By April Ingham, Executive Director, Pacific Peoples’ Partnership
In 2017 Pacific Peoples’ Partnership (PPP) produced a historic and award-winning program, our 10th One Wave Gathering, with the permission and guidance of Coast Salish and South Pacific Elders and Leaders. Central to this community building event was the raising of four temporary Longhouses, designed to house community-based programming. They were raised upon the lawn of the BC Legislature, which Elders told us was once a village site for Lekwungen peoples.
This temporary Longhouse village was the inspired vision of artist Hjalmer Wenstob who conceived of these Longhouses and created them in his Nation’s Nuu-chah-nulth style. Hjalmer is an exceptionally gifted artist that believes strongly in creating meaningful opportunities for youth engagement, so he mentored four young artists who designed and helped paint each of the Longhouse fronts to represent their individual Nations. These talented young artists were Sarah Jim (Coast Salish), A.J. Boersen (Nuu-chah-nulth), Juliana Speier (Kwak’waka’wakw), Jazzlyn Markowsky (Māori) and a stunning dance curtain, later gifted to Songhees and Esquimalt Nations, was created by James Goldsmith-Brown (Esquimalt Nation). The Longhouses were then programmed with drumming, storytelling, sharing of culture, song and games by members of the respective Nations on September 14, 2017. The project was life changing for many and its legacy continues to live on in the spirit of all who participated and attended.
In 2018, our friends at the British Columbia Council for International Cooperation (BCCIC) reached out to PPP and other organizations, to explore possible side event programming opportunities that could align with the Women Deliver Conference to be hosted in Vancouver June 3-6, 2019. This major international event would bring 7000+ International Women leaders together, and to complement this program, free accessible side-events would provide spaces for the local communities, guests and all interested to gather and explore topical and localized issues of matter to women. BCCIC knew of PPP’s role in helping to realize the Longhouse project and encouraged us to consider raising them as a village once again, but this time as a location for dialogue and exchange near the conference site in downtown Vancouver.
Time was short, and PPP was a bit too stretched to really consider the additional project. But BCCIC encouraged and offered support. We were intrigued but knew that we could only proceed if the right conditions were in place. This meant the artist Hjalmer Wenstob would need to agree to participate as he maintained stewardship of the Longhouses, further it was essential that the installation and programming for the four Longhouses would have the permission and support of the three host nations Squamish Nation, Musqueam Nation and Tsleil-Waututh Nation respectively. If all these conditions were in place, then we would need the permission of the City of Vancouver and Parks Board, support from Women Deliver Mobilization Canada. After all that we would need to find funding, figure out the complex logistics, find programming partners, plus round out and build the Team capacity to make it all happen.
It was a daunting process, with numerous variables that could send the project off the rails. But the idea persisted as we knew it would offer a unique space to uplift gender equality and Indigenous issues. Once we had Hjalmer’s agreement and the support of his family, we proceeded to engage with the three host nations to secure their permission, guidance and support. We were fortunate to have a champion in Squamish Nation Council Member Deborah Baker. Deborah knew about our work at PPP and helped us to navigate the protocol and ultimately earn the support of Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. Once we had this critical support and permission in place everything else began to flow…
The City of Vancouver and Parks Board approved our extraordinary request to raise the Longhouses for just over a week in Harbour Green Park, this was a 5-minute walk down the seawall from the Vancouver Conference Centre. Women Deliver Mobilization Canada, which helped to nurture and support side events, stepped forward with ongoing encouragement, connections and a financial contribution; LUSH Handmade Cosmetics supported the program with a substantial donation and volunteer support. BCCIC brought the local knowledge and coordinating Team necessary for organizing the programs, logistics, etc. PPP was the lead liaison with the artist and three host Nations, plus we safeguarded the integrity of the program to ensure it was aligned and remained respectful to the intentions of those that helped birth the original project.
And so, it happened, on May 30, 2019 that our Squamish Nation friend and Cultural Coordinator Sheryl Rivers blessed the grounds at Harbour Green Park, and then Hjalmer, his family and our crew – working together raised four Longhouses in Honour of Women. The scene was one of true magic to behold. This was the first time that all four Longhouses had stood together since 2017. They sat regally amongst the trees in this beautiful seaside park. Nestled into the green space, they stood more prominent than the cityscape hidden behind. The Longhouses faced the water side by side. It was a powerful image to behold. Sheryl told us that this was what it would have been like in traditional times and that it made her heart swell.
The Nuu-chah-nulth and Coast Salish Longhouses were offered at no cost in support of local NGOs and community groups as bookable spaces to hold community programming, workshops and dialogue sessions. We even provided a green technology suite for sound and film projection. Many outstanding programs took place in both Longhouses with crowds big and small. The topics were diverse and included: Combatting Sexualization & Hypermasculinization (YWCA), From Surviving to Thriving: Social Ingredients of Health (Check your Head), Inter-Generational Dialogue: What Activism Could Look Like (Canadian Council of Young Feminists) and many more.
The Kwak’waka’wakw Longhouse provided hospitality and organizing space, and the South Pacific (Māori Marae) Longhouse was offered as sacred space for contemplation, informal gathering and cultural exchange. Outside the Longhouses stood an outdoor stage where ongoing presentations, including several important ceremonies, music and speeches, took place. Everything was designed to be as low impact and zero waste as possible and was powered by solar and green energy technology. A Team of committed Volunteers supported the programming and hosting of the Longhouses each day. And each night the Longhouses were watched by Moose Hide Campaign volunteers, complemented by a security detail.
The opening ceremony was performed just after noon on May 31, 2019. This was officiated by Sheryl Rivers, with welcoming speeches from Squamish Council Member Deborah Baker and special guest and witness Florence Dick of Songhees Nation. Florence’s Nation’s support and that of the Lekwungen speaking peoples was critical to the Longhouse project’s very creation in 2017. I acknowledged this important historical connection and shared words from PPP about the creation of the Longhouses and those that helped to birth them. Many other special moments and ceremonies happened throughout the time of the installation which carried through to June 5th. A highlight for me was the Women Honouring Canoe Ceremony which was brought to us by the Iisaak Olam Foundation.
This special ceremony took place on June 3rd, a few hours after the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s report was released by the Government of Canada. Beginning at the steps of the Women Deliver – Vancouver Conference Centre site, Iisaak Olam Foundation representative Eli Enns spoke about the report and his organization’s campaigns, he spoke of the connections between the desecration of land, the man-camps brought in to do so, and resulting violence against women.
A dug-out cedar canoe carved by Master Tla-o-qui-aht Canoe Maker Joe Martin was then raised by men representing the Moose Hide Campaign. Carried within this canoe was young climate activist Ta’Kaiya Blaney from the Tla’Amin Nation. Squamish women and Council members led the procession with drumming and song. They were accompanied by Culture Saves Lives and many other solidarity friends. Approximately 200 people joined the procession and walked together in solidarity to honour the missing and murdered in solemn and thoughtful procession along the seawall to the Longhouses.
Upon arrival at the Longhouses Ta’Kaiya was lifted towards the sky by the men who had carried her all along the pathway. She then shared powerful words of tribute to her own recently passed mother and to all the missing and murdered, her words left us in deep contemplation. And then she uplifted us all with a song of tribute and our collective tears flowed. Following reflections and speeches about the injustices and need for real action, Squamish Council Member KWITELUT/KWELAW’IKW, Carla George acknowledged Martina Pierre from the Lil’ wat Nation for her gifting of the “Women Warrior Song” a song in honour of the missing women, which we then sang and drummed together.
It was intimate moments like this that made this community building experience so special. It was the conversations on the side, the talking circles, workshops, dance and sharing that took place over the six days, that the Longhouses were raised and programmed by and for community.
Prior to closing ceremony, PPP had the opportunity to facilitate a session called the Transformational Power of Art. Fitting that this would focus on the Longhouse project itself. Hjalmer and his brother Timmy shared a Nuu-chah-nulth dance and mask to ground the participants in their rich cultural traditions. Then Hjalmer shared the creation story of the project along with the impacts it has had on him, his family and others. Also presenting was A.J. Boersen, the young artist who created the design on the front of the Nuu-chah-nulth house. He was accompanied by his proud Foster Father Rheal and A.J. shared how this project had changed his life in so many good ways, he added “the drive behind my art is that each of us has an “inner warrior” – no matter who you are the fight is worth it.” A.J. just graduated from High School in Victoria. His Longhouse façade was installed in his school for a week prior to graduation and AJ was his class valedictorian. He is now off to college with a promising future as a professional artist.
PPP is incredibly honoured to be part of programs like this that truly transform our communities and enrich our relationships with understanding and compassion for one another. We are especially grateful to BCCIC and their entire team of staff, contractors and volunteers; to Women Deliver and our friends at CanWaCH who coordinated the Mobilization Canada program; the Vancouver Foundation; the City of Vancouver and Vancouver Parks Board (who were amazing – see we didn’t kill the grass!); to LUSH Handmade Cosmetics; to our key partners: Moose Hide Campaign (and their extraordinary volunteers), the Iisaak Olam Foundation, Culture Saves Lives… and so many more.
Most importantly we thank artist Hjalmer Wenstob and his entire family and group of supporters that made the Longhouse Dialogues and installation possible. And to all who contributed to their creation. Our hands are raised in respect to Sheryl Rivers who coordinated the cultural programming and officially spoke about the missing and murdered, and to Joleen Timko that shouldered much of the coordination detail. It truly takes a team to make projects like this succeed and we are indebted to all that contributed.
PPP offers our deepest respect and acknowledgement to the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. Without your permission, guidance and support we would not have proceeded. We are honoured to have had your trust and support that ensured a proper foundation for the Longhouse Dialogues to honour women.
You can help support work like this by donating today!