Mammoths on East Hastings Street: A Vision from the Future

Mammoths Sculpture

Mammoths on Hastings Street, by Hae Jin An, Emily Carr School of Art

This is an extract from Chapter 12 ‘The Heart of Poverty’ in Guy Dauncey’s ecotopian novel Journey to the Future: A Better World is Possible, set in Vancouver in June 2032.

*

‘The Land that Ugly Forgot’

Back on the trail, I passed a sign that told me that Fourth Avenue was closed to cars every Sunday, and open only to cyclists, rollerbladers, runners and strollers.[1] I rode north over the Cambie Street Bridge, crossing the waters of Vancouver’s False Creek. To see the banners of colored silk fluttering from the streetlights and the central median ablaze with rhododendrons and flowers set my soul ablaze. A banner at the end of the bridge proclaimed ‘The Land that Ugly Forgot’ and welcomed me to the downtown.

I cycled to Wei-Ping’s office on Water Street in Gastown and found a space to park Carl’s bike in a bike-rack designed like a red dragon. I had a while before my meeting, so I walked to the Waterfront station and turned up Seymour, enjoying the wide sidewalks, ample bike-lanes and colorful food carts. Several buildings were covered with ferns and flowering plants tumbled down their walls, as if a rainforest had taken up residence in the city. [2] At a crosswalk, instead of saying WALK it said DANCE, and there was music that made it impossible not to—not just me but others too, laughing and smiling at each other. [3]

At the end of the street a cluster of people had gathered around a large electronic screen that showed the Eiffel Tower in the background. ‘Paris: 11:20pm,’ it said. People in Paris, where it was almost midnight, were talking to people in Vancouver, using their phones to cross the language barrier. A group of Chinese girls giggled as they compared haircuts with a group of French girls.

Next to the screen a vendor tossed and flipped her crepes before smothering them with chocolate and selling them to happy buyers. A man reached into his backpack and pulled out a package that unfolded into a bowl. I learned later that Vancouver had banned all Styrofoam, as well as plastic bags and plastic water bottles. [4]

Mammoths, a Turtle and Salmon

And then, bam, right in the middle of the intersection at Hastings and Seymour there was a huge sculpture of a life-sized woolly mammoth, with a baby mammoth by its side. A sign told me that the mammoths had lived in North America for a more than a million years, surviving several ice-ages when the land had been covered with two kilometers of ice. The mammoths were standing on the back of a turtle, surrounded by bronze salmon in a circular river.

And then another surprise—the sign said that scientists had successfully cloned a mammoth using DNA from a baby mammoth that had been exposed by the melting permafrost, and that mammoths were once again roaming Russia’s tundra. That took some pondering. [5]

Looking east, the entire width of Hastings Street was car-free and bike-free. A green walkway had been laid into the middle of the road, and the sidewalks were shaded by trees. I stepped onto the path, joining several others, including a woman who was waving a feather while burning sweetgrass, casting blessings as she walked. The shops were busy, with outdoor seating and displays of flowers and shrubs. The path down the middle felt powerful.

“Nothing but water and ice and a narrow strip of shoreline”

At the next intersection there was a massive sculpture of a canoe in a vivid red and black design, carrying twenty people wearing woven cedar cloaks and hats, their paddles upright. The sign explained that humans had arrived here 15,000 years ago, paddling along the coast of Beringia (modern day Siberia and Alaska) when the sea level was much lower, enjoying the plentiful seafood along the way. ‘In the beginning there was nothing but water and ice and a narrow strip of shoreline,’ the sign said, attributing the words to a Bella Bella First Nations oral tradition recorded by the anthropologist Franz Boas in 1898. [6]

The sculpture at the next intersection down the road showed a family gathering clams. The sign told of the enormous variety of seafood the First Nations people obtained from the sea, and how they had built clam gardens to harvest the riches, piling up long walls of stones and boulders at the low tide mark of a bay to create a safe place for the clams, enabling them to harvest them with ease. [7]

Continuing east the trail came to four huge totem poles with trees growing among them. Three poles represented the people who had lived on these lands: the Musqueam, people of the River Grass; the Tsleil-Waututh, people of the Inlet; and the Squamish, people of the Sacred Water. The fourth represented the other First Nations who had been here, trading and sharing stories. This was long before there was civilization in Mesopotamia, long before the pyramids, and long before Abraham, Moses and the philosophers of Greece. [8]

A Tragic Story

The sculpture at the next intersection was more intimate, and told a tragic story. It showed a First Nations father carrying his dead child, his eyes looking up to the sky, asking ‘Why?’ The sign told us that soon after the white people arrived on these shores they brought smallpox, which cut through the aboriginal peoples, killing as many as half, both here and all the way up the coast and into the interior. Among the survivors the pox caused horrible facial scarring, the loss of friends and loved ones, and a fear that the world had turned against them. It was the beginning of dark times, as it had already been for indigenous people across the Americas, from Nunavut to Patagonia. [9]

The next sculpture told another tragic story—a First Nations mother desperately holding onto her daughter as an impersonal hand pulled her away. This was the period when their children were taken forcibly from their homes and sent to residential schools, usually far from home, where many suffered years of loneliness, hunger, cruelty, sexual abuse and sometimes even death. Their languages, cultures and spiritual rituals and sometimes even their families were driven from their hearts, and many were defeated, leading to years of poverty and despair, softened only by alcohol. [10]

A Healing Circle

The seventh sculpture showed twelve people seated in a Healing Circle. They were framed by a square in the colors of the four directions: white in the north for healing of the mind, yellow in the east for healing of the spirit, red in the south for healing of the heart, and black in the west for healing of the body. In the center a powerful sculpture connected above to the heavens, below to the Earth and within to the Great Spirit. [11]

As I watched, the people I was walking with paused and placed their hands on the shoulders of the figures in the Healing Circle. When I joined them, I was overcome by compassion. There were ten of us, each behind one of the seated figures, then two more people stepped forward to take the empty places. A woman put her arms around the shoulders of the people on either side, and the rest of us followed. This sculpture was powerful. When we separated there were hugs between complete strangers.

Now I had eleven new friends. A man I had embraced was a social worker who had worked with First Nations families in the east Kootenays, beneath the Rocky Mountains, and he told how me moving he found the sculpture trail, and how it spoke to his work. He took off his glasses and offered them to me, explaining that they told the whole story as you walked along the trail. They were G-glasses, he said. When I tried them on, I saw that various spots on the healing sculpture had been tagged, and when you focused your eyes on a tag it expanded to tell you more, in pictures and words. The information felt overwhelming, however, so I handed them back to him. [12]

Walking together we arrived at the next sculpture, a number of cubes piled on each other, with First Nations people working on and around the cubes—building, nursing, teaching, fishing, farming, studying, parenting, filming, carving, each one engaged in a fulfilling activity. The healing had happened, and new life had arisen.

A Fifteen Thousand Year Journey

Finally we came to the intersection at Hastings and Main, in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, and the large old building known as the Carnegie Centre with its grand white pillars. Instead of a sculpture, the pathway led to a circular amphitheater in the middle of the intersection that had been excavated out of the ground and built up with seating facing inwards. Four ornate metal arches reached upwards, holding a roof that contained lights for evening shows. The perimeter sloped upwards from the road, with a break where the pathway entered. A saxophonist was playing and people were sitting around eating lunch, talking to each other. I felt as if I had just completed a fifteen thousand year journey.

This area used to be Vancouver’s poorest, most downtrodden neighborhood, attracting migrants from China and Vietnam and First Nations people who had been displaced from their land and culture. Back in my time it was a community mired in poverty, mental illness, drug addiction and grief—constant unresolved grief. [13] Someone once said it was the land that love had forgotten, the place you fell to when there was nowhere else to fall. [14]

And yet it had also been a community where people found friendship and comfort. There had always been a determination to heal and make things better. And now, the old eight-story rooming hotels for people on the lowest incomes, which used to be such dismal places, had been painted in bright colors and were obviously being cared for. Some had been demolished and replaced with new buildings, while others were being deconstructed and rebuilt, with large cranes towering above them.

Among the people sitting on benches or playing cribbage some looked much older than their years. Some used walkers or wheelchairs, and some were missing a limb, but there was an atmosphere that said, “This place is still ours. This is our home and community.” The neighborhood felt strong, while still being home to Vancouver’s poorest.

*

The rest of this chapter can be found in Journey to the Future: A Better World Is Possible, buy Guy Dauncey. www.journeytothefuture.ca

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Notes

[1] Based on Cyclovia, started in Bogota, Colombia: www.streetswiki.wikispaces.com/Ciclovia

[2] Vertical Garden: http://inhabitat.com/tag/vertical-garden/

[3] The Dancing Crosswalk: http://faithhub.net/crosswalk-dancing-fun/

Vertical gardens: www.verticalgardenpatrickblanc.com

[4] How Many Cities Have a Ban on Plastic Bags? Rachel Cemansky, How Stuff Works, http://people.howstuffworks.com/how-many-cities-have-a-ban-on-plastic-bags.htm

California Legislature to consider statewide plastic bag ban. The Daily Californian, Jan 30, 2014. http://www.dailycal.org/2014/01/30/california-legislature-consider-statewide-plastic-bag-ban

Ban the Bottle: https://www.banthebottle.net/category/articles/

Abeego—Keep food fresher longer: www.abeego.ca

Tiffins for all: Food cart owner wants to wean Vancouverites off disposable takeout containers. Vancouver Sun, Jan 5, 2013. www.vancouversun.com/life/Vancouver+food+cart+owner+wants+wean+locals+disposable+takeout/7778013/story.html

[5] Will we ever… clone a mammoth? BBC News, June 1, 2012. www.bbc.com/future/story/20120601-will-we-ever-clone-a-mammoth

[6] Coastal Migration: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coastal_migration

[7] BC’s Gardens of Eden: Why were aboriginal clam farms so far out of our sight? Crawford Kilian, The Tyee. 8 Feb 2007. http://thetyee.ca/Books/2007/02/08/ClamGardens

[8] Legends of Vancouver, by Pauline Johnson-Tekahionwake. www.robirda.com/legends/index.html

[9] Historic Trauma and Aboriginal Healing, by Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux and Ph.D. Magdalena Smolewski, Ph.D. Aboriginal healing Foundation, 2004. www.ahf.ca/downloads/historic-trauma.pdf 

Infected at Birth, by Rob Wipond. Focus Magazine, July 2012. www.focusonline.ca/?q=node/413 

Smallpox Epidemic of 1862 among Northwest Coast and Puget Sound Indians. Greg Lange, History Link. www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&File_Id=5171 

The Great Darkening, by Shawn Swanky: www.shawnswanky.com/the-great-darkening

[10] For first-hand accounts of those years see the report from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. See www.trc.ca and the report itself: www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Findings/Survivors_Speak_2015_05_30_web_o.pdf

[11] The Four Directions http://www.fourdirectionsteachings.com/transcripts/ojibwe.html

[12] Google Glass: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Glass

[13] Robertson calls for study of violence among mentally ill. Globe & Mail, Oct 22, 2013. www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/robertson-calls-for-study-of-violence-among-mentally-ill/article15012727/

British Columbia Health of the Homeless Survey Report. Dr. Reinhard Michael Krausz, MD, PhD University of British Columbia, 2011. http://pacificaidsnetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/BC-Health-of-the-Homeless-Survey-FINAL1.pdf “Mental Health: We found extremely high rates of multiple mental disorders….in our participants; 93 percent had a current mental disorder. The most common disorders participants met the criteria for were alcohol and drug dependence, agoraphobia, major depressive episodes, posttraumatic stress disorder and general anxiety disorder.”

[14] Clair Martin’s Downtown Eastside photo-essay: www.clairemartinphotography.com/#/photo-essays/the-misfits/downtown-east-side/CM_DowntownEastSide_01

Lung Liu’s Downtown Eastside photo-essay: www.lungliu.com/dtes.php

 

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