Author Tags: Downtown Eastside, First Nations

In Plain Sight: Reflections on Life in Downtown Eastside Vancouver (Talonbooks, 2005), edited by Leslie Robertson and Dara Culhane, is a collection of seven life stories from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. It received the 2006 George Ryga Award For Social Awareness in BC Writing and Publishing. [See Press Release below] "Leslie Robertson and Dara Culhane set out to create a space for the voices of women who are seldom heard on their own terms and for the words of people who are publicly visible yet who, due to the blur of preconceptions that surround Vancouver's inner city, remain unseen."

In the same year as In Plain Sight was published, Robertson published Imagining Difference: Legend, Curse and Spectacle in a Canadian Mining Town (UBC Press, 2005). [See review below]

Standing Up with Ga'axsta'las: Jane Constance Cook and the Politics of Memory, Church, and Custom UBC Press, 2012), co-written with the Kwagu’l Gixsam Clan,
was shortlisted for the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize to recognize the author(s) of the book that contributes most to the enjoyment and understanding of British Columbia. [See review]

DATE OF BIRTH: 30 July, 1962

PLACE OF BIRTH: Calgary, Alberta

EMPLOYMENT OTHER THAN WRITING: Assistant Professor, Anthropology

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
In Plain Sight: Reflections on Life in Downtown Eastside Vancouver
Standing Up with Ga'axsta'las: Jane Constance Cook and the Politics of Memory, Church, and Custom


In Plain Sight: reflections on Life in Downtown Eastside Vancouver (Talonbooks, 2005). Co-editor with Dara Culhane.

Imagining Difference: Legend, Curse and Spectacle in a Canadian Mining Town (UBC Press, 2005).

Standing Up with Ga'axsta'las: Jane Constance Cook and the Politics of Memory, Church, and Custom UBC Press, 2012) with the Kwagu’l Gixsam Clan $125.00 978-0-7748-2384-5

PHOTO: Leslie Robertson receiving George Ryga Award from sculptor Reg Kienast

[BCBW 2013] "Downtown Eastside" "Mining" "First Nations"

Imagining Difference
review (2005)

Margaret Mead went to Samoa. Louis Leakey found hominids in Kenya.

To make her name in anthropology, Leslie Robertson went prospecting for a myth in the hard-luck town of Fernie. As the former mining centre slowly morphed itself into a destination ski resort, she hung out at the local hospital, at the ice rink, in the Dairy Queen and at the Remembrance Day ceremony, etc., nudging closer to ordinary folks. Trained as an ethnologist, Robertson wanted to investigate possible origins and various interpretations of a curse that was supposedly placed on the community—nestled in the Crow’s Nest Pass area, just west of Alberta, in the east Kootenays—by the Ktunaxa Indians more than a century before.

The litany of Fernie’s misfortunes since then is impressive.
1902 – an explosion kills 130 men
1904 – fire
1908 – Fernie burns to the ground
1911 – heavy snowfall isolates town, starvation looms
1917 – an explosion kills 35 miners
1924 – bankruptcy of Home Bank of Canada
1897, 1902, 1916, 1923, 1948 – floods
1897, 1902 – typhoid
1902 – smallpox
1918 – scarlet fever, measles, chicken pox, influenza

In the late 1990s, mainly relying on oldtimers, Robertson tape recorded varying accounts of how and why the town was disaster-prone. It was all William Fernie’s fault. Or so legend has it.

After stints in Australia and South America, the Englishman William Fernie arrived in B.C. in 1860, looking for gold. Failing to find his fortune in the Cariboo and the Boundary District, he helped construct the Dewdney Trail and gravitated to the Kootenays he met Michael Phillips, a Hudson’s Bay employee who had established a trading post at Tobacco Plains, south of Elko, around 1865.

Motivated by wanderlust, Phillips’ urgings and the findings of George Mercer Dawson, who had explored the Crow’s Nest Past for the Geological Survey of Canada in 1883, the intrepid William Fernie began scouting for huge seams of coal that were rumoured to exist in nearby Elk River Valley, an area considered taboo by the local Indians. The Indians were tight-lipped to Fernie’s enquiries, but his passions were stirred when he saw an Indian princess—it’s rare that an Indian commoner appears in these stories—wearing a necklace of coal diamonds, or a necklace of coal.

In order to gain the secret of the coal’s whereabouts, Fernie asked the chief if he could marry this local Pocahontas. Upon receiving consent to do so, Fernie was shown where he could find the coal.

Then he jilted her. William Fernie generated the Crow’s Nest Coal and Mineral Company in 1898. The Indians resented the intrusion of the white men (and later the Canadian Pacific Railway). The girl’s mother, or the girl herself, cast a curse upon the emerging community of Fernie, established in 1898 and incorporated in 1904. Forever afterwards, white settlers would suffer “from fire, flood, strife and discord; all will finally die from fire and water” (according to one source).

In 1906, Fernie retired to Oak Bay on Vancouver Island where he died in 1921. Over the ensuing decades Fernie residents have claimed they can see the shadow of a ‘ghostrider’ on Hosmer Mountain, depicting William Fernie galloping away from the princess and her father. Local hockey teams are now nicknamed the Ghostriders.

One logical explanation for the origin of the Curse is supplied by an unnamed Ktunaxa woman, born in 1955. When her people travelled into Alberta from B.C., they generally took the route via Corbin and Coal Creek, rather than use the more arduous route via Fernie. Hence the curse narrative could have “fulfilled the practical purpose of warning people about the rigours of travel through the Fernie area.”

In 1964, at the behest of Fernie Mayor James White, members of the Kootenay (Ktunaxa) tribe were invited by Rotarians and the Fernie city council to officially lift the curse on the 60th anniversary of the town’s incorporation. “During these years many misfortunes have befallen us,” said the mayor, “and by many, it is believed that your curse brought these about.”

Chief Red Eagle passed a peace pipe to Mayor White, but it went out. Amid more incantations and puffing, the curse was symbolically vanquished. A month later Mayor Jimmy White dropped dead.

The good citizens of Fernie (pop. 5,000) could have shunned Robertson as a nosey Parker, an effete outsider, but she had family connections to smooth the way, as the fourth generation in her mother’s line to live in the town. There was only one key component of the far-from-homogenous town that resisted. Having started her research in May of 1997, Robertson visited the Ktunaxa-Kinbasket Tribal Administration Office on St. Mary’s Reserve in August of 1997 to gain permission to conduct her research—but was rebuffed.

Elders gave her a hearty lunch—and a firm denial. “This has happened to our people before,” complained one elder. “They take our knowledge and say it will just stay put and then they make a book! We give them our knowledge and then what do we have left? Nothing! They take it away! [A writer] asked me a long time ago to tell him about things. I told him he should be speaking to my elders. He came back and asked me to write down everything I knew and he made a book. He used to come to my house. I didn’t like him there – it gave me a bad feeling… A man a long time ago came to work on our language. He said he wouldn’t publish it; he just sit on it. Now it’s a book.”

Rebuffed by others, Robertson later procured of a letter containing some non-committal phrasing that could be construed as a glimmer of assent. It was hardly a vote of confidence, but it allowed her to pursue First Nations informants under the pretence of being politically correct. The idea that she was directly connected to William Fernie as an interloper, another white outsider seeking to enrich herself by extracting valuable material, is not deeply considered in Robertson’s otherwise wide-ranging study, Imagining Difference: Legend, Curse, and Spectacle in a Canadian Mining Town (UBC Press, $29.95).

Imagining Difference could have been called The Curse of Fernie, or A Whole Bunch of Stuff about Fernie. Enemy aliens, graffiti, hate-mongers, video games, Buffalo Bill’s circus visit in 1914, skiing, tourism and Italian superstitions are all stuffed together, connected by personal asides, melding academic referendces with the methods of so-called creative non-fiction.

One of her informants tell us, “Ukrainian women took control over their lives. I mean, they used the men in their lives… For example, your husband only works three days a week, there isn’t much coming, in, so she takes a boarder, okay? She takes in a boarder, she creates a nice living space for this boarder. Now you have two incomes coming in, right? The first thing you know, there are two or three children who look slightly different and they go right into old age with two men and one woman in a house and they’re all happy together. She’s the one who is controlling the situation.”

Much of the value or pleasure to be derived from Imagining Difference arises from such tangential excerpts. It’s fun to learn, for instance, that in 1909, Fernie police made 188 charges of prostitution, 166 charges of drunk and disorderly, 32 charges of vagrancy, and 20 charges for assault. “Amongst the fine that were levied,” she writes, “a Chinese launderer was given a fine of five dollars or fifteen days for spraying water from his mouth onto an article of clothing.”

In 1917 there were 30 charges of “abduction” because local men were seizing women from their work in the whorehouses. During WW I, 306 alleged enemy aliens were arrested and interned in Fernie and nearby Morrissey.

This sort of thing has precious little do to with the Curse, but Robertson’s interviews with common folk, and her diggings in the files of the venerable Fernie Free Press, dating from 1898, provide balance to her academic musings on the “politics of cursing.”

While purportedly seeking new ideas, academics are often slavishly conventional in their writing. With its 25-page bibliography, much of Imagining Difference is too stilted to pass for popular history, but this work has an intriguing premise and it shines light back onto a town once known as the Pittsburgh of the West. The Curse of William Fernie is every bit as enduring as Ogopogo myth, or reports of the West Coast sea monster known as ‘Caddy,’ and Robertson deserves credit for an original undertaking. 0-7748-1093-9

Previous reference works related to Fernie include:

The Forgotten Kutenai (Boise: Mountain States Press, 1955) by Paul Baker.
Backtracking (Fernie and District Historical Association, 1967) edited by Robert Crisafio.
Flathead and Kootenay: The Rivers, the Tribe and the Region’s Traders (Glendale: Arthur H. Clarke, 1969) by Olga Weyermeyer Johnson.
A Frontier Guide to the Dynamic Crow’s Nest (Frontier Publishing, 1969) by Frank Anderson. Republished as Tragedies of the Crowsnest Pass (Heritage, 1983) by Elsie Turnbull and Frank Anderson). Republished as Tragedies of Crowsnest Pass (Heritage, 1988) by Art Downs. Republished as Triumph and Tragedy in the Crowsnest Pass (Heritage, 2005), re-edited by Diana Wilson.

The Wella Board (Stories of early Fernie) (Argenta, B.C.: Root Cellar Press, 1972) by Sydney Hutcheson. Republished as The Curse and Other Stories from the Wella Board (Fernie: Fernie & District Historical Society, 1973).

East Kootenay Saga (Nunaga Publishing Co., 1974) by David Scott and Edna Hanic.

East Kootenay Chronicle (Mr. Paperback, 1979) by David Scott and Edna Hanic.

A Short History of Fernie (Lambeth Jeune Dang Research Group, 1979) by Susan M. Lambeth.

Crowsnest and Its People (Crowsnest Pass Historical Society, 1979).

The Life and Times of the Elk Valley Sourdough (Fernie: Self-published, 1983) by Mathias Baker.

Photo Companion: Crowsnest and Its People (Crowsnest Pass Historical Society, 1990).

Crowsnest: An Illustrated History and Guide to the Crowsnest Pass (Altitude, 1995) by Brian J. Dawson.

The Forgotten Side of the Border (Plateau Press, 1998) co-edited by Wayne Norton & Naomi Miller.

A World Apart: The Crowsnest Communities of Alberta and British Columbia (Plateau Press, 2002) co-edited by Wayne Norton & Tom Langford.
la Board (Fernie: Fernie & District Historical Society, 1973).

East Kootenay Saga (Nunaga Publishing Co., 1974) by David Scott and Edna Hanic.

East Kootenay Chronicle (Mr. Paperback, 1979) by David Scott and Edna Hanic.

A Short History of Fernie (Lambeth Jeune Dang Research Group, 1979) by Susan M. Lambeth.

Crowsnest and Its People (Crowsnest Pass Historical Society, 1979).

The Life and Times of the Elk Valley Sourdough (Fernie: Self-published, 1983) by Mathias Baker.

Photo Companion: Crowsnest and Its People (Crowsnest Pass Historical Society, 1990).

Crowsnest: An Illustrated History and Guide to the Crowsnest Pass (Altitude, 1995) by Brian J. Dawson.

The Forgotten Side of the Border (Plateau Press, 1998) co-edited by Wayne Norton & Naomi Miller.

A World Apart: The Crowsnest Communities of Alberta and British Columbia (Plateau Press, 2002) co-edited by Wayne Norton & Tom Langford.

Article (2005)

from BCBW
Seven pseudonyms

In order to reach beyond restrictive and often de-humanizing media representations of the Downtown Eastside, Leslie Robertson and Dara Culhane have collected the stories of seven women for In Plain Sight: Reflections On Life In Downtown Eastside Vancouver (Talonbooks 18.95).

To respect privacy and preserve the women’s safety, the two academic editors have ironically opted to present their Plain Sight informants as surnameless and faceless. The seven narrators chose their own pseudonyms.

Here they speak for themselves:

Raised in a white, middle-class family on the west side of Vancouver, Tamara first began using and dealing drugs recreationally. Slowly her life became consumed by heavy drug use. “I always had a thousand bucks cash on me. I remember being stopped by these cops for a seat belt. It was some stupid ticket just to harass me. They knew I had money, and they knew I was probably dealing. I couldn’t see that then, I thought it was just harassment. But I remember this cop wanting to count my money. The cops that brought me in made this other cop count everything, every last penny at the bottom of my purse. I had 999 dollars and ninety-four cents. They attached a little note. ‘We couldn’t see you leaving with such an odd amount. We put a collection together, put six cents in.’ (Laughing) I walked out with a thousand.”

Pawz, a victim of domestic abuse who, in an attempt to escape from her husband, took refuge in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. “I had a child who passed away. I was almost murdered. I was raped. I’ve had all these bad things happen; yet I don’t want to say I’m unhappy to be alive.”

A Salish First Nations, Dee grew up on a reserve, but was forced to move to Vancouver when her mother lost her job. A drug user and sex worker, she has experienced the dangers of being an Aboriginal woman in the sex trade. “It’s really hard to get out of the unclean feeling of having to be a prostitute. I still have my regulars, but when I go out there and look at the street, it’s nothing to hold your head up high about. It’s a dirty rotten occupation. I’ve never liked it.”

Sara grew up in a physically, sexually and mentally abusive home. After working the streets in Alberta, she moved to Vancouver to avoid a domineering pimp. “For once, I get to say my piece. I’ve done a lot of interviews on this and that around my life, around things from downtown like the missing women. A lot of stuff that I said was taken out of context or wasn’t portrayed properly, and in the end it looked like non-truths. So this is finally my chance to say something and for it to be accurate.”

Born in Edmonton, Black Widow started “doing lines” when she was thirteen. After spending some time in jail, she followed her ex-husband to Vancouver where he had taken her kids. “I’ve led my life the way I’ve led my lifeI don’t know if I’ve made all the right decisions, but I really don’t think I’m a bad person. I don’t steal; I don’t lie. I’m not a selfish person. I’m not a self-centred person. Maybe when I’m gone, maybe somebody can read something about me.”

A Cree native of Regina, Laurie was raised by foster parents in Saskatoon. She moved to Vancouver in her 20s where she began to participate in heavy drug use and trafficking. “Drug addicts have an image, too. Yeah, we have an image. Even down here we’ve got low-class, middle-class, and high-class; you have the dope and you’re up there. But what we don’t have is people rallying around usIt’s like when Gordon Campbell said, ‘I’m just a social drinker.’ If I ever get busted again I’m going to say, ‘I’m just a social addict.’”

Also Laurie: “They tried for a long, long time to get girls to move even farther down by the bridge, to almost underneath the railroad tracks. It’s not well lit and there’s nothing around there, so if you scream nobody’s going to hear you. It’s deserted and the girls wouldn’t go. Police were literally following you in their car at, like, two miles an hour, until you walked all the way down there. They wanted us to work underneath where it’s industrial, where it’s deserted and dark, and where nobody’s around to say squat.”

Soon after receiving her degree in therapy, Anne suffered a series of mental health breakdowns. She now lives with her child on the Downtown Eastside where she struggles with poverty and the stigma of mental illness. “We might be recovering addicts, we might be recovering alcoholics, we might be recovering from a number of different things. That doesn’t take away anything from out ability to be great mothers.” That’s what I want people to know. I want people to know that we’re intelligent, thoughtful and insightful people who care for our children.”

ISBN 0-88922-513-3

Press Release (2006)

This year’s winning book for The George Ryga Award For Social Awareness in BC Writing and Publishing has been won by Talonbooks’ In Plain Sight: Reflections On Life In Downtown Eastside Vancouver, edited by Leslie Robertson and Dara Culhane.

Runner-up manuscripts were Stanley Park’s Secret, by Jean Barman (Harbour Publishing) and Vanishing British Columbia, by Michael Kluckner (UBC Press and The University Of Washington Press).

In choosing In Plain Sight as this year’s winner, internationally renowned journalist Myrna Kostash wrote, “We will never know the whole of the “real” lives told in this book, but with exemplary honesty and a great deal of tenderness both toward their wounded sisters and brothers and themselves, the women of In Plain Sight have taken us into their confidence and given us a look. We owe them a debt of gratitude.”

Kostash goes on to make the connection, even, between these writers and Ryga himself: “When George Ryga imagined the life of an Aboriginal woman who, full of hope, comes to the city only to die on its Skid Row, he wrote The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. He brought her to the Canadian stage in 1967 in a powerful mix of song, dance, dialogue and montage, as though no single genre could contain her life. Rita Joe became, and remains, one of the emblematic characters of the twentieth-century Canadian literary and social imagination.”

“Forty years on, I think of her again, as I read with mounting admiration the chorus of voices, brought together and edited by Leslie Robertson and Dara Culhane, which collectively narrate In Plain Sight: Reflections on Life in Downtown Eastside Vancouver. And I think of George Ryga. Coming from poverty and hardship on a hard-scrabble farm in northern Alberta, self-taught, a writer who struggled to live both as an artist and a self-proclaimed “artist in resistance,” I think Ryga would have liked nothing better than to sit down in an eastside café with any of these women – Laurie, Anne, Sara, Dee, Pawz, Black Widow, Tamara – and hear them out, just as we readers are able to do, who open this wonderful book. When Anne says, “I hope people learn that poverty and mental illness are just factors in people’s lives, they don’t define human beings,” Ryga would have nodded in perfect solidarity.”

The Award will be presented to the writers and the publisher in a gala award ceremony, hosted by CBC’s Paul Grant It will feature an award-winning performance of Portrait Of A Lady, with Dorian Kohl as Hagar Shipley from Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel. This particular script was adapted from the novel for radio by George Ryga himself, and later provided with dramaturgy by Michael Cook and directed by Ken Smedley. The Gala Award Evening will take place in Vernon’s Powerhouse Theatre on Thursday, July 27th. The winners will once again be presented with The Censor’s Golden Rope, a unique piece of sculpture recreated annually by Armstrong sculptor Reg Kienast.

The George Ryga Award is sponsored by The George Ryga Centre, Okanagan College, BC BookWorld and CBC Radio One, Kelowna.

Standing Up with Ga’axsta’las: Jane Constance Cook and the Politics of Memory, Church, and Custom
Review (2013)

from BCBW 2013

Jane Cook, the crusading matriarch of Alert Bay, gave birth to 16 children and assumed the role of caregiver for the surrounding area, delivering babies, nursing the sick and tending the dying.

Jane Cook was a singular female presence in the struggle to retain, or regain, First Nations civil and property rights in B.C.

Leslie A. Robertson with the Kwagu’l Gixsam Clan’s new biography of Jane Cook, aka Ga’axsta’las is a testament to the legacy of this remarkable First Nations woman as well as a history of her descendants.

It's called Standing Up with Ga’axsta’las: Jane Constance Cook and the Politics of Memory, Church, and Custom by Leslie A. Robertson with the Kwagu’l Gixsam Clan (UBC Press $125 hc, $39.95 pb)

Jane Constance Cook was born in 1870 to Gwayulalas (Emily), a Kwakwaka’wakw woman from Fort Rupert and Captain William Gilbert, an English trader.
As the first-born child of a first-born mother, Cook’s high rank derived from primogeniture. She was educated by Alfred Hall, an English missionary, and became a devout Christian, serving for many years as president of the Anglican Women’s Auxiliary.

Descendants remember her as Granny Cook, the strong-willed matriarch who presided over the Cook big house, an imposing structure completed by her husband in 1907.

This house had two storeys, nine bedrooms, a veranda, and a large garden that yielded food for the multigenerational occupants who sometimes numbered thirty-five, with two sittings for every meal.

Straddling both the reserve and land bought from the church, the house coincidentally symbolized its owner’s duality.

Domestic life and community service was only a part of Jane Cook’s activities.
In the political arena, she advocated strongly for women’s rights, urging support for destitute women and children. She represented her people in their demand for land claims, fishing rights and health services, and acted as interpreter for the anthropologists and ethnologists, such as Franz Boas and the photographer Edward Curtis.
It was the political activity that distorted her legacy, and in particular her involvement in the infamous potlatch trials of 1921. The potlatch custom, a complex economic system of property exchange (she described it as a form of government or constitution) was banned because the colonial authorities considered it “the most formidable of all obstacles in the way of Indians becoming Christians.”

The ban not only pitted First Nations against the authorities, but caused divisions within native villages and clans. As a result of the trials, ceremonial property was confiscated, forty-five people were arrested, twenty-two were given suspended sentences, and twenty held in Oakalla Prison near Vancouver.

In the late thirties, Jane Cook described herself and her family as non-potlatching Christians who felt like “outcasts.”

A rumour circulated that her opposition to the potlatch surpassed “even that of the Indian agent.” Another had it that she deliberately mistranslated, that when a magistrate asked the accused, “Do you plead guilty or not guilty?” she mistranslated the question to “He wants to know were you there?” An affirmative response was translated as, “He’s guilty. Yeah.”

Her expertise in both the Kwakwala language and English was called into question. Boas wrote to a correspondent that people said she talked like a child. This unlikely claim could have several explanations, among them the fact that the language had changed by the time she was sixty. What was construed as childish may well have been earlier usages.

At a 1936 church meeting, Jane Cook said “we were children of the potlatch system,” and her husband said the custom was “in my blood.” Nevertheless, when they entered into a Christian marriage, they stepped out of the system.

Jane Cook opposed the potlatch because of the financial burden it placed on families, and especially on women and children. Yet she later worked to obtain compensation for property confiscated during the potlatch arrests.

In a 1932 interview with a journalist for the Christian Science Monitor, she struggled to make the custom understandable to an outsider by comparing it to a Christmas gift-giving exchange.

“It keeps the property in circulation,” she said, “for suppose a man gives a phonograph set away, in the course of a few years, he is likely to receive it back.”

She goes on to describe the crucial importance of the shield-shaped piece of copper to the potlatch giver.

“The more ‘copper’ a chief owns, the more powerful he is among other tribes... A man will marry his daughter to anyone who will give him a ‘copper.’ A stranger coming into the tribe cannot buy a ‘copper,’ no matter how rich he is, until he has given feasts and one potlatch after another and even then he may still be regarded as an outsider.”
One of the criticisms directed against Jane Cook in the aboriginal community was that she married only once. As the eldest daughter of a noble line she would have been expected to have a series of marriages, and earn money by marrying so that her family could be glorified by holding potlatch.

Her marriage was considered illegal because she chose not to have a First Nations ceremony, and no bride price was given. As a consequence, her children were considered illegitimate and stigmatized. At the same time, she was a strong advocate for recognition of the Indian/First Nations marriage tradition.

This is an academic book with the research documented in detailed footnotes and an extensive bibliography. As such, it constitutes a valuable resource for other scholars working to uncover the traces of any culture suppressed by racism, conversion, and assimilation.

Standing Up with Ga’axsta’las also has a strong popular appeal as the rich collection of personal anecdotes, and the fifty-six photographs provide graphic evidence of Jane Cook and her times.

UBC Professor of Anthropology, Leslie A. Robertson, has worked cooperatively with the Kwagu’l Gixsam Clan to do justice to Jane Cook’s complicated character and to the diverse opinions of her. Robertson draws on oral history, memory and archival material—letters, recorded interviews, newspaper articles—and enters into a dialogue with various members of the Kwagu’l Gixsam, allowing their voices to interrogate the source material.
Thus a valuable portrait of Jane Cook emerges cumulatively throughout the book. 9780774823845

by Joan Givner