A Story About a Raven

What’s in a tattoo?

I don’t have a tattoo myself, but I respect them (well, perhaps not so much those late night drunken ones). Most people who get a tattoo put some serious thought into itgiven it’s one of those life decisions that stays with youpicking symbols that hold deep personal meaning for them.

That’s why it strikes me as curious that there has been very little talk about the rather obvious Aboriginal tattoo that Justin Trudeau, Canada’s freshly minted Prime Minister, has on his left shoulder. I mean, people have certainly been focusing on his hair. I mean, come on, doesn’t a tattoo at least mean more than one’s ephemeral hairdos? But no, people have been fixating on the hair. As pictured below though, Trudeau himself seems to like it enough to display it brazenly…

Mediaball Image

What does Justin say about his tattoo? Remarkably little:

He neglects (at least to the extent of my own research skills) to say what the tattoo’s symbolism means to him. And, when you try to Google what it means, you get things like this National Post article talking about how the Liberals will want to downplay the tattoo.

Winston Churchill had a tattoo, but it was a simple anchor graphic on his arm; pretty standard decoration for a former First Lord of the Admiralty. Mr. Trudeau spent some time in B.C. once, so he got a massive Haida raven covering his shoulder. Another famed political offspring, Caroline Kennedy, is able to credit her embarrassing butterfly tattoo to the unruliness of youth, but Mr. Trudeau got his ink just two years ago, to ring in his 40th birthday.

Seriously?  Churchill’s tattoo is standard, but Trudeau’s tattoo is slammed just because he “spent some time in BC once”? This is a knock not just at Trudeau, but at BC, and also at the obvious First Nations symbolism of the tattoo itself, so a knock to indigenous peoples.

This is not a fly by night “embarrassing butterfly’ tattoo. This is something different. And, the fact that JT got it to commemorate his 40th birthday should make us even more curious about what it means.

Shouldn’t it?

So the new leader of our country has this huge symbol on his arm. A brand. Something he stands for. But, nada about it. Maybe, like Justin Bieber’s owl, this raven has a secret meaning for JT that he feels no one else needs to know…

But, when you enter politics, certain things, like the tattoo you proudly show, become public, so I think we can do better than that.

So I’ve been digging.

Trudeau and British Columbia

Unlike the above quote would have us believe, yes, Mr. Trudeau “spent some time in BC”, but rather than being trivial his roots go way back. As Justin Trudeau mentioned in his last election campaign speech earlier today in North Vancouver, his maternal grandfather, James Sinclair, was an elected representative in Vancouver North for 18 years since 1940, and it is his political style that JT said today, and has said before, that he would most like to emulate. (Interestingly it appears that his grandfather’s Sinclair family has ties that go back to MacBeth in Scottland, but let’s not go that deep into the gnarly roots.)

Justin’s wild, fleet footed mother also, because of her father, had ties to North Vancouver, where she and Pierre Trudeau had a hushed wedding in 1971. Justin himself lived in BC while he attended UBC for his Education degree, graduating in 1998. Following that, he taught at West Point Grey Secondary and Sir Winston Churchill (where I went myself back in the day) high schools for a few years. Trudeau also has sad ties to BC, where his brother died in an avalanche in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park in 1998.

Long before Justin Trudeau lived in BC as an adult, he had a particular experience in the ‘supernatural‘ province that he himself says had a profound effect on his life, that directly ties into our friend, Raven.

In 1976, Justin Trudeau, then just five, visited Haida Gwaii (aka the Queen Charlotte Islands) with his father and mother on a political visit. There are several different renditions of the tale easily found online. They involve an interesting fact that has escaped the media, that young Justin Trudeau, along with his family, were adopted into the Yaghu’laanaas lineage of the Haida First Nations tribe:

Adoptive relationships are formalized in front of witnesses, with a feast and giveaway, often taking place as part of a larger potlatch. They come with feelings of obligation, responsibility, and often affection. They are used to normalize, formalize, and reaffirm Haida kinship as the dominant social institution on the islands. (Krmpotich)

What kind of impression would this potluck party and naming ceremony make on a five year old boy? The tattoo makes me wonder. It appears that Haida Gwaii was a favourite destination of the Trudeaus. It also appears that the family stayed there other times at the Copper Beech Guest House, in the Habour Master’s Keep. You can rent this room yourself, which is advertised as the “love nest” of Pierre and Maggie when they stayed there. In Trudeau’s own words, from these early experiences, the significance of Haida Gwaii and the raven start to emerge:

I grew up with a tremendous amount of awareness of Haida Gwaii because of the impact it had on my parents when they visited. Because…we knew from the time when we were young that we were children of the Raven, that my father had been adopted and named and my mom as well. It was just something that was for us, it came to symbolize the entirety of the relationship between our family and First Nations in Canada. (HG Observer; emphasis added)

So, the tale of the raven on JT’s arm is starting to come together. The image itself, can give us more clues. Here is the original art, by Robert Davidson, that was the inspiration for the tattoo design that was chosen by Trudeau.

Raven Bringing Light in the World by Robert Davidson (click for source)

The Tale of Raven, Who Stole Back the Sun

So, what is the mythic narrative of the Haida Raven? As most experts on myth acknowledge, myth has elements of truth from reality, and, if you have ever encountered a raven in close proximity, you will soon see why this bird made an impression.

Living here on the west coast, I’ve been fortunate to have run into a few ravens. These are memories that stand out. Here is a shot of an old man of the mountain raven that I encountered last summer hiking up in Jasper. He flew down by the side of the road before we went up to go to a hike, so, in the old tradition of mutual exchange, giving something to the forest before you get something out of it, I made him a small offering for good luck.

Old man raven

Old man raven of the mountain inspecting my gift. ©MariaLavis

My most recent raven encounter was in early September, when a I was hiking with a friend up to the Bowen Lookout at Cypress Park, pictured below (unfortunately my camera died on me after taking the shot below, so I never got a pic of the birds…).

The view from Bowen Lookout at Cypress Mountain

The view from Bowen Lookout at Cypress Mountain ©MariaLavis

While we were enjoying the view, two ravens flew flew over from the next mountain, calling loudly, and then perched in a bleached tree top. After yelling at us, they decided to come down and take a closer look, swooping down and scaring the bejeezes out of me. I had never had a raven decide to come so up close and personal before. (They usually prefer to lord over you from a nearby tree.) One of them was the biggest raven I had ever seen in my life, and when it hopped within three feet of me, its beak alone as long as my hand, and its body bigger that many of the bald eagles I’ve seen around here, I was definitely on my toes. I didn’t want to get on his/her bad side, and in that moment, a new understanding of Raven as a trickster you don’t want to mess around with crystallized for me into a new kind of understanding based on experience.

But enough about my story. Back to Trudeau, and the old original story of the Raven and the sun.

The Haida believe Raven is “a complex reflection of one’s own self. Raven can be a magician, a transformer, a potent creative force, sexual deviant or ravenous debaucher but always a cultural hero.” (Wiki) Well now, given the colourful tales of the Trudeau clan over the years, these sound like rather apt descriptors for a good roast.

There are several iterations of the traditional tale about how Raven, though a a wily trickster to keep an eye on, is at the root a Promethean hero.  In one version of the tale, the foe is a “mean old chief” who tried to hoard the light of the world for himself. In another rendition, the foe is “Gray Eagle”, who has stolen, not only the sun, but many other precious things from the people:

Gray Eagle was the guardian of the Sun, Moon and Stars, of fresh water, and of fire. Gray Eagle hated people so much that he kept these things hidden. People lived in darkness, without fire and without fresh water.

Well now. If that doesn’t smack of a Harper analogy, I don’t know what does. It has the grey hair, him being in a position of power as a guardian of special resources, the appropriation of the common good of energy, and the secrecy and sordid darkness of it all. Several versions of the story also have fun with Raven, describing him as transfiguring into an obnoxious black-haired baby in order to trick the old chief. Something of an upstart brat, with an agenda.

Hmm… that also sounds like the common depiction of a certain junior Trudeau, who most people thought was too young, and not ready for the job of restoring certain things to the people of Canada from the clutches of a certain other grey haired chief. I, for one, would like to believe that the narrative that lingers behind his tattoo hints at Justin’s own private agenda (an agenda doesn’t have to be bad, let’s remember) for the management of our shared commons. An agenda that actually is in his stated public agenda for his party, his #realchange slogans, and an agenda that I would (mostly) back up. (So, about that #TPP, Justin, we are watching you…)

If anything, the title of Justin’s recent book, Common Ground, affirms that this upstart Raven Boy might actually share some of the values of  citizens who care about about responsibly managing the amazing natural capital of our country in a way that considers what will be left seven generations down the line, equity in sharing benefits of its bounty, and not unfairly penalizing some with the negative externalities (like so many small communities dotted across North America face with resource development), while a few elite reap the lion’s share of the benefits.

If anything, this tattoo tells me that if there is any weird, secret agenda (unlike Harper’s strange thing about Israel and Armageddon that his evangelical church believes) that Justin holds, it’s that he actually IS Raven Boy, of the Raven clan, the Canadian version of the boy Hercules, who will steal the sun back from the colonial powers to restore its bounty back to, yes the haggard middle class, but also, the indigenous peoples of this land, who have suffered in the collective shadow of colonization for so long. The democracy that most of the European settlers, and more recent international immigrants, of Canada have enjoyed, has never been their democracy.My bet is that what is behind this tattoo is that, if any Prime Minister will finally make good on the injustice of the historic cultural (and other) genocide done to the Aboriginal peoples of Canada, this will be the one.

And so, before I wrap up, I’d like to mention another interesting element in our little tattoo detective story, which is how this obviously Aboriginal tattoo ties into Justin Trudeau’s true stance on indigenous rights and First Nations issues in Canada. To me (as someone with indigenous roots clouded by a colonial past), his tattoo choice of a raven spoke to me, not as cultural appropriation as I’ve seen some people call it online, but rather an actual tribute to something in the indigenous tradition of the Haida Trudeau actually identifies with, with more social and environmental connectivity than meets the eye than the fact of his parents adoption into Raven clan. I would venture that this tattoo is not just a trivial matter of aesthetics, but speaks perhaps more clearly than other clues as to Justin’s real commitment to make good on his party’s platform pledges regarding Aboriginal people in Canada, and the beautiful land that theyand wecare so much about.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and his son Xavier Trudeau help raise the Gwaii Haanas legacy totem pole in Windy Bay, B.C., on Lyell Island in Haida Gwaii on Thursday, August 15, 2013. The 13-metre totem is the first monumental pole to be raised in the area in 130 years. It was carved to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Gwaii Haanas Agreement, a document that allows the government of Canada and the Haida Nation to co-manage and protect the region. Darryl Dick, The Canadian Press

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and his son Xavier Trudeau help raise the Gwaii Haanas legacy totem pole in Windy Bay, B.C., on Lyell Island in Haida Gwaii on Thursday, August 15, 2013. The 13-metre totem is the first monumental pole to be raised in the area in 130 years. It was carved to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Gwaii Haanas Agreement, a document that allows the government of Canada and the Haida Nation to co-manage and protect the region. Darryl Dick, The Canadian Press

Gwaii Haanas legacy pole, designed by Jaalen Edenshaw Click for more information

Given the above, my suspicion, is that, at the very least, the wily black-haired Raven Boy will have a few more tricks up his sleeve to surprise us besides stealing the election to become (if I may) “PM Raven Hair” (ok, I’ll finally acknowledge that hair) to that tribe of people we call Canadians. Let’s hope his tricks going forward will continue to be of the kind that leave most of us pleasantly surprised. Not the kind that will further etch the political cynicismthat grew steadily throughout the era of the “Old Grey Chief”even deeper into the Canadian psyche.

Even if PM Raven Hair, plans to make good on his platform promises, it wont be easy, because it’s highly likely that there are many in parliament who  are more of the same ilk of what we’ve seen in Canadian politics with Harper, who represent special interests, not what is best for the people. So not only will PM Raven Hair need a few more tricks up his sleeve, we will also have to continue to have his back. Watching, voicing, acting as an engaged electorate. And in case the point comes where  ol’ PM JTRH becomes as ‘hard of hearing’ as the Old Grey Chief, well then, we will just have to get our act together and vote for change again like we did yesterday, remembering that what wethe peoplecan bestow of power, we can also take away.


A Walk at Maplewood Flats – Part III

This blog post is a continuation from Part I and Part II.

Origins of a Field Trip

But what about the site’s history before heavy industry took hold of the coasts along Burrard Inlet?

Some Colonial History

Charlie Kosk caps a 65 m high Douglas Fir in 1918. Photo by Leonard Frank. Click for link to The Great Cut Exhibit at North Vancouver Museum

The early 1900s saw some of the most pronounced colonial activity on the North Shore. This period was marked by early forestry activities that razed the coastal slopes and bluffs of the immense stands of Douglas fir, hemlock and cedar that once soared all along the BC Pacific coast.

This great cut was a once in a thousand year cull. While this seems extreme to modern thinking, back then, it likely really did appear to the early settlers that the forests went on forever, providing an endless bounty for the taking.

Unfortunately, they were wrong.

Though forests can be harvested sustainably, the clear-cutting methods used by the early colonialists, and by the timber industry for decades after that, has led to losses on many levels. Ecological loss includes: erosion and associated soil degradation, adverse effects on streams likely used for spawning salmon and other aquatic life, terrestrial habitat loss, and the loss of who knows how many plants and animal species.

Culturally, this great cull was a loss as well. Without travelling to places with some of the remaining stands of old growth forests, people in my father’s generation, my generation and my daughters generation–and for several generations to come–have been deprived of knowing what it would be like to live alongside these majestic forests that once formed a solid ribbon along the Pacific Coast. As I write this I am reminded of the stumps of these early giants that my colonial forefathers razed that one often comes across while hiking along the North Shore mountain trails. And when I think about this I feel this as well as a loss. Personally. Emotionally.

And there, for me is a mindful indicator. When something triggers an emotional response, be it positive, or like this one, negative, it says, “Hey, pay attention to me. Do you know where I’m coming from.” And to me that is part of the long and winding road of mindful practice. Once you’ve gone through practicing clearing your mind, and dealing with a lot of issues you find there in the first place, there’s this ongoing journey of discovery of self-discovery. And part of that process, it stopping once you find something that triggers an emotional response to see whether you’re owning it.

Having lived in the forest in central BC for a time as a child, I spent large chunks of time in solitude with trees. Never any as majestic as were on the coast (and if I think about it, maybe the forest where I lived in near Cariboo Lake had also been logged), but tree enough for me. But the trees were just the start of it. I saw moose, black bears, and thin snakes that flashed like silver through mossy rocks in the stream by our place. I could set my watch by a beaver who swam by daily in the lake. Porcupines. And ever so many birds. I never saw a grizzly bear. About that, I was glad.

Once the forest companies were done, industry moved in along the coast, and that’s when the area of the flats was taken over by industrial activity. There is a black and white archival shot of the site of the mudflats in 1950 when it was Deeks and McBride Sand and Gravel Company on p. 8 of this paper done by John Barlow (towards an ecological restoration degree). If you want to know why the site was called a ‘brownfield’ site after this time, that photo will give you a clear idea.

Of Artists and Squatters

From about the 1920’s on, in areas that were abandoned or overgrown, an unconventional community grew up along Burrard Inlet in this area, made up of squatters, artists, and people avoiding the war. They built ramshackle and stilt houses along the beaches, and made a life. Among the people who lived along Burrard Inlet during this time, was Malcolm Lowry, the colourful British author who wrote the novel, Under The Volcano, which is listed as the 11th top English novel of the 20th century. The manuscript was nearly lost to a fire of their squatters house near Dollarton, rescued by his wife, while many of his other writings went up in the blaze.

Lowry’s home was not the only squatter’s cabin along Burrard inlet to go up in smoke. The other homes along the Maplewood Flat area, largely wooden, like the one below, were set ablaze in the early 1970’s when the City of North Vancouver forcibly evicted the residents, as detailed in a photo news story from the Vancouver Sun.

Residents Joyce and Peter Williams of Maplewood Mudflats in North Vancouver on the last day before they are forced out on March 27, 1973. Photograph by: Dan Scott, Vancouver Sun. Click for source.

There is still a memento left at the site to the alternative inhabitants of the flats who were turned out in the form of miniature wooden houses.

Art instillation of houses on stilts

These days, the mudflats lie largely silent of human drama. People using the park are expected to stay on the trails to not damage its sensitive ecosystems, which meant I would not be doing digging into the mudflats. So to get ready, I just got together my camera, binoculars, some boots, bug spray, and notebooks. Backpack. Check.

Next thing I knew I was on my way. Below some of the scenes I captured of the sights along the way. Based on the views and the serenity, you would hardly know that it was ever any different.

Pacific chorus frog

A green Pacific Chorus Frog catching some afternoon sun in the brambles.

View from Maplewood Mudflats

The view from the beach of the Maplewood Mudflats.

Panorama from Maplewood Mudflats

Panorama shot from Maplewood Mudflats across Burrard Inlet.

Forest Trail at Maplewood Mudflats

Woodland trail at Maplewood Mudflats beckons to be walked.

A Walk at Maplewood Flats – Part II

This blog post is a continuation from Part I.

Origins of a Field Trip

For a course in sustainability I took last semester, one of my assignments involved a wetland field trip. We could pick any aquatic system, so I visited Burns Bog first, as this is the most famous bog in BC’s lower mainland. After a bit of trekking around, and being frankly bummed out about the highway being so close, I decided to choose a place closer to home and a bit further from the beaten path (or so I thought).

A wildlife biologist friend of mine at work suggested I check out the Maplewood Flats Conservation Area, which is a little park in North Vancouver along Burrard Inlet. Located just east of the Second Narrows Bridge, Maplewood Flats supports great views and many trails, but not many people outside of local residents and birding enthusiasts know about it. I had not even heard about it myself, but when I went there on a Sunday evening (October 6, 2013) to see if it was a good fit, I saw the sight in the picture below and knew this was the patch of mud for me.

West view from flats
I found out that I could plan my field trip to correspond to the timing of a nature walk hosted by Al Green, of the Wild Bird Trust (WBT). Every second Saturday of every month they lead a free interpretive guided walk through the park. (Yes – free! They also host free 8 am birding walks once a month that you can find out more info on at the WBT link above.)

But before I headed out to the field, I needed to do my homework.

Field Prep: Digging into the History

A good field trip starts with a solid desk study. Though there isn’t a lot of material easily available on the history of the Maplewood mudflats, once I got started, the research trail led me down a rather long rabbit hole into a past that I didn’t fully expect.

Maplewood Flats is the largest intertidal estuarine marshland on the North Shore, and all that’s left of a wetland system that once pretty much circled Burrard Inlet. The casual user of the trails through the 75 acre park would not guess that the all the lovely trees and vegetation are actually the result of the reclamation of an old brownfield site that is still undergoing restoration.

Lovely pathways

We in Vancouver are used to thinking of Burrard Inlet as home to some substantive industry and shipping routes due to the Inlet hosting the many trade activities of the Port of Vancouver. All the industrial effluent discharge and shipping activity in the Inlet has also led to poor water quality that is of concern due to, among other things, high PCBs in sediment in many areas, which thankfully seem to be declining. The pictures below show some of the current urban settlement and industrial activity around the Inlet.

Urban development to the east of Maplewood Flats.

Petrochemical plant on south shore of Burrard Inlet in Burnaby.

Petrochemical plant on south shore of Burrard Inlet.

But it wasn’t always this way.

First Peoples  

Tsleil-Waututh art. Click on image for source.

Before European settlers came to the North Shore—bringing their industries with them—the Tsleil-Waututh, trans. “People of the Inlet”, inhabited the area that is now home to the mudflats.  The Tsleil-Waututh, who are also part of the wolf clan, are one of many different groups of Coast Salish peoples who first inhabited the Pacific Northwest. Some people may recall their symbolic wolf logo to the left, which was prominent at the last 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

I have a small percentage of First Nation ancestry mingling with my largely English, French and Scottish heritage (my Aboriginal background is alleged to a great-great-great-great (and so on) grandmother way back on my mother’s French side in a time that’s shrouded in family mystery); however, I wouldn’t consider myself qualified to say too much about the history of the Tsleil-Waututh and their lands around Maplewood Flats. So I would encourage you to click the links above and below to learn more from the band itself about their history and vision of where they are headed.

The forward thinking Chief of the Tsleil-Waututh is now Justin George. Chief George’s grandfather was the Canadian icon, Chief Dan George – check out this CBC footage of him and Dustin Hoffman from 1971, and his moving Canada Day speech to the nation in 1967.  Justin George’s father, Chief Leonard George, is also locally well known for seeing some challenging projects to fruition, like the Raven Woods development, which has helped  bring positive transformation to their band.

A map of the Consultation Area of the Tsleil-Watuth shows their asserted territory running as far as Langley in the southeast to Alice Lake and Garibaldi up past Squamish in the northwest. During the time when the band traveled freely across these lands, they had a saying, “When the tide went out, the table was set.

A clam shell, some green algae and driftwood at the mudflats.

The Maplewood mudflats were once one of the many coastal wetland systems that were hosts to a veritable marine feast. Sadly, this is no longer the case. An overall gradual decline in the abundance of species, as well as toxicity factors leading to food safety issues of seafood in Burrard Inlet in general has meant the flats have closed shop for human consumption. The frequently posted harvesting prohibition warning signs (such as the one I saw during my trip below), are a brash reminder that it is definitely no longer safe to eat shellfish gathered from the flats.

An unfortunate sign of the times at the Maplewood Mudflats.

Personally, looking around at the waters in and around the flats, I wouldn’t really want to eat anything from this area these days either.

Green algae and detritus in the water column at Maplewood Flats

In my next post I explore some of the local colonial and industrial history that led to the state the flats are in today. Stay tuned…

A Walk at Maplewood Flats – Part I

Mudflats panorama

Panorama shot of the Maplewood Flats Conservation Area showing the wide mudflats at low tide.

A Story about Mud

Mud. Amorphous. Contradictory. It’s equally gross and disgusting, and equally the stuff of exclusive rejuvenating spa treatments. In nature mud forms a strange territory. It provides a  dark interface where the geosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere come together.

It’s a concept that’s easier to fall in love with in theory than in practice…

Maplewood Flats Mud

When the tide is out, a lifted rock reveals lug worm tracks through the mud at Maplewood Flats in British Columbia.

Land. Water. Life. Co-mingling in the muck.

When the above elements come together in the matrix of mud, things happen. Living things fall down into  mud and are broken down to to their inorganic form. And, at the same time, in the very same primordial ooze, that which is abiotic gets pulled back again into the humming cells of life once more. In this way, mud is also the substance of transformation from life into death and back again.  Even if you know a thing or two about biology, how life manages to sprout up again and again from the mire is one of the perennial mysteries. Like the lotus that rises up from the depths of the rank rank ooze at the bottom of a pond, the quintessential symbol of life making the best out of what we typically think of as garbage.

Mud is also the substance of story. And the keeper of secrets, which it reveals rarely, like the tale of an ancient man preserved in the peat thousands of years ago. You never know what you will find if you take the time to dig into the depths of a good section of mud.

This is a story that stems from a patch of mud in British Columbia, Canada that I decided to do some digging into.  Now called Maplewood Flats, this coastal mud patch was once part of a much larger network that apparently covered the shores of most of Burrard Inlet, but now, Maplewood Flats is the only remaining coastal wetland in the region.

And it almost wasn’t so.

This is the Part I of a longer story that I’ve broken down. Continue reading Part II...