On #Comiaken Hill

Updated: Apr 2, 2019

It is not about our knowledge fitting into yours. Decolonization is about how you fit into us." Susan Blight quoted by Lee Maracle in My Conversations with Canadians

Yesterday we went to #Comiaken because a friend wanted to see the Stone Butter Church. I’ve been once before - cool, spooky, full of graffiti and photo ops. It’s easy to find the settler history - the Quebec priest that had it built, the mention in Ripley’s Believe it or Not, the stories of Hauntings and Curses. I feel terribly uncomfortable visiting because I would like to ask someone’s permission - it’s on a reserve - but I don’t have the nerve to go door knocking.


Afterwards, I sat down with google to try to fill in some gaps on either side of 1870, when the church was built.

History doesn’t begin and end with the Quebec dude who decided to build it up here, although it’s hard to ferret out information that isn’t all about “us.” Using the proper name - I’ve only just learned the name Comiaken (#Qw'umiyiqun), which was a Cowichan winter village - turns out to be a good step away from Eurocentric history. It got me dipping into local artists, survey maps, place names info, all sorts of random stuff.

More joined up information was available on the Cowichan tribes website.


I’m interested in the relationship between the reserves we drive through & how they relate to the different tribes and families - the Cowichan Nations was a particularly gnarly problem for colonizers because they actually had a pre-contact history of a form of property ownership, with different families sometimes (I think I’m getting this right) having rights over different things on the same piece of land.


This seems to be one reason the Vancouver Island colonial government didn’t honour its promise to compensate the Cowichan for the lands the settlers moved onto. There were 14 treaties signed on VI before the government just stopped bothering, which added immensely to local resentment and resistance.


I’m drifting back into settler history, but it’s important to note that colonization here occurred at the barrel of a gun. Not far from Comiaken Hill is a “Stop of Historic Interest,“ a cairn that marks the landing of the first settlers in 1862, who were delivered by a Hudson’s Bay Company gunboat. Hangings, floggings, torture, kidnappings, the shelling of villages, the burning of canoes, using women and children as human shields, characterized the early part of the Occupation. The immediate region was the site of the one of BC’s largest naval operations, with British ships patrolling and shelling villages, hunting for miscreants. Smallpox helped clear space too - an estimated 90% of the population was lost in a generation. I gather that part of the turn to Christianity - the Stone Church was build by native labour - was a hope or promise that it might provide some kind of divine protection from the disease. There was also an element of sheer sneakiness, with censuses, surveying and settlement taking place when the Cowichan were at their summer villages on the Fraser River.



Interior, Butter Church, March 2019. credit: john hill




Nowadays, the Cowichan is British Columbia’s largest first nation. Its traditional territory was 930,000 acres; its reserve land base is now about 6000 acres across nine reserves. Its population approaches 5000, a shadow of the 15,000 strong it was at contact. Still, Art #Manuel might do the math - pre contact per capita the Cowichan had 62 acres, and now they have 1.2 acres. The difference between the two numbers, that's what Canada thrives on. No compensation, no deals, no treaties, we just took it all by force.


Driving through Duncan, or driving through the reserves, it’s plain enough that - as the Cowichan Tribes website puts it:


Overcoming the legacy of colonialism, residential schools, and other oppressive measures is a long and challenging process. There was a lot of damage done to our mental and emotional well-being, and that is the biggest challenge we have to overcome.

They note that they continue to negotiate with the government and continue to ask us for recognition and respect.

Graffiti, detail, Butter Church, March 2019. credit: ann rogers

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