Local activist, educator and Vancouver Island University student Kwinwahtala’Galis (Fred) Speck says his grandmother Malidi (Elsie) Williams, who raised him, was a residential “school” survivor and so she kept him home in their community as a child to spare him from the violent and abusive treatment that was common there.
As a result, he was the first generation of his family to escape that fate.
She was, however, very much in favour of education, and encouraged Kwinwahtala’Galis to get his degree in addition to seeking out a cultural mentor—which was his late uncle, Clan Chief Kwaxsistalla (Adam) Dick.
“In my youth, what happened was my late grandmother said, ‘Do you see that, gwa’la’yu? If one man can change the world, so can you.’ It was when they made the official announcement of the release of Nelson Mandela, and that’s why she wanted me to pursue a law degree,” says Kwinwahtala’Galis, who is of Kwakwaka’wakw ancestry from the Gwawaenuk and Tlowitsis tribes in the region of Northeastern Vancouver Island. He explains that gwa’la’yu is a term of endearment in the Kwak’wala language that means “my reason for living.”
Kwinwahtala’Galis always had a voice for public speaking but started having the opportunity to speak about culture, community and land rights in Snuneymuxw territory when the Indigenous-led Idle No More movement began to sweep across the country in 2013. Though he had put off the idea of going to school, it made him reconsider.
However, it was on an “inspiring” trip to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg in 2015 that prompted Kwinwahtala’Galis to decide now was the time.
The next day, he signed up to upgrade and complete his Grade 11 and 12 at the Tillicum Lelum Aboriginal Friendship Centre and was soon enrolled in the Xwalmuxw/Indigenous Studies Program at VIU.
Though he describes his first year at the university as “chaotic”—he stumbled through the registration process and ended up starting his classes several weeks late—he caught up and is not only currently enrolled in third-year studies but was also hired on as a cultural technician in his own program and as the first Indigenous cultural coordinator in the university’s Faculty of Management program.
He wasn’t sure what to expect when he first started his educational journey but says he wanted to have a concise record and clear timeline for himself around the history of relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada, and have that inform his pursuit of a law degree, which he plans to complete at the University of Victoria.
When it comes to the concept of reconciliation and Indigenous empowerment, Kwinwahtala’Galis says he thinks venues like universities and schools can play a significant role.
In this sense the universities can not only offer an opportunity for education but are also vastly enriched by the inclusion and centering of Indigenous viewpoints and knowledge, Kwinwahtala’Galis explains.
“We can have what I would refer to as a hybrid approach, one side is that you have your cultural component and the other side you have your educational component,” he says. “I think Indigenous people can have a lot to offer because of our own history, like in terms of the oral tradition, if they can infuse that into academia to be able to educate and represent Indigenous culture.”
Another area in which he thinks reconciliation can take place is to create more space for survivors of residential “schools” and institutions like the Nanaimo “Indian Hospital” to tell their stories and express their truth, and allow others to be educated by those stories.
For Kwinwahtala’Galis, the process around more formal reconciliation is frustratingly slow, which he says begs the question, “Why does it take so long?”
“We have to make it a priority. When we think of all of the privileges that we have throughout the country, and it becomes a question of equity, we have to ask ourselves why? But not only the question of why, but why not make it a priority?” he says, and then adds with a laugh, “They made the Trans Mountain pipeline a priority. What was it, four and a half billion dollars at the time? They made it a priority.”
When it comes to identifying the barriers to reconciliation, Kwinwahtala’Galis acknowledges it’s a complex question.
“To be dispossessed from your own family, community, home, territory, culture—they’re all part of the genocidal aspects of it. That’s really hard to address. For anyone,” he says.
Many of the barriers are also bureaucratic, and he thinks there’s a reluctance to remove those barriers because there are still those who benefit from the structure of society as it stands.
“How can you have reconciliation when you have colonial policy? And it’s the same colonial policy that was in place when they took those children away from their families,” he says. “Why were those children taken to begin with? It was to create space for development on their lands.”
The fix may lie in seeking to exist outside of the colonial framework, through gaining a deeper understanding of local Indigenous communities, histories and territories from local Elders, leaders and community members.
“Imagine what we’d be able to learn from the Elders, the traditional leaders and the community members,” he says. “You have the bureaucratic colonial policy versus the Indigenous pedagogy. Could you imagine it, if we attended an event with all these Elders and the leaders, community members, to hear their stories?”