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From saving owls to removing garbage: the unique work of Penticton Indian Band’s land Guardians

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The land guardians of the Penticton Indian Band head out on patrol every day, sharing updates that strengthen the connections between land and community. Tim Lezard (back) and Weston Roberds make up the territorial team and when wildfires broke out this summer they tracked their proximity to sacred sites. Photo by Kelsie Kilawna

This story was originally published by The Narwhal here and is reprinted here with permission and minor style edits.

“Uncle, want to do the safety check?” Tim Lezard says to his nephew Weston Roberds.

The two men review their personal protective equipment, checking for gloves and garbage bags. The safety check is a critical part of their work, and the first task of each day before they head out on the land. 

As land Guardians for the Penticton Indian Band, Lezard and Roberds are caretakers of sn’pink’tn (Penticton). One of the seven First Nations that comprise syilx Nation, sn’pink’tn spans more than 46,000 acres and stretches across the northern tip of the Great Basin Desert. 

It’s one of the most sensitive and ecologically diverse places in what has been briefly known as Canada, and its three reserves encompass a varied topography of gentle hills, rocky cliffs and everything in between. Nestled in the southwestern Okanagan Valley, close to Highway 97, sn’pink’tn also borders the cities of Summerland and Penticton. As sqilx’w peoples, Lezard and Roberds continue the tradition of stewarding sn’pink’tn, a responsibility handed down across the generations since Creation. 

For me, a sqilx’w (Indigenous) woman from my syilx homelands who was born and raised in n’qmaplqs (the head of Okanagan Lake), it was exciting to observe the land Guardians in action. For two days this past summer, I witnessed the guardians’ commitment to our syilx teachings on how we go about navigating the land, respecting protocols and fulfilling their responsibilities as caretakers. 

sn’pink’tn is one of more than 170 First Nations that have Guardians programs, which recognize our unique responsibilities as caretakers of the land. The rise of Guardians programs reflects a growing recognition of the need for Indigenous-led stewardship. 

Weston Roberds, a Penticton Indian Band land Guardian, doing the morning safety check before heading out on his Homelands in the sn’pink’tn area. Photo by Kelsie Kilawna

What makes the Penticton Indian Band’s approach distinct is its unwavering focus on stewardship within an urban context. The impact of colonization and human activity has profoundly altered the landscape, as well as the scope of responsibilities for its caretakers. In addition to monitoring owl nests, sacred sites and salmon spawning creeks, the Guardians spend their time collecting trash to protect the sensitive ecosystems and dealing with encampments. 

“When people leave things we can’t just leave it, no matter how disgusting it is. We can’t just leave it, we pick it up,” Lezard explains. “Our [personal protective equipment] is a big part of being able to do our job, having puncture resistant gloves, and such.” 

Picking up discarded needles and clearing out abandoned campsites isn’t what comes to mind for most people when they imagine First Nations caring for the land. But for the Guardians of the Penticton Indian Band, those acts are equally important and meaningful ways of showing their love and respect to their homelands.

The many responsibilities of Penticton Indian Band’s Guardians 

The land Guardians, which operate through the Natural Resources Department of the Penticton Indian Band, began as a team of two in 2016. 

“It all started because we were having a lot of garbage dumped so we would go and take pictures of garbage being left,” Lezard says. “There was a lot of trespassing, camps and drug-use.” 

The land Guardians serve as “the eyes and the boots on the ground,” according to their website. In addition to stewarding the landscape, they also engage in public outreach and education, greeting visitors to their Homelands and building relationships through their patrols. 

While many Guardians programs receive funding and support from the First Nations National Guardians Network, which was established in 2018, the Penticton Indian Band program is an example of a grassroots initiative that has been wholly led by the community.

Over the past seven years, the team has grown in both numbers and in the area they cover. There are now three teams of land Guardians. Roberds and Lezard are the territorial team, and their work is complemented by an on-reserve team and an Okanagan Valley team, each comprised of two members. 

Part of the work of the on-reserve Guardians has been building relationships with the City of Penticton and the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen. As a result of those efforts, the city is now partially resourcing the on-reserve program, recognizing the impacts to the Penticton Channel. The seven-kilometre channel, which winds through the reserve, is a popular recreation site for sn’pink’tn residents and tourists alike — leaving the Guardians to manage the problems created by so many visitors. 

Together, they now cover all of syilx Homelands on the northern side of what sqilx’w peoples call the imaginary line: the border dividing “Canada” from the “U.S.,” which intersects many First Nations along the 49th parallel. The syilx homelands extend south into what has briefly been called Washington State, and encompass a vast area of approximately 69,000 square kilometres.

Roberds is locking the gate on kłlil’xᵂ (Spotted Lake), a sacred site for syilx Peoples, the site is one of the many places that the land Guardians caretake following their homeland protocols of place protection. Photo by Kelsie Kilawna

“[Penticton Indian Band] is interesting because it’s so big,” James Pepper, the natural resources manager for the community, says. A biologist by training, he has spent his career working alongside Indigenous communities. His role is listening to what the community wants and then finding the funding resources to make it happen. 

“So the Guardian program is part of the overall community lands protection and responsibilities,” Pepper says. “We have many other programs as well, such as a restoration enhancement program, forestry assessment program, a crown consultation program, we have a water focus, fisheries focus, all sorts of stuff going on.” He emphasizes their bottom-up approach, where they engage with the community to understand their needs and proceed with initiatives based on these grassroots requests.

The responsibilities of the Guardians are diverse and informed by the community, Pepper explains. They include restoration and rehabilitation, and preventing further destruction to vulnerable areas, like the banks of the Penticton River Channel. 

James Pepper, natural resources manager at the Penticton Indian Band, says he started the Guardians program by writing small grants to keep it going, often with Guardians volunteering their time. Photo by Kelsie Kilawna

“It’s not just all about garbage and stuff, but saying, here’s a pictograph, we need to check on it and make sure that nobody’s messing with it, and covering it up so that it will be hidden. They also look at if there’s a logging company and they’ve spilled some oil, and they’re not cleaning it up like they should, then we’re talking to conservation officers, we’re making sure there is compliance because the province really doesn’t have any enforcement.”

Pepper highlights that a significant portion of the Guardians’ projects originate from their witnessing of the land’s needs and bringing that information back to the community. The Guardians also take part in several community initiatives, which have strengthened kinship connections and in turn strengthened the program, he explains.

“We help with the fish distribution when that comes around, and we also trade fish with a local beekeeper whose bees utilize our community flowers to make honey,” Lezard says. “So we have local honey and pair fish and honey with [produce from] our local community garden and give that out too.”

Another responsibility of the Guardians is caring for the burrowing owls. In collaboration with The Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC, the Guardians have cared for endangered owls bred in captivity and raised by the community before being released on their homelands. The Guardians feed owls, monitor nests and document sightings and migrations. When they see an injured owl, they contact the South Okanagan Rehabilitation Centre for Owls so it can be cared for and hopefully released back into the wild. 

Penticton Indian Band brings Youth into Guardians work

The Guardians program thrives on community support, and Youth involvement is a key focus. Weston Roberds represents a new generation passionate about land stewardship. He’s been a land Guardian since May 2023, working alongside his uncle. Roberds says his passion for the work comes from the love for his home, which was nurtured from a young age, particularly at Outma Sqilx’w Cultural School, which centres nsyilxcən and culture.

“I went to Outma my whole life and we had a lot of time out on the land. I just saw that this was a job opportunity that was close to that experience and so I saw it come up and applied,” he says. 

The land Guardians program has grown thanks to the desire among young people in the community to be involved. The Natural Resource Department is made up of 40 staff from the community, and seven of them are under 30 years old. The department has also developed a mentorship program, inviting Youth to come on ride-alongs with the Guardians in order to see the work that is being done on the land. 

“If a young person came to us and wanted to work with us, we would find a way,” says Pepper, who also expressed they are currently looking at how to build more of that engagement among Youth.

Roberds was inspired by the Outma Sqilx’w Cultural School in his community, which he says nurtured his love for the land. Photo by Kelsie Kilawna

While climbing steep and rocky terrain, Roberds keeps a close eye on the land, watching out the window for any shifts or changes in the environment. Noticing a fire nearby, he asked his Uncle to stop the truck so they can jump out and take photos. Later that evening, those images are uploaded to the Guardians’ Facebook page for community members to see.

On any given day, their Facebook page is updated by the three Guardians teams with their findings and activities. You might see a post about the progress of the burrowing owl reintegration program, or maybe a truckload of garbage being hauled from a sensitive area. Often you’ll see the recovery of abandoned or stolen vehicles, alongside documented findings of a plant shifting through its life cycles in an atypical way. Posts often end with the sign-off, “way’ good day on the land.”

In syilx Homelands the structure of governance is egalitarian, with deep ties to the teachings of voice equity on things that impact land and life. That’s one reason why the Guardians have focused on transparency, sharing daily updates on Facebook. 

Pepper says initially, the page was private, but making it public has garnered a lot of support and engagement from the local area. It has just shy of 1,000 followers, a group that includes Penticton Indian Band members as well as the non-Indigenous community. 

“People [will] say, ‘Hey, I saw someone going up this hill with a truck full of garbage,’ and stuff like that,” Pepper says. “I’d say I probably get 35 messages a week even from non-members, just from the public telling us about stuff they see.” 

He stresses that the Guardians do more than just post to Facebook; they also meet with Elders and knowledge keepers, and host in-person community meetings. 

Tim Lezard and Weston Roberds stand atop a mountain in the syilx homelands as part of their work caretaking the land. Photo by Kelsie Kilawna

But Facebook allows them to share images of the land for those who aren’t able to access it. 

“A lot of our people who don’t get to go out on the land follow our Facebook and look at our pictures. I think it’s very encouraging for them. And then getting feedback from them, it helps a lot for our people,” says Lezard.

syilx responsibilities in action

When the territorial team heads out early in the morning, they set off to the highest points of the lands. Binoculars in hand, they keep sight on the Homelands in all directions.

Lezard and Roberds know our homelands intimately. Along our drive, they stop to track the wildlife moving through the area, and point out to me where they have already documented garbage, cultural markings or illegally poached animals. Their memories for the movements happening on the land intertwine with the syilx teachings, which tell us to know your land like you know your own skin.

As we drive by a large mining truck tire that appears to be abandoned on the side of a mountain road, they point out the smallest details. They’ve left it on the hillscape, they explain, because life has taken root around it and removing it will cause more damage. But they will know if that one tire has moved, changed or shifted since they last saw it. 

This attention to detail is part of the practice of Indigenous science, which is based on traditional ecological knowledge and accumulated over generations. This knowledge is highly specific to place-based environments and ecosystems, and often encompasses sustainable resource management practices that are critical for the health of ecosystems. Being out on their Homelands each day and documenting each change, no matter how tiny, is a critical form of data sovereignty. 

“It’s intellectual property,” Lezard says. By collecting and maintaining data sovereignty, or control over the information they collect and store about the land, the Guardians continue to add to the traditional ecological knowledge of the syilx Peoples. 

“For the territory Guardians it’s all about people knowing we are out on the land, that we’re making tracks on our own land, enacting Title and Rights, and building that up with ensuring everything we do is documented, digitized and tracked,” Lezard says. This ultimately informs and supports sustainable resource use and conservation for their people, now and in the future.

But it’s equally important to the Guardians that the sqilx’w people in their community are checked on, in the same way the land is.

“We really check on the people who mostly live on the edge of the reserve. We call them up and ask them, ‘Is anyone bothering you? Has anyone been trespassing?’ ” Lezard says. “I do that usually once a month, give them a call, and they really appreciate people taking time for them and asking how they’re doing.”

“They call me now too,” he says.

Tim Lezard’s syilx teachings and love for his people drives his work with the Penticton land Guardians. As he gets older this work has become even more critical, he says. Photo by Kelsie Kilawna

As the territorial team, who range beyond the edge of the reserve, Lezard and Roberds engage with different people: often hunters, hikers, tourists and sometimes people living in the backcountry. 

syilx teachings tell us that every member of a community should have equitable access to life’s essentials, and those essentials include joy and happiness. One of the responsibilities of the on-reserve team, Lezard says, is connecting unhoused community members with help and support. 

“We worked with the Brain Injury Society, and they have these books called Little Red Book. It’s a handbook you give them so if they have any problems [it lists] people that can help you see, the social services for mental health or addiction issues, food, like soup kitchens and everything like that,” Lezard explains.

While driving through the mountains above sn’pink’tn, Lezard points out an area where he found a father and son who were living out of their vehicle, and reflects on how compassion is central to his work out on the land. 

“Some of those people with mental health issues, they don’t drink or do drugs. It’s just that they have nobody to care for them wherever they’re from, or their family or their split apart from their family. You have to be compassionate. We always try to understand where they’re coming from.”

‘I love the land and the land loves me’

Dean Schreiber, one-half of the on-reserve Guardians team, embraces his daily responsibility of caring for both the land and its people with honour. Each morning, he wakes up with a sense of purpose, preparing to venture into the lands of his own community. 

Schreiber swiftly jumps from his truck to open the gate along the Penticton River Channel, an area under his care. After passing through the gate, he nimbly leaps out again to close it. His passion for making a positive impact is evident. 

As he heads down to the channel for his first patrol of the day, he’s reflective. “I just love making a difference. And we hear it from the people on the channel. ‘Gosh, you guys do such a good job.’ We pick up garbage as we go, and we’re not garbagemen, but we do a little bit every day. If everybody did that, the whole world would be that much better, that much cleaner, right?” 

Dean Schreiber, Penticton Indian Band land Guardian, has been with the program since inception and says his work is one way in which he gives back to the land. Photo by Kelsie Kilawna

In the summer, the Penticton Channel is one of the liveliest places in the area, and it’s always Schreiber’s first stop of the day. Connecting kɬúsx̌nítkʷ (Okanagan Lake) and Skaha Lake, the channel attracts thousands of annual visitors who come to tube its shallow length. Often the crowd is made up of local families and tourists. 

During the summer, littering by both folks who live unhoused and visitors along the channel is rampant. People will abandon their belongings, floats and garbage on Penticton Indian Band land, creating unsafe conditions. Schreiber tells me he’s found sleeping bags, clothes and once even a hundred needles in a single area. Still, he loves patrolling the area because it gives him a chance to build relationships.

“I love it on the channel because when I see people, white people too, I’ll say, ‘way’’ (greetings). And so now they say it to me first, you know, ‘way’! Or we’ll say, ‘way’ slaxt’, (hello friend,) ‘xast xusalt,’ (good day!)” 

“Now that’s reconciliation, when they are trying to learn our language. It doesn’t get any better than that,” he says.

As dust fills the road behind us, Schreiber points the truck toward the Penticton Indian Band sacred sites. We rumble up the road, as he recalls how one day, a man brushed off his greeting, grumbling, “Ah, I don’t speak Indian.” Schreiber, who often sees this man on his patrols, didn’t take offence. Instead, he says, he turned the moment around and made a joke. “Luckily I have thick skin, and I said some little smartass comment back because we have that kind of relationship,” Schreiber says. “And I see him the next day, and the same guy says, ‘way.’ And oh, that got me. I said, back to him, ‘way’ limtlemt’ (hello, thank you.)” 

“And you know, it doesn’t take much to change people’s mindsets,” he adds. “People just want to be heard, is all.”

Each conversation he has is a chance to teach someone about the land they’re on — an interaction that might prompt them to consider their own responsibilities, or at least to think twice before leaving their trash behind. 

As the sun rises higher, we leave the channel and drive through the dusty backroads of the reserve, where pine trees and sacred spaces lay undetected, thanks to the work of the Guardians.

syilx Peoples understand the land to be a kin. It’s important that we visit our land, especially in our sacred places so that the spirit of those places, known as tmixʷ, don’t get lonely. And in our visits, we are reminded through place that we must honour the land like our own skin, because in many translations of nsyilxcen the land and our bodies are tied.

For Schreiber that’s something that his work embodies. 

We slow down as our truck approaches barbed-wire strewn about on the road. Stepping out of the vehicle, Schreiber puts on his gloves and begins to roll up the barbed-wire. He does this several times while talking about his responsibilities to the animals. 

“Part of what I like to do is get rid of this barbed wire that is laying around. Our horses have to come through here, and the moose and the deer, and they cut themselves especially in the wintertime. So I get my wire cutters and wind it up and hang it on a tree,” he explains as he expertly rolls up the wire. 

Schreiber removes garbage from a nearby campground just off the Penticton Indian Band reserve. Photo by Kelsie Kilawna

“I love the land and the land loves me” is a syilx saying that holds so many nuances and layers of teachings. It is said that when syilx Peoples come together on the land to share love, laugh and joy, the land is happy, and it reciprocates that love through its offerings. And when you have to turn to the land in times of grief or despair, it has plenty of space to hold that for you too. 

As the sun begins to sink toward the horizon, Schreiber and I jump out of the truck into the pine-scented air, and he shows me different types of culturally modified trees. They tell the story of how this one area has been used by our people.

Schreiber takes a picture of a new nest he noticed in sn’pink’tn. If there are any small changes to the land — whether it be a new kind of tree, plant, nest, bird or animal — the Guardians document it. Photo by Kelsie Kilawna

When the Guardians wrap up another day on the land, they step into the other roles that they play in their family and community. That might be going to the council chambers for a meeting for Lezard, who also serves as a band councillor. Or maybe they bring their dogs out for a long walk like Schreiber, or head home to spend time with their loved ones like Roberds.

Either way, they go home feeling fulfilled in the work they do. Knowing it’s making a difference. Knowing they are living out what it means to be sqilx’w.

As for the future of the work, they remain open and engaged with other communities through syilx Homelands, strengthening kinships and sharing knowledge.

Lezard dreams of the day that the people and land will reunite, and reconcile their bond. 

“I hope we don’t need to have land Guardians,” he says. “I hope we have more people who are wanting to be on the land, I hope we have more people communicating to one another and I hope we have more people being brought up to take care of the land.”

The post From saving owls to removing garbage: the unique work of Penticton Indian Band’s land Guardians appeared first on IndigiNews.

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Through film, Kayah George explores the nuanced responsibility of being səlilwətaɬ

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Kayah George. Still from “Our Grandmother the Inlet.”

Waves crash upon a shoreline as a screen fades from black to the silhouette of a person walking across the protected Maplewood Mudflats within the unceded territory of the səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nation.

The light of blue hour is in full effect, hovering above the Parkland Refinery in the distance as a voice begins to speak, “My name is Halth-Leah. I carry my grandmother’s name, and she carries it from her grandmother. That goes 13 generations back. I’m from Tsleil-Waututh Nation, which  translates to ‘People of the Inlet.’ We didn’t see this place the way the world does now.”

That silhouette and voice belong to Kayah George, a filmmaker and matriarch-in-training who is also from the Tulalip Nation in “Washington State.” It’s a scene from her poetic hybrid-documentary film, Our Grandmother the Inlet, co-directed with Jaime Leigh Gianopoulos, an emerging director, editor, and producer.

‘Asked to save a world that has taken everything

George has travelled globally for more than half of her life to speak on Indigenous and environmental issues. Recently, she has been moving away from the world of panels and protests toward filmmaking.

On a rainy day in November, George is sitting on the couch in the apartment that she recently moved into. The 25-year-old is in the process of “making the space mine,” she says — a longboard rests against the wall by the front door, a vinyl player with records in the left corner of the room, and her desk, nestled in front of the window, points toward the mountain range of səl̓ilw̓ət with a detailed (and full) calendar and positive post-it notes and affirmations hanging on the window beside it.

Coming from a long line of activists, George has been thrust into the spotlight since childhood, speaking out against resource extraction in her territory. Campaigning against the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX), which will significantly increase oil tanker traffic through the inlet, is one example of George’s activism work. Chemicals leaking into the Burrard Inlet threaten the Tsleil-Waututh Nations’ lands. 

At 12-years-old, a very shy George had her first speaking engagement, a poetry reading where she and her dad, Rueben George, both spoke together. From there, these speaking engagements were nearly every few months, and reflecting back on that now, she feels like she was overburdened from a young age — with many environmental organizations jumping at the chance to feature the strong-spoken young activist. Now that she’s older, she’s taking back the reins on how and when she uses her voice.

“Environmental activism is going to be a part of my work no matter what,” George shares.

“I care about the Earth no matter what, whether it affects me or not. I care about it inherently.”

George believes that filmmaking has the power to inspire action and create change, even more so than activism. 

“The frontline can be a healing place to stand up for things, but it can also be a bit jarring. It can wear on you. I feel that a creative and cultural outlet is super necessary for keeping a good balance internally. That was the point of making a film, using all the words I was saying and repeating every time I went up and spoke somewhere. I just put it in a film so I don’t always have to be out there,” shares George.

“I found a lot of healing in making a film and expressing myself, having that outlet and showing things I couldn’t put into words — feelings or thinking. Some of the themes depicted in the film show how I felt inside, and having them out took that pain out of me.”

Narrowing her view on filmmaking is what drives George, which is evident with the recent release of Our Grandmother the Inlet.

The nine-minute film explores her and her grandmother Ta7a, daughter of the late Chief Dan George, as they reflect on their relationship with water, culture and land.

Following the opening, the film transitions to a short scene of George skateboarding down an East Vancouver street with an appearance from Joe Buffalo before their paths diverge, and George is left to reflect on what it has been like to grow up facing the demons of colonization and questioning why she was “asked to save a world that has taken everything from me, everything from my people.”

In one part of the film, George and her grandmother harvest softshell clams from səl̓ilw̓ət, the name of the Burrard Inlet in hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, waters which were once abundant with whales, herring, salmon and shellfish consistently and sustainably harvested by the Tsleil-Waututh people before colonization.

Seven hundred contaminants were identified in səl̓ilw̓ət between 1971 and 2016, a Tsleil-Waututh report found.

Because of all the urbanization and industrialization, countless marine terminals and oil refineries punctuate the shoreline of the inlet, which can be seen in montage clips throughout the film.

As the film continues, George highlights the historical importance of the inlet alongside its current struggles and her wish to protect it as it has protected her and her ancestors.

Still from “Our Grandmother the Inlet.”

A dream from the ancestors

George, whose first name means “wolf” in hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, recalls a moment when she was sitting at the dining table in her Auntie Char’s kitchen in the Tsleil-Waututh Nation when it all came together. She had taken a step back to focus on her emotional and spiritual selves and was plotting her next steps.

“I was like an arrow being pulled back, thinking, where do I point my bow?” she noted.

That’s when it hit her, and she heard a voice from her ancestor say, “Follow your dream.”

She allowed herself to let go of what she thought might be the most realistic path and instead asked herself what she wanted to do next, noting that it was always filmmaking that most captured her attention.

“I wanted to act, and I had another dream: I wanted to go back to school and finish my degree. So I decided to do those things,” she shared.

As a child, George said she would watch films on a projector set up by her father, Reuben, Sundance Chief and member of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. Reuben, who recently released his memoir and national bestseller, It Stops Here: Standing Up for Our Lands, Our Waters, and Our People, had also wanted to be a filmmaker when he grew up.

She has no regrets about changing course, considering she recalled being raised hearing stories about her great-grandfather, Chief Dan George, who has been referred to as “the most famous Indian in the world,” she shares while laughing.

She continues with a story her grandma told her about going to the Oscars with him. While there, Jack Nicholson approached her and asked, “Who might you be?”

“Amy George,” she answered.

“The chief’s daughter?” he questioned.

That story still sits with the younger George as a driving narrative of how her path would unfold.

Her stepfather, Myron Dewey, from the Walker River Paiute Tribe, was also a guiding force in her life. He was a filmmaker, journalist, professor at Duke and activist who helped bring attention to what was happening at Standing Rock.

She recalled when he said, “We need to put storytelling back into our people’s hands. People can’t keep telling our stories.”

Still from “Our Grandmother the Inlet.”

‘Be careful about what you pray for’

A self-described “shy” kid, George credits her “spunkiness” and ADHD as a big part of what drives her. “I feel like I have a lot of ideas,” she said.

“You expect yourself to work at the same capacity as people who don’t have ADHD, and you’re hard on yourself when you have to overcome something. That’s why we tend to overdo it,” she shared.

“I’ll schedule 20 things and be like, ‘Oh, I have a free hour, I can go to the gym, I can go grocery shopping. I can do it all.’ But it’s like, no, you can’t. The biggest message is to be kind to yourself. Today, that was something that was really sitting with me, so I wrote on a bunch of sticky notes and put them all over. I realized something needs to give because I can’t do it all.”

The reality behind the success of high achievers with ADHD is often unexpected. Though some find healthy coping mechanisms to manage some of their ADHD traits, many are often time-consuming and draining, working twice as hard as those without ADHD, which can lead to burnout and isolation. 

Before the pandemic, George was enrolled at Simon Fraser University to study her language when she realized she needed a break. She moved to San Pancho, Mexico, for two and a half months to learn Spanish — her other grandmother’s language —  work on her film and surf. 

She then began studying linguistics and psychology while working as an environmental research intern with Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping.

George is still keeping busy. Recently, she’s taken a semester off school to focus on travelling to film festivals and acting. In July, she will begin filming an educational short Docu-series on orca whales and matriarchy funded by National Geographic. Currently, she is working on her next script.

“Right now, I’m living out my dream and happy about that. I prayed for all these things. The only thing is they all came true at the same time, which is hard. So be careful what you pray for,” she says. 

I tell her this reminds me of something Dane-zaa, nêhiyaw, and mixed European author and activist Helen Knott said at her book launch in October. 

“Be careful about what you pray for. If you’re praying for strength, you’re going to be given hard times to build up that strength, so I’m mindful of how I pray,” Knott shared. 

George laughs and pulls her copy of Knott’s memoir, Becoming a Matriarch, out of the box beside her, sharing how much she wants to read it. 

“I’m being all the things I wanted to be as a kid. It’s so healing to be able to express myself like this.” 

Kayah and Ta7a George. Still from “Our Grandmother the Inlet.”

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Police discrimination probe builds on Indigenous families’ calls for justice

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People hold up signs during a rally calling for justice for Jared Lowndes in 2022. Photo by Philip McLachlan

“British Columbia’s” human rights commissioner has launched an inquiry into police discrimination when it comes to use of force.

The province-wide investigation was announced in late January in response to public concerns about disproportionate violence from officers against racialized people and people with mental health issues. 

While systemic racism in policing is a known issue, there is still a lack of comprehensive data about these impacts which is what Kasari Govender’s office hopes to uncover. 

“This inquiry aims to better understand who is at the receiving end of use of force by police, whether any disproportionate impact revealed amounts to systemic discrimination and what can be done to address any equity issues that emerge,’” Govender said in a news release.

Govender said she hopes this investigation will enable communities to have greater involvement in the province’s approach to policing and ownership over their information.

Investigation will ‘narrow scope’ of past work

According to Govender, the inquiry builds on previous work done by her office. In particular, a 2021 report which found racial disparities in the province’s policing system. 

The “Equity is Safer: Human Rights Considerations for Policing in British Columbia” report analyzed data from the “Vancouver” and “Nelson” police departments and the “Surrey,” “Duncan” and “Prince George” RCMP.

It found that Indigenous people are overrepresented in arrests, chargeable incidents and mental health-related incidents. Indigenous women are also overrepresented in arrests compared to white women or women from all other racial backgrounds.

The data also found a great deal of police activity involves people experiencing mental health issues, with Indigenous, Black, Arab and West Asian people significantly overrepresented in these types of police interactions in many jurisdictions. 

While the 2021 report focused on five police jurisdictions in “B.C.,” the inquiry will use data on police interactions across the province. Policing bodies are legally obligated to provide this data to the government, according to Govender, which she said will also help her office “produce some results and move towards recommendations.” 

The 29 recommendations made in the 2021 report include asking the provincial government to provide funding to enable Indigenous peoples to be partners in Police Act reform, that the “B.C.” government should make significant investments in civilian-led mental health and substance use services, and establish a robust and well-funded Indigenous civilian police oversight body. 

Govender said these recommendations would be revisited, and new recommendations would be made through collecting, storing and using data per the Grandmother’s Perspective, which centres on relationships with affected communities grounded in the concept of data sovereignty.

“The recommendations in that last report were aimed at the legislative committee tasked with looking into reforming the Police Act … so they were quite far ranging — we made recommendations about school liaison officers, about de-tasking the police, how to overcome bias and stereotyping [in police checks],” Govender said. 

“This inquiry is going to be much more narrow in scope in the sense that we’re only looking at the use of force data rather than a broader range of information, and we’ll be making recommendations about how to address any disproportionate impacts we see there.”

Inquiry follows calls for justice

The inquiry into the police use of force by Govender’s office follows concerns raised by Indigenous families who are living with violence perpetrated by police forces across the country, along with efforts by policing bodies to improve accountability for their actions. 

An example of this is Chantel Moore’s family and friends, who have participated in an inquiry into her death at the hands of a “New Brunswick” police officer and travelled across the country to share their community’s experience with the police. 

Moore, a Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation woman, was fatally shot by Const. Jeremy Son, who had been dispatched to check on her wellbeing in June 2020. 

Since then, Moore’s mother Martha Martin has been seeking police reform through greater accountability and transparency in investigations against police behaviour. 

Martin said the inquest into her daughter’s killing relied heavily on testimonies and evidence presented by the Edmundston Police Force. She noted that investigative bodies lack Indigenous representation.

“The second something happens, the police set the narrative,” Martin said. 

“I found the inquiry was such a one-sided story because it was the police officers and the paramedics — the [inquest] didn’t bring any other person to come and say what they had seen.” 

For Martin, the lack of Indigenous representation in the investigation process leads to limited transparency by the police and a lack of accountability for officer behaviour. 

“It’s an ongoing problem that goes across the country where Indigenous people and the BIPOC community have been feeling like they’ve been a target,” Martin said. 

“The transparency part is always one-sided because it’s an officer’s word against [ours].” 

The road to data sovereignty

Meanwhile, on Jan. 9, the RCMP announced the launch of its own initiative to respond to concerns about racism and discrimination by its frontline officers.

Created following two years of consultations, the Race-Based Data Collection Initiative will involve researching race-base data in order to understand the extent of systemic racism within the force.

The data will be based on “officer perception,” wherein the officers will observe and determine the identity of the people they interact with,” according to Mai Phan, the RCMP’s acting director of its anti-racism unit. 

“Officer perception is an important metric to identify whether perceived race and perceived Indigenous identity influence outcomes for different groups of people,” Phan said during a virtual media briefing in January.

“We will be using that data to analyze our impacts and outcomes for community groups in the pilot locations.”

The initiative will begin in three communities — “Whitehorse” in the “Yukon,” “Fort McMurray” in “Alberta,” and “Thompson” in “Manitoba.” Two additional pilot sites — one in “British Columbia” and one in “Nova Scotia” — are set to follow later this year.

Phan said piloting the initiative will allow the RCMP to test processes and make improvements and adjustments before an anticipated future national rollout.

Hard data is critical for understanding interactions between police forces and Indigenous and racialized people, according to Govender. Yet she said it is not always accessible, as is the case in B.C., which has no public body tasked with providing comprehensive, publicly accessible data on the police’s interactions with racialized people.

Govender said she hopes to fill this gap by analyzing data currently available to the provincial government. For the inquiry, her office has submitted an information request to the B.C. Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, which receives annual reports on the use of force from police departments across the province. 

Her office will review this data to determine whether it shows any disproportionate impacts on racialized persons or persons with mental health issues.  

She will also meet with community organizations during the inquiry to ensure they have a say in deciding how the data about their lives will be used to create positive change.

This goes hand-in-hand with the Grandmother Perspective, released in 2020, which “answers and echoes the calls to collect disaggregated data to advance human rights.” 

The Grandmother Perspective asks that instead of monitoring citizens, we collect and use disaggregated data to emphasize care for communities through “informing law, policy and an institutional practice that is in service of — and developed in collaboration with — those who are systemically discriminated against,” writes Govender in the report. 

“We cannot act on what we do not know. This is a call for knowledge. We cannot make change without first building the foundations of a respectful relationship. This is a call to work alongside community in meaningful partnership. This is the time for commitments to address systemic racism and oppression across British Columbia and to move from words to real change.” 

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At the All Native Basketball Tournament, the AMR team faces ups and downs

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Players from the All My Relations Basketball team enter the locker room after warming up for their first plays in a high-stakes game against Gitmidiik Thunder (New Aiyansh) as the basketball court is reflected behind them. Photo by Paige Taylor White

This is the second story in a three-part series about the All My Relations basketball team and their journey to the All Native tournament in “Prince Rupert.” You can read the first story here.

In between the third and fourth quarters of their second game in the All Native Basketball Tournament, the All My Relations (AMR) team was doing sit ups. 

Communication has long been a focus, and coach Adelia Paul wasn’t happy about how many screens the team didn’t call during the match against the Gitxaała Lady Warriors of Kitkatla. She called for 10 sits ups per player. 

AMR won the game on Monday with 69 baskets to their opponents’ 22 points. They also won their first game against the Old Massett Raiders by a comfortable margin a day earlier. 

The sit ups weren’t about winning, it was about execution and doing the dirty work. It was about holding one another accountable — skills that would each become more crucial as the tournament in “Prince Rupert” progressed through the week.

Though the East Van club team started the tournament on a high with the two wins under their belt, the journey to their latest game this weekend would prove to test them in almost every aspect. 

The AMR team does sit ups in between the third and fourth quarters during their second game of the tournament against Kitkatla. Photo by Paige Taylor White

The AMR team huddles at their bench during their game against Kitkatla. Photo by Paige Taylor White

“Alright you have 10 seconds to say what some of our wins were from today’s game,” Paul said after the team’s win against Kitkatla.

Players shouted out replies: drawing fouls, intensity, pressure, confidence, encouraging each other, hustle and determination. 

After this quick celebration of what the team did well, the conversation changed focus to where the team could improve. 

The team had an off day on Tuesday spent resting and scouting games. On Wednesday, the match up was against the Hesquiaht Descendants, which would prove to test and challenge the team. 

AMR player Tamia Edgar from Hesquiaht and Ditidaht Nations warms up in the locker room. Photo by Paige Taylor White

AMR players and cousins Shauntelle Dick-Charleson and Tamia Edgar are both from the Hesquiaht Nation. Edgar is from the Hesquiaht and Ditidaht Nations, and Dick-Charlesson is from the Hesquiaht and Songhees Nations. 

They have relations to almost every player on the opposing team — made up of their aunties, nieces and cousins. In the end, AMR lost.

“It came down to grit, that’s what it was,” said Dick-Charleson in an emotional discussion after the game. 

“They wanted it more, they were hungry for that ball. I say it every practice, hunger. We need that hunger. I don’t know what switched.” 

AMR player Shauntelle Dick-Charleson from Hesquiaht and Songhees Nations is one of the players on the team to compete against family members from her nation’s team. Photo by Paige Taylor White

A final score of 55-50 meant the only way to continue in the tournament was taking what’s referred to as the “backdoor route” and entering the losing bracket. 

“We didn’t do all that training for nothing,” Dick-Charleson said. 

“We put in the work. We put in that work and we lost … I just wish that we came out and showed up to that game”. 

Once you lose a game at All Native, it means playing more games and a much longer road to the finals. If the team had won against Hesquiaht, they would have only needed one more win to qualify — now, they needed four.

But it’s been done in the past. In 2022, AMR won the tournament, in what is so far their first and only time, by going the backdoor route.

Later on Wednesday, the team met at the gym to watch the game between the Gitxsan Mystics (Hazelton) and Gitmidiik Thunder (New Aiyansh). AMR would play the winner of this game the following morning, in the team’s first must-win game of the tournament. 

After a three-pointer with four seconds left in the game, the Gitmidiik Thunder made a comeback to send the game to overtime and win.

At AMR’s pre-game meeting, the team discussed accountability for one another, adjustments that needed to be made, and deciding the best way to get everyone to come together for the team’s common goal. 

“I don’t feel mad, upset, jealous, I could’ve done this, I couldn’t have done that. I don’t feel any of that, I feel proud of my teammates,” said Marnie Scow when it was her turn to speak in the circle.

“We really have to leave our egos at the door. It’s not about us individually.”

AMR player Marnie Scow fixes her hair in the locker room mirror before hitting the court. Photo by Paige Taylor White

At the next morning’s game, the AMR team brought a different energy. Somewhere between calm and confident, light yet focused — the team found ways to be more connected before the game.

Playing against Gitmidiik was a back and forth effort all game long for AMR. Up by a point at half time, and then down 43-40 going into the fourth quarter, it was an all or nothing scenario.

The All My Relations Basketball warms up for their first game against Gitmidiik Thunder (New Aiyansh). After losing the day before to the Hesquiaht Descendants, the AMR team has to go the “backdoor route” to the finals playing additional games to try and earn their spot in the finals. Photo by Paige Taylor White

Shenise Sigsworth works her way to the hoop while AMR takes on the Gitmidiik Thunder (New Aiyansh). Photo by Paige Taylor White

AMR player Laura Lewis draws a foul while AMR takes on the Gitmidiik Thunder (New Aiyansh). Photo by Paige Taylor White

In the last quarter, Laura Lewis was on the court when Gitmidiik took possession of the ball and moved it down to AMR’s net. 

Playing defence, Lewis and others lept for the ball at the same time as several other players. With Lewis putting all her energy and focus into protecting the net, the collision brought her to the ground. In a fall that looked at first looked like it was okay — Lewis didn’t return to her feet and was still on the ground. 

Looks from the AMR bench and the crowd showed the heartbreak of the situation. Without needing to look at Lewis herself, she could be heard across the court in audible distress during the already emotionally charged game. She was escorted off the court, leaving her teammates without the player’s leadership but with new motivation to win on Lewis’s behalf.

AMR player Laura Lewis gets help from family member and teammate Brenna Doolan after spraining her knee against the Gitmidiik Thunder (New Aiyansh). The team depends on Lewis as a leader and vocal player on and off the court. Photo by Paige Taylor White

With only a few minutes left in the final quarter of a close game, AMR’s youngest player Amber Wells was able to steal the ball and score to put her team back in front on the scoreboard.

As the clock wound down, AMR held on to the win with a nail-biting final score of 61-60. 

Amber Wells shares and emotional win with teammates after beating Gitmidiik Thunder (New Aiyansh) in a back and forth game. Photo by Paige Taylor White

When the teams untangle themselves, a woman with purple hair breaks into centre court saying continuously “I am so proud of you.” Aggie Wells is the grandmother of AMR player Amber Wells — and congratulates her with a hug. Photo by Paige Taylor White

The win against Gitmidiik took AMR to another game on Thursday at 8 p.m., this time against Haisla Nation.

As the team warmed up in the locker room that evening, someone yelled out as Drake’s infamous song “Started From the Bottom” began to play. AMR lost to Haisla last year in a game that knocked them out of the tournament.

The All My Relations Basketball team warms up in the locker room ahead of their game against Haisla Nation. Photo by Paige Taylor White

Coach Paul, who is from Haisla Nation, learned from the coaches on that team. She addressed the AMR team ahead of the game by saying “at this point it comes down to who wants it,” while adding it will take everyone on the team for them to win.

As AMR hit the court, it became clear who most of the crowd was rooting for — with Haisla Nation being a beloved hometown team close to the host town of “Prince Rupert.”

With AMR’s black jerseys emphasizing their villain status, the sounds of whistles, boos, and comments like “clean your glasses ref” echoed through the gym. Up 23-20 at the half, AMR continued the forward momentum and pressure. Despite the cheers for the Haisla team, AMR harnessed the power of being disliked to keep a steady and calm handle on the local team.

Coach Adelia Paul and player Brenna Doolan huddle with the rest of the AMR team wihile taking a minute to strategize during their game against Haisla Nation where coach Paul is from. Photo by Paige Taylor White

The AMR team runs to coach Adelia Paul after they win against her her home nation’s team, Haisla, which knocked AMR out of the tournament last year. Photo by Paige Taylor White

In a final score of 51-43, the AMR team beat Haisla for their second win while taking the “backdoor route” and earning a chance to play for at least one more game against the Laxgalts’ap Aces (Greenville), which is set to take place Friday morning.

The tournament is set to conclude on Sunday, Feb. 18.

AMR player Joleen Mitton walks off the court after the team’s win against Haisla Nation. This win allows the team to play the next morning against Laxgalts’ap Aces and continue their run in the “backdoor route” of the tournament. Photo by Paige Taylor White

Reporting for this story was made possible in part through funding from the Real Estate Foundation of BC, a philanthropic organization working to advance sustainable, equitable, and socially just land use across the province.

The post At the All Native Basketball Tournament, the AMR team faces ups and downs appeared first on IndigiNews.

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