First Nations men’s group reclaims traditional territory
By Joel Barde, Pique News, October 5, 2017
Micah Thevarge, the newly elected chief of the N’Quatqua First Nation, speaks slowly and deliberately as he addresses the group of about 30.
Over the past several months, he and others from the community have built the small log cabin that sits proudly behind him, as well as another, which sits on the opposite side of the valley, not far from where forest turns to alpine.
“This is N’Quatqua’s traditional territory,” says Thevarge, who wears a baseball cap and a blue T-shirt. The cabins, he explains, will make the territory more accessible, making it easier to hunt and engage in cultural practices.
Over the past four months, Thevarge and an accomplished Lil’wat cabin maker, Edwin Bikadi, have led the construction efforts.
The group of local men selected the trees, chopped them down, and processed them using hand tools. They built the structures in N’Quatqua, a community of around 150 that sits at the head of Anderson Lake (right beside D’Arcy), then dismantled them and rebuilt them on their current sites, chosen because they sit at the foot of a network of ancient hunting trails that holds deep historical importance to the community.
Thevarge was impressed by the work ethic and dedication he’s seen. Members of the team had invested in their own tools and chainsaws. They seemed genuinely moved by the experience, and some of them were even talking about opening up their own construction business.
“When you’re an elder, you’ll have a story to tell,” he told them. “You built cabins in the territory.”
The project was organized by the Southern Stl’atl’imx Health Society, a health authority that serves the N’Quatqua, Samahquam, Skatin and Xax’sta (Douglas) First Nations. The organization holds events supporting health and well-being, and getting men to turn out is often a tough sell. When they did show, they would usually take seats in the back.
“Their voices kind of got lost,” explains Fran Hopkins, an Australian project manager who has been working with the organization since 2015.
After some informal discussions with community members, the health society decided there was enough interest in learning cabin-making skills to pursue the project.
It has so far been a huge success, Hopkins says. Band members became emotionally invested in the project, helping to create a sense of pride in the community, which is home to some 200 people and sits at the southern end of Anderson Lake.
The cabins, built along the village’s main road, also became a community hub of sorts, with people regularly dropping by.
The cost, some $250,000, came from various government agencies and a grant from Squamish Savings. That money covered the costs of meals, a truck that was leased for a year, and materials and wages for both Bikadi and Thevarge.
Participants were paid by employment insurance — although this proved a challenge early on in the process. Some community members, who do not qualify for employment insurance, were unable to take part. It made it hard to find particpants, explains Hopkins.
In all, it engaged a dozen people, allowing them to learn a valuable traditional skill, says Hopkins, who believes the cabins serve as a rebuke to those who feel that money spent in First Nations communities is a waste.
“This shows what that money can do,” she says. “You saw how proud the kids and the wives are.” This kind of initiative helps build healthy and vibrant comunities, she says, and equips people with the skills and knowledge they need to thrive in the workforce.
Jordan Sturdy, Member of Parliament for West Vancouver-Sea to Sky riding, was also onhand for the cabins’ opening and says the project is a prime example, of money well spent. He echoes Hopkins belief that such experiences can result in increased economic opportunity for community members, giving them the skills and confidence to access meaningful work.
“This kind of program gives people the fundamental skills that will allow them to access that employment,” says Sturdy, who added that the government needs to improve public transportation opportunities between N’Quatqua and Pemberton and Whistler in order to make it easier for residents who don’t have driver’s licenses to find work.
Master of Craft
When Bikadi was first hired, it was only to teach the group the basics of cabin building. However, the team soon realized just how deep his well of traditional knowledge went, and hired him on full-time.
Bikadi learned to build in Whistler in the 1970s and ’80s, working under cabin builders who had “perfected the art” in the outback of Lac la Hache and 100 Mile House.
“I’ve handled a chainsaw since I was a pre-teen. I was gifted to learn from some of the masters,” he explains.
For Bikadi, the build was an opportunity to revitalize a culture that has been damaged by years of overbearing colonial policy and residential schools, which sought to rid Canada’s Indigenous peoples of their spiritual and social practices and assimilate them into so-called mainstream Canadian society.
“Over the years, the knowledge was taken away. I know cabins that were funded by one arm of the government and burned down by another arm. But times have changed,” he says.
Bikadi hopes the youth carry on what they’ve been taught by building cabins of their own. It only takes a handful of people with the right skillset to build in this style, he explains.
Bikadi also viewed the experience as a way to bring healing to the community, an important example of reconciliation in action.
“When you have people coming back onto the land, that’s what it’s all about,” he says. “The colonist wanted to end all that. It’s hard to put into words.”
A group of four builders sit on a fallen tree and watch as community members — an ecstatic mix of kids, young parents, and grandparents — file in and out of one of the cabins.
Tyson Thevarge, who, like the others, wears the builder’s casual uniform of sunglasses and a baseball cap, explains just how far they’ve come.
“We had absolutely no idea how to build a log cabin when we started,” he says. “Now I bet the four of us could probably build a cabin by ourselves.”
Like others I spoke to, the men viewed the cabin building as a way to reclaim their territory. They worry about the affect modern technology is having on the next generation, about how Facebook, Instagram, and all the other digital platforms designed to make us feel “connected” can isolate us from one another.
“I hope (this initiative) will get our youth motivated to be active and get out there,” says Tyson, who recalls being outside on a daily basis when he was young.
The typical workday was 9-to-5, and it was, by all accounts, backbreaking work. No cranes or other expensive heavy machinery; logs were hauled by hand.
Some had previous carpentry experience. But, according to builder Chris Fletcher, log cabins require a different approach: “You’re dealing with logs. It’s round, not square. You’re not trying to square things up.”
In spite of the long, grueling days, they had a lot of fun as well. And spending time with Bikadi proved invaluable: “He knows everything about the territory and the past,” says Fletcher.
A vital symbol
Chief Micah Thevarge gives me a ride down from the second cabin, which features a spacious loft.
His granddaughter sits between us, son and aunt in the back.
The cabins, he hopes, will encourage people from other Stl’atl’imx communities to come visit. “Everyone’s trapped in the electronic world of cell phones and iPads,’ he says. People don’t enjoy the same face-to-face time they used to, “because they can just text somebody.”
During the build, First Nation members from as far as Haida Gwaii came to check out what they were doing.
Thevarge always had the same message for them: “There are guys in your community that can do this — you just have to find them and you have to be patient.”
Thevarge is set to work on an additional cabin that will be built in Skatin. The program will engage seven men from the community and include five from the N’quatqua build. He says he hopes to expand the program to other lower Stl’atl’imx communities and that they can access grants that will allow them to hire people who are keen to work but don’t qualify for employment insurance.
“There are other grants we can apply for. Now that we have the proof of this and the other cabin and the interest is there. I think we can put together a report and use it access more funding,” he explains.
The project, he feels, was a boon for the community: It encouraged healthy living and helped members gain important cultural knowledge and job skills they can now carry forward.
Thevarge views it as part of a broader decolonization movement among First Nations: to move away from Western forms of knowledge and healing by embracing traditional Indigenous practices once more.
He also sees the cabins as a way to send another important message to the government.
“They’re reclaiming what the government doesn’t see as the Stl’atl’imx’s territory,” Thevarge explains. “We have the proof now that we’ve always been here and that this is our territory.”