail Sparrow, Langara College’s Elder-in-Residence, and the Musqueam Peoples, to be part of a spiritual naming ceremony. The purpose of this event was to bestow upon Langara College a Musqueam name, snəw̓eyəɬ leləm̓ (pronounced in English as snow-way-eth leylum), which means ‘house of teachings’ – A place for building character by imparting ‘sacred teachings’ to help children/young adults transition to adulthood. The Hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ concept is connected to a term we have in the Heiltsuk language, Kaxlaya Gwilas (pronounced coax-lie-yah gwae-e-loss), meaning the ones who uphold the ways and laws of our ancestors. Our job then is to help all learners cultivate, through rites of passage, a balance between prosperity and ‘authentic consciousness’ as Dr. Michelle Pidgeon advocates. During the day of the ceremony, the rain was coming down in buckets and prompted us to be expedient, but for those who know the stories, we silently acknowledged the leadership of many including the late Bud Mintz, Shirley Joseph and Dave Pearson as well as Linda Holmes, Kory Wilson-Goertzen, Larry Railton, Leelah Dawson, Lane Trotter, Shane Pointe and Gail Sparrow among others. After the ceremony was over, I reflected on its significance and remembered what the late Dan George of the Tsleil-Waututh Peoples said, “If the legends fall silent, who will teach the children of our ways”. This is now Langara’s responsibility in honoring its Musqueam name.
From a collective perspective, the ceremony was incredibly moving as its offered a spiritually appropriate venue to acknowledge the sacrifices our ancestors have made in overcoming the objectification and commodification of our Peoples. As my mentor Wendy Grant-John, shared during the ceremony, it wasn’t too long ago where our relatives were ridiculed, humiliated and dehumanized in educational settings that were supposed to inspire our youth. The way I see it, the ceremony was more than territorial acknowledgement and paves the way for how Langara must move away from paternalism and educational narcissism if we are to provide our Peoples with a sense of purpose and possibility inside its walls. From a faculty perspective and someone who teaches Aboriginal ‘ways’ this couldn’t come fast enough as many of us are fatigued because we deal with racialized discourse that often generates reactions ranging from indifference to psychological hostility – or worse. The event, as my friend Aaron Nelson-Moody (Squamish) said, was an authentic reprieve for Langara’s Aboriginal students, faculty and staff ‘who are on the front lines doing the hard work that benefits us all’ in becoming better local and global citizens.
Going forward, I find myself calling upon all traditional knowledge holders to help us identify, preserve and impart the ‘ways’ that help Aboriginal learners hone their academic and occupational success in a manner our ancestors and future generations can be proud of. Students such as Devon Davis, Mi’kmaq; Mavis Jackson, Chilcotin; Randy Robinson, Algonquin; and Chris and Nicole Cardinal, Cree and Dakelh among many others who come to snəw̓eyəɬ leləm̓ from across Canada. In closing, I’m sure there are many bureaucrats and communities waiting to see whether reconciliation at Langara is more than just words or will be genuinely resourced and supported at every level of the College. But rather than just watch, I call on everyone to be their own witness – To be bold, brave and courageous in ensuring that the tools of colonization, commodification and cultural genocide will never again be used on our Peoples for economic expansion/prosperity at our expense. W`ay, All my relations.
Justin Wilson is the Chairperson for Langara’s Aboriginal Studies Department and the Aboriginal Initiatives Sub-Committee of Langara College’s Academic Planning Committee. He has Heiltsuk ancestry, has a PhD in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and his specialty is Occupational Success Factors for Aboriginal/Indigenous Peoples affected by Historical Trauma.