Vancouver reconciliation with Indigenous peoples starts with parks: An interview with Conference Keynote Rena Soutar

February 11, 2019

Rena Soutar is one of the keynote speakers at Park People’s upcoming Heart of the City Conference taking place in Montreal, June 12-14, 2019. Rena Soutar is the first Reconciliation Planner at Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation. Register or apply to attend the Conference. 

For 3,000 years, Indigenous peoples lived on a densely forested peninsula overlooking the Salish Sea in what is now called Stanley Park. It was home to the Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish and Musqueam peoples, and there was a village onsite called Xwayxway, where potlatches were held as late as 1875. Today, Vancouver’s largest iconic park holds little trace of its Indigenous ancestry.

Following the land’s official designation as Stanley Park in 1886, most Indigenous inhabitants were removed without remuneration. This displacement took place in parks across the city. According to the Vancouver Park Board:

“One of the core acts of colonialism is the removal of entire communities from their ancestral homes. This has been undertaken by the Park Board since its inception—beginning with the declaration of jurisdiction over ‘Stanley Park’, as well as beach areas around the City.”

The Vancouver Park Board is trying to address these past wrongs. Reconciliation is the goal. It means something unique to everyone, but ultimately it involves building a new relationship between Canadian society and Indigenous peoples. According to the Vancouver Park Board, it is more than a ceremonial acknowledgement of these territories. It is an opportunity to learn Vancouver’s true history and recognize the unjust treatment of Indigenous peoples.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Rena Soutar, Reconciliation Planner with the Vancouver Parks Board. “With jurisdiction over green spaces, beaches, and community centres, the Park Board serves a diverse population. However, we are learning that Indigenous communities are not well-served in our current system.”

The process of reconciliation started in January 2016, when the Vancouver Park Board adopted 11 strategies in response to the 94 calls to action issued by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The strategies include adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, training staff on Indigenous issues, and establishing a program for artists to create works inspired by reconciliation, including an artist residency in Stanley Park.

“Musqueam artist Chrystal Sparrow is the inaugural artist to practice her art in the A-Frame cabin at Second Beach. She has an open house once a week where visitors can learn from her lived experience and cultural insights,” said Ms. Soutar.

Chrystal Sparrow working FB

Photo credit: City of Vancouver

To further support its ambitious Reconciliation agenda, the Parks Board recently approved a “colonial audit” which will outline its colonial history and seek to formally apologize to the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations for “core acts of colonialism.” The Park Board also hired Ms. Soutar to consult with Indigenous leaders to ensure Indigenous history, values, and memory practices are reflected in its policies and programs. This includes planning new and existing parks.

Northeast False Creek Park is one of the first new parks they are working together on. The park is part of a master plan for a large area of undeveloped land around the Georgia Viaduct in downtown Vancouver (the viaduct is slated for removal….RIP Vancouver’s only downtown freeway). Staff are working closely with local First Nations and urban Indigenous communities to ensure principles of cultural practice, ecological stewardship, and visibility of the three Nations are reflected in the park’s design.

“Northeast False Creek Park is the first major new park to be designed since the Parks Board has undertaken a commitment to decolonizing our approach. It has resulted in broader and deeper engagement with local First Nations and other Indigenous advisory groups,” said Ms. Soutar.

While the Vancouver Parks Board and local First Nations are creating a path forward for working on future parks, they also established a new collaboration on the city’s oldest park, which was once a source of dark history for them both.

In 2014, the Park Board received a letter from the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh governments, who came together to reiterate their rights in Vancouver – specifically Stanley Park. The Nations had individually sent letters previously, but for the first time, the Board agreed to meet and ultimately to work together towards a long term, comprehensive plan for Stanley Park.

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“The Park Board now meets monthly with representatives of the three local First Nations governments to develop a comprehensive plan for Stanley Park with a 100-year vision,” said Ms. Soutar. “There is a lot of trust to be built, but we’re finding that when it comes to the park, our values and principles align.”

One of the Stanley Park Working group’s first tasks is renaming Siwash Rock, a beautiful, iconic rock in the park whose current name implies a derogatory reference to Indigenous people. In First Nations culture, the rock, estimated to be about 32 million years old, represents a man turned to stone to honour his purity and dedication to fatherhood.

“For over 100 years, The Park Board was the narrator and curator of cultural narrative in Vancouver’s parks. This has long contributed to the erasure of the local First Nations,” said Ms. Soutar. “We are now in a prime position to correct these situations and demonstrate what a decolonization process within a Reconciliation framework can look like in a public institution.”

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Jillian Glover is a communications professional who specializes in urban issues and transportation. She is a former Vancouver City Planning Commissioner and holds a Master of Urban Studies degree from Simon Fraser University. She was born and raised in Vancouver and writes about urban issues at her blog, This City Life.

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