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Bhiamie Eckford-Williamson – Blog 3: At the journey’s end

Well, I have made it home to Australia in one piece! After almost two years of living in Canada, I returned to the warmth and sunshine of my great southern land. It is a strange feeling of being home again, and as much as this saying is insufficient, my life is not the same since I first embarked on my international studies. This (my final) blog will detail some of the significant learning’s that have impacted me most. By reflecting in this way I will attempt to explain how I feel my outlook to life, work and politics has changed.

Before arriving in Canada, I had almost no experience or education with the resurgence paradigm, as it is generally understood and applied by the Indigenous Governance program at UVic. In Australia, the language used to describe cultural reclamation and improved cultural livelihoods of our peoples is far more passive and obscure. I can confidently say that studying in the Indigenous Governance program has not so much changed, but narrowed and crystallised how I see the world and understand my place within it. Resurgence as a concept remains the significant learning from the course work over my first year. My challenge was then to not only apply this concept, but extend it when I embarked on the second half of the journey with my wife Madeleine, to Williams Lake.

Before leaving Victoria, I was often asked where I would be after my commitments on campus were finished. When I replied that Madeleine and I would be moving to Williams Lake common responses were ‘Really? Why?’ and ‘Where’s that?’ Even now, in Australia when people ask where I have been, I receive much the same reaction. Looking back, I could not have ended up in a more appropriate or opportune place or space. During the field work, I was astounded by the amount of work being done in the community, as well as some of the ambitions the community had for its short and long-term futures. Some of these initiatives included the building of a new school and community gymnasium, the adoption of a cumulative effects natural resource management monitoring program, the scoping and business planning of a tourism venture on Tsilhqot’in lands, as well as the day to day running of the community. These planning and administrative activities were even more significant considering the funding (or lack thereof) that is available to Yunesit’in. So what were the significant learning’s I have taken away from my time in Yunesit’in?

Firstly, I don’t know if I would call it a lesson but living and working with a First Nation Community has been itself, a unique and rich educational experience. Just observing and eventually being apart of the daily coming and going in the community has opened my eyes and provided me with rare insight.

Secondly, the pressures felt by the community are much the same that are felt by Indigenous communities at home. Whilst this is alluded to and generally acknowledged (that Indigenous people share common experiences throughout the colonized world), seeing it in a real life context is a strange yet affirming thing. Some of these include the many social harms and hazards that are all too common in Indigenous communities. However, the major commonalities that I observed were the everyday acts of living in the world as an Indigenous person. In Yunesit’in, smudging was a daily sight, whether in the home or someone smudging at their front door to ward off harmful spirits. At home, smoking occurs at every major community event. These are two closely related activities that are undertaken for the same reasons. Another observation is the centrality of fish in peoples lives. In Yunesit’in it is salmon while at home, it is yellow-belly. Fish continues to define in a large and meaningful way, peoples cultural identities. This is not a far-off obscure link to culture, it is a daily practice whether fishing, preparing or eating salmon or yellow-belly. From daily acts such as these emanates a strength and satisfaction that is seldom found in the many cities and towns in Australia and Canada. As I observed these daily acts in Yunesit’in and linking these with my own experiences in Australia I continue to ask myself: how do people see this (being Indigenous) as disadvantage?

Finally, First Nations communities occupy a complex and unique socio-political space, much the same as Indigenous communities in Australia. Central to this complexity is the centrality of land. To understand this complexity you need only ask one question: ‘Who owns the land?’ Whilst this isn’t a question often asked by many non-Indigenous Canadian’s and Australian’s, it is often asked and firmly answered by Indigenous peoples – ‘We own the land’. Every social, cultural and political interaction comes from this certainty.

Suffice to say that my life has irreversibly changed. It has been enriched in a way seldom experienced. Whilst this road has been long, arduous and at times, tough, it has been one worth travelling.

So, where to from here? Well at the moment it is nice being home around family and friends and working again. 2017 has been designated for both Madeleine and I as a time to re-group, re-asses and re-energise. Formulating a plan for the next chapter following this year is our priority however, we have time and space to think about our options. Importantly, we are factoring in how we can make Canada part of our plans once again. As we sit back and reflect on our time in the true north, we both have a distinct feeling of having unfinished business there. We have made some wonderful life-long friends and are actively seeking to make sure that the fire that was lit within us in Canada does not burn out. Watch out Canada, we may be back before you know it!

Bhiamie Eckford-Williamson – Blog 2: Research, Resilience and Longing

My mind feels like a clogged drain lately. Information and ideas are trickling through slowly, yet the process is slow and arduous. Even though the ideas eventually make their way through, the length of time it takes causes frustration, worsening the blockage and compounding the effect. I am hoping the process of writing this Blog acts as ‘draino’, clearing the blockage, releasing the flow of information in a steady and reliable manner once gain. Approaching it this way makes this exercise useful to me, as well as (I hope) enhancing my reflections which I hope will have a positive effective on the work. Most of all however, it makes this exercise extremely meaningful.

I have been in Williams Lake for almost three months now. My work is with the Yunesit’in First Nation, located an hour drive from Williams Lake on the Chilcotin Plateau in central interior BC. This distance has made it difficult to engage fully and in a sustained manner with the Yunesit’in First Nation community. But the work has been valuable and has progressed steadily.

I have been making regular (at least once a week) trips to Yunesit’in. The people have been some of the most welcoming, wonderful people I have ever had the pleasure to meet. They continue to be curious about how an Aboriginal Man from Australia lands in their community, working on their Tribal Park. A great conversation for another time. I have had some opportunities also to get onto the land (the real reason I do this work). Travelling through such a unique and beautiful landscape are cherished memories I will take with me from this place. I have gained valuable insight into the working and lived realities of many community members, especially with regards to accessing and utilising their lands, waters and resources. This has shed light on the opportunities and threats to any Guardianship program that may be implemented by the community.

But being in and learning about the community evokes familiar feelings of home. Growing up much of my life in a small community about the same size of Yunesit’in (Goodooga) has had an unexpected effect on me personally. It has produced a sense of longing and homesickness that I have and continue to struggle with. Watching families interact and kids play make me realise that which awaits me at home. But knowing it awaits me does not placate its absence right now.

I have been away from my home now for 1 year and 4 months. In this time my nieces and nephews have learnt to walk, to talk, they have graduated primary school, attended high school, family have bought new houses and lived in them for more than a year now, I have missed many cultural events, not to mention countless coffees and meals with family. Whilst this time of my life (being an International student) has been one of immense personal growth, it has also been and continues to be, one of immense personal hardship.

Without the presence of my wife, Madeleine, I fear this hardship would have become too difficult already. She has been a pillar of strength and I am indebted for her support over this time. But the struggle remains and lately, it has become difficult to control.

I am not someone whom believes that feelings such as homesickness should be ‘overcome’. The only true way to overcome them is to return home! I believe that these are powerful feelings and if utilised in an effective manner, can be a powerful fuel to power my work. I constantly remind myself of why I am here, how I came to be here, what we (Madeleine and I) have sacrificed to be here, and the rare opportunity we now have. But knowing and feeling are two vastly different things. This feeling is what has, and continues, to block my mind.

As stated previously, this Blog (I am hopping) acts as a catalyst to re-focus my mind and bring forth information that over the previous few weeks, has not been forthcoming. My attempt here is to understand complexity of the project and if/how my feelings of homesickness are hampering or promoting the quality of the work. By reflecting in this way, I hope to utilise that which has been hampering me and move it from being a debilitative feeling to an enabling force.

The project itself requires me to design a cultural and environmental Guardianship model for the Yunesit’in and Xeni Gwet’in communities. My strategies for approaching this work have been equally influenced by my time in the Indigenous Governance program (IGOV) at UVic, and working with Aboriginal Ranger groups back home in Australia. There are many similarities in the historical experiences of colonisation between these First Nations communities (Yunesit’in and Xeni Gwet’in) and Aboriginal communities in Australia. There are also however, key differences in our current circumstances. As such, my approach has been to adopt the guiding philosophies of Aboriginal Ranger groups in Australia whilst building innovative governance models based on my education in IGOV. This governance model is tailored specifically for the circumstances and ambitions of Yunesit’in and Xeni Gwet’in.

This process has required me to engage deeply with material from Aboriginal Ranger groups at home (triggering a negative emotional response). The real complexity in this process for me is in the communication. Whilst I see clear linkages in the work, weaving these together has and continues to prove difficult.

One of these difficulties include navigating the different vocabulary of Aboriginal groups from Australia and Canada. One example is the use of the term ‘Guardianship’ versus ‘Caring for Country’. Whilst this is clear to me, uncovering ways to communicate nuanceddifferences is an ongoing struggle.

Another difficulty is accounting for the varying political circumstances in our communities. One of the most notable is the influence of ‘Treaty’ in British Columbia. This complicates the utilisation of ideas from Australia, as there is no such process at home.

There is much more to these difficulties that is beyond the scope or purpose of this Blog. Suffice to say, that there are key differences in the lived realities of our communities that require me to constantly reflect and question my own assumptions.

This ongoing reflection is a critical part of the success of my project. Lately though, this reflection has become inseparable from the longing and homesickness that has paralysed my work. I am not sure if this process of writing and recording these feelings will help me to overcome my current dilemma. I am sure however, that framing and writing a reflection this way will prove invaluable as an historical record of my time here and the hardships I encountered.

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