"It is known to Tsleil-Waututh that our origin story is in this salt water, right here," Charlene Ts'simtelot Aleck said.
She sat on a rock looking out over səl̓ilw̓ət, or Burrard Inlet, from the beach at Whey-ah-wichen. The beach, also known as Cates Park, was a summer village not long ago, when the Tsleil-Waututh population was 10,000 strong, and European settlers hadn't arrived at the far west corner of Turtle Island.
Across the inlet is Say-mah-mit, which was once a populous village for Tsleil-Waututh. Now, the site is home to Noons Creek Hatchery, and surrounded by the young city, Port Moody. Aleck tried to point out the waterfront at Port Moody, but the view was blocked by a large tanker.
It's very narrow at the end of the inlet, and the other end only looks a stone's throw away.
"My mom was saying she used to swim across, and sometimes she would race her cousin," Aleck said. She gestured to the Burnaby Westridge Marine Terminal. "When the industry started coming in, her dad wouldn't allow her to swim across anymore because of the current and all the undertow."
"And then she talked about the times they'd get in their single-paddle canoes and be gone in the morning, and come back at night, and just be paddling and paddling and paddling. Just going around, eating off the beach, and the berries," Aleck continued.
She said she will sit on her paddle board on the water, surrounded by the lands where her people have lived since time out of mind and think about what life may have been like.
There would have been villages on all the beaches around her, including much of North Vancouver, Burnaby, Belcarra and Port Moody. From a vantage point on the water, one can still see pictographs on the rocks.
Before, there were so many people at what's now known as Belcarra that it was called təmtəmíxʷtən, which means "the biggest place for all the people."
But after being weakened by smallpox, Tsleil-Waututh were uprooted by settlers with all their belongings and remains from the land on the south side of the inlet. Indian agents, federal officials who enforced the Indian Act, assigned them a small reserve in North Vancouver.
Though their history across the water was interrupted, Tsleil-Waututh are finding their way back to their territory across the water with the help of allies.
Tasha Faye Evans, an artist and a Coast Salish woman living in Port Moody, approached city council with the idea to build a gateway into Port Moody's Rocky Point Park. The waterfront park faces Deep Cove, where the Tsleil-Waututh reserve is located.
"I wanted to raise a beautiful gateway," she said. "When I brought it to that current city council, they were not supportive... The mayor even said, 'That's never going to happen.'"
She chalked this up to a "colonial mentality" whereby the council didn't understand the significance of acknowledging Indigenous Peoples or meeting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 calls to action to advance Indigenous rights and reconciliation.
She didn't get approval for a gateway, but it was the beginning of her journey to commission a house post to be raised at the Say-mah-mit village site.
Evans’ work in Port Moody began when she noticed a change in curriculum at her children’s school to better include Indigenous history and teachings. She got involved and invited artist Xwalacktun, or Rick Harry, from Squamish Nation, to the classes to help educate teachers and students about the land they were working on.
But she said some parents were more worried about the cost of hiring Xwalacktun to lead the program. She said they wanted him to donate his time to create a mural they could sell to fundraise for the school.
“They just completely devalued who he was as an artist, what the project was, the teachings that their children were learning,” she said.
She said the parents’ reaction made her realize she had to do an even bigger project. That's when she approached the mayor about a gateway to Rocky Point Park, and encountered resistance again. But she said that didn't stop her determination.
"It just gave me more inspiration to make sure that this work happens,” she said.
In the summer of 2017, Evans invited a series of speakers to do storytelling and workshops with the community. At the end, James Harry (Rick Harry’s son) listened to what the community told him they had learned, and he based a house post design off what he’d heard. He then carved the post at Noons Creek Hatchery, or Say-mah-mit, with community members dropping in to learn and assist.
The house post was raised at Say-mah-mit on Indigenous Peoples Day, June 21, 2018.
“The whole community participated in carving this piece,” she said. “The community wanted to give it as a gift to Tsleil-Waututh, to let them know that this is our commitment as a community going forward.”
For the summer of 2019, Evans continued her work with the Stakw: Water is Life Project, supported by the Port Moody Ecological Society. The project included a series of workshops and storytelling sessions to build awareness of Indigenous Peoples who lived there, and invite Tsleil-Waututh people back to the territory to share their history.
The project also emphasized commitment to protect water in the territory.
“The Stakw: Water is Life Project has been another step in really embracing Coast Salish values and looking at water as our relation, not just as our commodity or our resource. And so we can understand that she, the water, we’re dependent on her. And not only us, but everything. And the health of her and her body is the health of us.”
The project culminated in Aleck and Xáliya, or Amy George, leading a water ceremony in Burrard Inlet on National Indigenous Peoples Day with community members, led by the Tsleil-Waututh company, Takaya Tours.
At the ceremony, Aleck and George gave medicine to the water. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had just announced his second approval of the Trans Mountain expansion on June 18. The project would increase tanker traffic in Burrard Inlet sevenfold. The same day, Tsleil-Waututh Chief Leah George-Wilson said the nation "continues to withhold our free, prior and informed consent."
“It was definitely in our hearts and our minds,” Aleck said. “Without the salt water, without the clean air, we couldn’t exist. We couldn’t exist as Tsleil-Waututh.”
A few weeks after the ceremony, on July 9, George-Wilson announced Tsleil-Waututh and four other First Nations had launched their legal challenges by petitioning the Federal Court of Appeal for a judicial review of the second approval.
"Canada is biased. The federal government is in a conflict of interest as the owner, the regular and the enforcer, as well as the fiduciary for First Nations," she told reporters at a press conference.
The expansion would triple the pipeline's capacity so it could transport up to 890,000 barrels per day.
While some may view the inlet for the commercial value it can bring, Aleck looks at it and sees the life of all Tsleil-Waututh people, beginning with their origin story.
She said their grandfather was transformed from a wolf to a man, and he lived harmoniously with the land. But then he had a realization.
“There was no young ones following him,” she said.
So, Aleck said, he went to a cliff and prayed, and he had a vision he must jump into the water and pick up two handfuls of sediment from the bottom.
“He laid it on the beach, and he cleansed it with cedar boughs, and made a circle of cedar boughs around the sediment. And then in the morning when he woke, he turned and looked at the sediment, and it was our first grandmother laying there,” she said.
Now, there is a constant hum of machinery coming over the inlet from Westridge terminal that can be heard from Whey-ah-wichen. Tankers drift by Aleck when she takes her paddle board on the water.
The City of Port Moody, as well as Burnaby and Vancouver, have also come out against the Trans Mountain expansion project out of concern of a spill.
Amy Lubik, a Port Moody city councillor, said she's concerned about the health effects the pipeline may have.
"There's never been a proper health-impact assessment done by an independent third party, even just around Burnaby Mountain and Tsleil-Waututh territory, let alone across the entire length of the pipeline," she said.
Lubik has lived in the area since childhood. Her father built a cabin in Indian Arm, a tributary from Burrard Inlet. She said she worries about the effect a spill could have on that site.
"It kills me to think about that," she said. "And that's just my dad. Not my grandparents, and their grandparents, and their grandparents, etc.
"Like 2,000 years before, my grandparents lived, worked, played, collected clams. And I would hope my family will be able to do the same. I can't imagine how that connection is different."
Beyond oral history, Tsleil-Waututh have other signs of their history on the water. Pictographs, clam beds and other signs still dot the waterfront around Burrard Inlet and Indian Arm. They seem to show a world of bounty. The amount of shells implies the vast majority of Tsleil-Waututh diets came directly from the water.
In 2015, archeologists found a slab hearth at Say-mah-mit that sat in the floor of a home they estimate stood 2,200 years ago.
"They left evidence for us in hopes that one day a grandchild would stumble upon it," Aleck said.
Aleck said she has felt welcomed to Port Moody since Evans began her project in 2017, though there is still teaching and learning to be done. She said some people ask her almost forcefully why Tsleil-Waututh people aren’t more present in the community.
“I’m like, ‘Well, I’m here now, if you want to know the history,’” she said.
“There hasn’t been a lot of presence... because the history is horrid,” she explained. “They dug up all of our graves and hucked it on a boat and said, ‘Here, deal with your stuff, because we’re moving in.’”
She said she doesn’t want to teach this history in order to point fingers, and her only hope is to reconnect with the land, and “kindly and gently assert our presence.”
Evans' next project is erecting four house posts along the water. She said the plan is to have all four up by 2022, and a path to walk between them.
She also wants to expand her efforts to reconnect with Kwikwetlem First Nation, who also have a long history of living in the area. Kwikwetlem Chief Ed Hall also joined the Indigenous Peoples Day celebration this summer.
Aleck said that in the old days, there were no solid boundaries, and the land around Port Moody was not only theirs. First Nations’ territories were shared. Tsleil-Waututh travelled to the open ocean and to the Fraser River, just as Squamish, Musqueam and Kwikwetlem people went down the inlet.
Aleck and Evans plan to continue their work inviting Tsleil-Waututh to return to their territory on the other side of the inlet and increase community involvement.
Evans pointed to the house post James Harry made, drawing attention to a drop of water at the centre with ripples expanding, called the ancestor's eye.
“(Your ancestors) put in a lot of work for you to be here... and we are going to be ancestors one day, and what we do today affects tomorrow,” she said. “The ripple effect that this first project has had in the community has been quite profound.”
Some change is visual. Lubik said she sees people with “Welcome Post Project” T-shirts around and hears reconciliation talked about more at council meetings. In three years, the house posts will be raised. Evans said the city’s heritage commission has also reached out to work with her.
Hunter Madsen, the acting mayor of Port Moody, said he was head of the heritage commission when they were collecting historical photos from the city. They looked for photos of Tsleil-Waututh or Kwikwetlem people and couldn’t find any.
“It’s like they weren’t there,” he said. “It really signalled to us what a gap there is in the historical record of the city.”
Aleck said it’s not only the history, but worldviews that governments at all levels can learn, such as the Tsleil-Waututh views on economy and natural resources that drive their protection efforts.
Aleck said the nation has invested in habitat rehabilitation around the inlet, clean energy and eco-tourism, creating a "positive economy" that puts protection first and "doesn't claw away at the natural world."
In the settler economy, she said, boats, cars, motorcycles and "everything that makes your life comfortable" are at the top of the pyramid. For Tsleil-Waututh, the top priorities are “honour, love and respect” for the land, air and water.
"If we flipped it, and used our system at a governance level or a policy level, through to global markets, of honouring the land and water and everything that lives in it... you'd see change. You'd see a huge change," she said.
Editor's Note: This story was updated on August 26 at 7:28 a.m. PT with the correct spelling of Sara Ts'ouyaat Hyland's name.