July 1, 2021 – Today, on a day formerly celebrated as Canada Day, Canadians are grieving with families and communities who are dealing with recent discoveries of unmarked grave sites on the grounds of former Indian Residential Schools. The “Afterword” to bosque brotante is offered as a text for this day. It links the concept “racismo ambiental” (environmental racism), which was eloquently recounted in bosque brotante‘s conversations with artists and activists from the Rio Grande region, with the specific environmental conditions of First Nations in Coast Salish Territory (British Columbia’s Lower Mainland).
The three conversations of bosque brotante, along with descriptions of Daisy Quezeda’s art-gesture of ceramic seed pods made from personal and politicized textiles, end with Prof. Robles linking environmental devastation to racism. The proof is, Robles claims, that it seems unimaginable to situate the US nuclear waste sites adjacent to Canada, whereas Mexicans like him have been protesting numerous installations near their border.
In Canada the racialization of environmental destruction is made as invisible as the country’s racial mannerisms. El Jones, a poet, professor and activist living in Halifax, called out Canadians for not understanding environmental racism. Reflecting on recent high-profile and overt displays of racism in Canada, Jones declared,
Do we not think that environmental racism affects Black and Indigenous communities more than other communities? Is a conversation about climate change not also about race? Criminal justice is a conversation about race. Poverty is a conversation about race. Pipelines are a conversation about race. Race is involved in all of those bigger issues, it’s just that we pretend it’s not. We pretend it’s this neutral conversation that we are having that’s just about borders, or just about the law, or just about the economy of Alberta. We always pretend that race is absent and that the only people that are bringing up race are us [Black, anti-racist activists] when we say that blackface is racist…”
Jones was responding to incidents that surfaced during the recent federal election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appearing in blackface at public events, followed by a defiantly anti-immigrant rant by Don Cherry, a popular hockey commentator for National Hockey League broadcasts.
Environmental racism is inscribed as far as one can see. Lands well beyond the US/Canada border were visible to me today as I walked along the dyke containing the City of Richmond, a Vancouver suburb in the centre of the Fraser River Delta. The dyke protects Richmond’s Lulu Island from swells and surges of the river and the Pacific Ocean. This morning I watched a tugboat pulling two large barges laden with wood chips heading to a paper mill. Further away, a bulk freighter was visible heading out from Vancouver Harbour onto the shipping route that would take it through the Salish Sea to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, on to the high seas, and eventually to Asian or southern ports. The Cascadia Mountains in Washington State form hazy blue layers reaching above the shipping routes. From rain-free ocean walks like this one, within my city’s limits, I can easily make out US territories.
But to imagine the vista as a border zone for two nations is itself an act of racial disappearance. Between the saltwater marsh along Richmond’s West Dyke Trail and the San Juan Islands outlined in the distance, Coast Salish Nations hold portions of the land. I can pick out the coastal stretch of the Tsawwassen First Nation by the cranes of the rail terminus and ferry terminal that flank its boundaries. In her 2007 address to the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia on the occasion of signing the province’s first urban treaty with a First Nation, Tsawwassen Chief Kim Baird described the conditions of her peoples’ current territory. Baird said,
… today we have a tiny postage stamp of a reserve, a small fraction of a percentage of our traditional territory fronting a dead body of water, trapped between two massive industrial operations. Our land and aquatic ecosystems have been fouled beyond human comprehension. The ferry causeway, with its millions of cars and trucks, dissects our reserve to the south. And, Deltaport with its 24/7 coal and container traffic coats our houses with diesel particulate; trucks and trains keep us awake at night.
Consider too, the bulldozing of a Tsawwassen longhouse for the construction of the ferry terminal causeway. No consultation, no compensation.
These industrial operations that include a man-made island terminal and a causeway linking them to the mainland — have virtually destroyed our beaches, at least our ability to use them as we had traditionally.”
The Semiahmoo First Nation is also nearby, situated on land adjacent to Peace Arch Provincial Park, which offers a green space for visitors as they wait in line to cross the border from the US into Canada. Though adjacent to the Vancouver suburb of South Surrey, where ocean-front homes sit tightly-packed for Canada’s wealthier landowners, Semiahmoo residents in 2019 were finally able to announce an anticipated end to 20 or 30 years of boil water advisories, caused by badly managed infrastructure within the jurisdiction of the Government of Canada.
The conversations about Bosque/Rio Grande in this book describe unspeakable environmental destruction in lands held by Indigenous and Mexican peoples. They tell us that racism is inscribed in the geographies that have been burned by nuclear waste and contaminated by toxic effluent. Ready to offer prayers to the river, the land and water keepers whose voices are recorded here offer no assurance of reprieve. Instead, they talk of their defiant gardening, archiving and community development. Josie Lopez, in a preview video for the exhibition, Species in Peril, describes how storytelling and art are vital in battles for the river’s ecological survival,
Issues are often presented to us in the form of scientific studies. Until we can actually turn those studies into stories we’re not really going to engage with the larger public in a way in which they feel empowered to speak out against some of what’s happening in the environment. I think artists have a very unique approach to tell those stories and so that’s what we’re hoping to incorporate into this exhibition.”
From the Salish Sea in the pacific northwest, I am grateful to Daisy Quezada for gathering these voices from the people in the southwest heart of Turtle Island. May your stories and conversations about the everyday lives you live on the river and the lands it feeds empower all of us who have been housed and sheltered along its banks to demand the survivance of its relations, human and non-human.
Lois Klassen, 2019, Coast Salish Territory (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada)
El Jones interviewed by Pia Chattopadhyay, “Two Views on the Lasting Personal and Political Effects of Trudeau’s Blackface Scandal,” CBC Out in the Open, December 13, 2019. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/outintheopen/see-ya-2019-1.5391150/two-views-on-the-lasting-personal-and-political-effects-of-trudeau-s-blackface-scandal-1.5391186.
Chief Kim Baird, “Making History: Tsawwassen First Nation First Urban Treaty in Modern-Day British Columbia,” address to B.C. Legislature on October 15, 2017. http://tsawwassenfirstnation.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/071015_Chief_Baird_Speech.pdf
Melinda Frame, Director, Species_in_Peril_Rio_Grande, 2019. https://vimeo.com/343053223.
 Gerald Vizenor writes, “Survivance is an active sense of presence, the continuance of native stories, not a mere reaction, or a survivable name. Native survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy and victimry”. Gerald Vizenor, Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance, Lincoln: Nebraska, 1999, p. vii.