I get triggered by “decolonization”. It’s a trigger kind of word.
When I ask others what they think it means, most aren’t sure. But some say this:
It means, they say, that we consciously work to include those whose voices were previously unheard, forgotten or marginalized. At best, it means adding voices to create a collective narrative of who we are in a post-colonial era.
The key words – Including and adding – are essential to the narrative of reconciliation.
The most dramatic case has been the demolition of exhibitions on the third floor of the Royal BC Museum, notably the Old Town. That move, so sudden and presumptuous, seemed meant to send a message: ‘Colonial’ history, specifically European settler history, can be swept aside and turned into rubble. We just did it.’
Here’s another example – the Fairmont Building at the Heather Lands near Cambie and 41st .
It’s a Class A heritage building designed by a renowned early architect, Samuel Maclure, and it just reeks of British colonialism in the Tudor revivalist garden cities like Vancouver and Victoria. First it was a boy’s school, then an RCMP Academy, now owned by MST Development, the indigenous real-estate and development entity, and the federally owned Canada Lands. It’s an example that could follow wherever MST partners with private-sector capital, where real estate meets reconciliation.
On Heather Lands, MST was insistent on the removal of the Fairmont Building. It is considered deeply offensive to those who associate it with residential schools because of its use by the RCMP.
The city and the heritage community acceded with little objection to the loss of a heritage building ultimately being turned into photogenic rubble. Again, the message: colonial history, specifically European settler history, can be swept aside, especially the architecture or the physical reminders associated with the trauma of colonialization. Arguably, the more that is demolished, the more respect is being given to those so traumatized. When government has to respond to calls for action after all the acknowledgements, reports and apologies are considered insufficient, nothing is as viscerally expressive of action as a bulldozer.
Advocates for decolonization may not have intended this, but they’re giving developers a crude, powerful tool to sweep aside regulatory constraints in the way of their most ambitious projects – so long as they have indigenous partners. If colonial association is indeed traumatic, so many other buildings are vulnerable. There is even an argument being made to demolish the 1930s City Hall itself when time comes for renewal.
The City Planning department affirms that any place with an indigenous overlay supersedes the policies that might constrain other developers. It’s a message reinforced by indigenous leaders themselves – here, for instance, in a public statement by Bernd Christmas, the CEO of the Squamish Nation’s economic development arm, Nch’ḵay:
“… we’ve just learned the secret of making (development projects) go quicker, by about five to 10 years,” Christmas told … some of the biggest names in B.C.’S development industry. “If you have developments that are facing six-year, 10-year delays, come see us. Let’s move.”
What are we to make of “come see us”? Does it mean there will be a different treatment at City Hall when it comes to cultural erasure by developers with indigenous connections?
That’s what I’m triggered by: the suggestion of insider favouritism, the whiff of corruption, the permission for historic disrespect.
When pursued without restraint, deliberate cultural and physical erasure is a story that does not end well – as the indigenous peoples of Canada can provide witness.
Reconciliation is a vision based based on a commitment to mutual respect. That is not compatible with decolonization. As a one-way threat, it has a capacity to rip us apart. That is why it’s so dangerous.
For the sake of a reconciliation, decolonization itself should be rejected as public policy, especially when expressed as the blunt tool of demolition.