What does it mean to put yourself on the line to fight for what you believe in? We would all like to think we would do it if need be, gladly and without a second thought no matter how difficult and what we have to sacrifice. However, when the opportunity came up for me, I found it one of the most trying experiences of my life.
The event I am speaking about was the occupation of the BC Legislature building in Victoria as a way to stand in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en nation as their territory was invaded by the Canadian government, for the purposes of constructing a pipeline. Our resistance was about preventing the ruining of the Wet’suwet’en traditional land for generations to come, and an end to the consistent disrespect we see when it comes to the way the Canadian government treats Indigenous sovereignty and the rights of Indigenous People. The aspect of this occupation that I feel most encompasses all that we did was the place, the Legislature steps. The way the community evolved and transformed the area, the juxtaposition of the colonial building and Native ceremonies and the strength of our occupation all contributed to the magnitude of our statement and made this place one of the safest and strongest places I have ever been my whole life. I can still feel the sting in my eyes from the smoke, the heaviness of my belly full of bannock, and the smell of rain on stone pricks my nose as though it was only yesterday.
After a lifetime (albeit a short one so far) of learning Haida culture and being an indigenous activist, one of the foremost lessons I learned was the way that in indigenous culture, everything revolves around place and land. Land shapes a movement. The main event organized by Youth in Support of Wet’suwet’en was the occupation of the BC Legislature Building, which in my eyes became the most obscene shrine to colonialism ever to mar the earth. My introduction to the movement came the second day of the occupation, where, with the Dean’s permission eight other indigenous students and I skipped school for the day to travel from Pearson College to downtown Victoria. It wasn’t too far away if we had a car the trip could have taken only a half-hour, maybe 40 minutes. But with only the bus and its frustrating schedule to guide us, the trip took the better part of two hours, and so with bleary eyes and stressed-out hearts we walked, weary backs straining against backpacks full of textbooks on the off chance we could squeeze in some studying, regalia poking out the top of my bag. The walk from the campus through the woods to the bus station takes about twenty-five minutes, and we made it just in time to make the 6:20 am bus, thank god as the next bus does not come for two hours. We arrived at the legislature, finally, still tired but buzzing with excitement.
As with every democracy, a closely guarded right for Canadian citizens is the right to protest. No matter the inconvenience for the current government, we should be able to demand we are heard by those in power. This inherent right appears reflected in the design of the Legislature building, although I do not know if it is intentional. The expansive lawn and stage-like rise of the grand staircase are perfect for speeches, the way the stone shapes with the rise of the stairs leading to the big gate shields the occupiers from the rain. There were maybe 200 people at the rally we arrived at. As indigenous youth, we were invited to sit on the top of the stairs with the others, and I saw among the other youth two cousins so we were welcomed immediately. The view at the top of the stairs further uplifted me, at first glance. The sparkling blue bay and matching sky made me happy. There were so many beautiful, bold signs and people there in absolute support. Then, I noticed the ornate fountain, statue of Queen Victoria and I could not escape that wherever you looked, you were reminded of the fact that this was Canada. In every direction, we saw at least one Canadian flag, flying with pride, insolently, on Coast Salish land.
The beautiful aspect of this space was the way it evolved over the movement and the way the community of Victoria banded together to make a home of sorts. Though we were sleeping outside, and no amount of ideals and good intentions could take the bite out of the February air or stop the bombardment of the unforgiving coastal winds and rain, we found comfort. There were tonnes of blankets, pillows, mats and sleeping bags, sacred fires that were always going, and the constantly lit legislature building, so it felt more like a cozy sleepover than a fight against the elements. Every morning the warmth of the community vanished the frost on my nose and we danced our shivers away. Over the days, we grew from one tent overflowing with donations to a four tent structure, with a sheltered area for people to sleep, places to do dishes, make coffee, and a space to house the constant influx of food from local businesses and settler allies as a show of support. We went from one fire to five and the number of supporters fluctuated from twenty to around a hundred people who would stay out overnight. We built a wooden structure covering the stairs and crowned the wrought iron gate at the top of the stairs with a Coast Salish carved mask. We took every precaution to make it safe for all Indigenous people, from elders to toddlers. We were always surrounded by white allies whose presence protected us from the police, who were always willing to grab us anything, from coffee to tarps and a ride, even a phone once. By about the third day, we hung red dresses all over the legislature entrance and covered the security cameras with red fabric.
After about a week of occupation, I remember walking up to the hallowed steps and thinking about how the area was absolutely transformed, from somewhere plain with potential to a shining beacon of Indigenous Sovereignty, a proud place of defiance. The Red Dresses hung everywhere, a statement to how violence on the land is violence to our bodies, how rates of rape and murder of women in indigenous communities always spike after the arrival of man camps. They hung above us, shivering in the wind, strong and imposing, daring the members of parliament who walked through the front doors to look at them. I felt as though they protected me from the sharp colonial gaze of the surrounding stone and metal statues. Raised front and center were two Canadian flags, turned upside down, reconciliation is dead written on them in bold black marker. We dyed the fountain in the middle of the main lawn a bright red, and everywhere there were signs calling out the government for their treatment of the Wet’suwet’en. The steps reverberated with the power of the singing and drumming of many nations, coastal and prairie, Canadians and Americans, all sharing our culture with such strength that the negative effects of colonization melted away like gloom when the sun came up. (at least for a little while) I could remember in my bones things I have never seen, a time when such ceremonies were everywhere, and this genuine organic sharing of culture just happened. I thought it fitting that this potlatch type thing of many nations happened in Victoria, where I’ve learned that Haidas would go to trade with other nations, that it was always a hub of sorts. In the red dresses, ancestors smiled. We were impossible to ignore. Or so it felt, until the police arrested people, destroying our sanctuary for the second time.
I want to bring to attention the fact that I have elected to only talk about the beautiful bits, as much as I can. Because that is what that place deserved. To be remembered for the strength of culture, community, and the triumph we felt when tumbling down colonial rule, even if it was only in our bubble, only for a little while. I intentionally omitted the police intimidation, the constant slew of microaggressions and white fragility I encountered whenever I had to go back to Pearson College, the white supremacists, or the other trials we encountered when constructing this space, and living in it. I omitted these elements because, while they should not be forgotten, they are not why I remember the Legislature steps, and I do not want them to take up the space in which I can talk about the beauty we constructed. Too often the beauty of a space and its power remains untold because the pain takes precedence.
The occupation of the BC legislature building was one of the most important few weeks of my life, though it was more challenging than I could have imagined. Without the welcoming community and space we created ourselves, the way we contrasted perfectly the colonial structure of the building and the strength through which we grew, and the strength the place gave us, I would have found the occupation impossible. I will always go through life inspired with the knowledge that a small group of people with passion can build whatever they set their minds to, and what you do can live on in the memory of people, inspiring a generation, even if it gets torn down. So I owe so much of myself to the Legislature steps, regardless of the cost I am infinitely grateful for the experience. I still pretend I’m there sometimes, to help me sleep. I imagine my limbs are freezing, my mattress becomes a stone that is hungry for every hint of my warmth, sucking it up and giving nothing back but my face warms as I curl up by the fire. I pretend my comforter is a damp sleeping bag, and as I fall into dreams I can almost make out the susurrus of ancestors, disguised as the rustling of red dresses above my head.