This is the first in a series of stories looking into the 14-month long Vanderhoof Spirit of Diversity Project. The project was a partnership between the Good Neighbours Committee and the communities of Vanderhoof and Saik’uz and aimed to promote and work towards a more welcoming and inclusive community to new immigrants, and one that honours our diversity. This first story looks into the recent community play “Saik’uz and Settlers” which was performed on March 18 and 19 at NVSS. The play marked the culmination of the diversity project that has delivered a number of projects to the community in recent months.
“A catalyst for change.”
That is the effect Lisa Striegler hopes her play and the spirit of diversity project will have in the community, long after the stage curtain has been lowered.
“First comes change in thought and attitude and then comes a change in behavior,” said Striegler who has worked hard during recent months writing and directing a play that saw packed out audiences on both performance nights.
The play covered 200 years of the areas history from First Nations pre-contact times to the present day and touched on a number of sensitive topics involving racism and exclusion in society.
The main themes that anchored the play were the same as those of the entire diversity project – to create a more welcoming and inclusive community for both new and old residents as well as for those entering the community in the future.
The overall theme of diversity was highlighted when after the play the audience were invited to share a variety of foods from different cultures in the community including dishes from First Nations people, South India, West Africa and some traditional Mennonite dishes to name a few.
During the play, a number of sensitive historical issues were put on stage and the result was both an educational and emotional experience for many who attended.
Striegler, a born and raised Vanderhoofian, says her writing of the play includes not only personal experiences of being a resident but also stories she has been informed of through research and conversations with others in the community.
The play begins with a story Striegler was told about 25 years ago when speaking with Stanley Thomas from the Saik’uz community. It shows the arrival of some of the first white settlers to the area – fur traders. They were starving and in need of help and they came across a gathering of people from Saik’uz. One of the clan said they shouldn’t kill these white men because they are the ghosts of their ancestors, and so they chose to help them instead.
“That’s by and large why white people survived when they got here – it was harsh living for the settlers and explorers who came here, and without the help of the First Nations they wouldn’t have survived,” said Striegler.
“So our first welcoming was by the First Nations people and that example sets the stage for how we need to be as well,” she said.
Other stories told within the play include the story of Dick Patrick, a local man from Saik’uz who fought in the Second World War and earned a medal of honour. When he returned home from the war, he was just another Indian to the residents of Vanderhoof.
“To make that effort and honor your country that way and then come home and be treated like dirt – you can’t even go into a restaurant and get a glass of water when you’re thirsty … it’s a shameful thing and I think it hit home to a lot of people – especially those of pioneer age who lived through the war,” said Striegler.
Another moving scene was one that touched on residential schools – a policy that began in the late 1800s with the implication of the Indian Act by the Canadian government. The act included the providing of education for First Nations in residential school format. Lejac Residential School, located just before Fraser Lake, opened in 1922 and was operated by the Roman Catholic Church under contract with the government. Some children wouldn’t see their parents from September until June and boys and girls were separated so often siblings were split up. The play depicts some young First Nations children being taken by wagon to residential school for the first time. Striegler said she was able to speak to many people who went to residential school and so got a real idea of what it was like for children.
“The whole idea of these residential schools was to get the Indian out of the Indian, so they would conform in society,” said Striegler.
“It tore families apart and kids didn’t learn their cultural ways and lost their language … as far as policy goes it achieved some of the things it meant to do but it never took the Indian out of the Indian.
“It just discombobulated everything and made it very difficult for young people to feel like they belonged anywhere,” she said.
Another scene in the play shows two teen girls at Lejac, talking about the potlatch being reinstated and one is saying how she don’t feel like she fits in anywhere.
“That was a bit of a statement about how difficult that whole policy was and a clear indication of why people still struggle with that feeling of belonging in today’s society,” said Striegler.
Maureen Mallais, the regional director for the College of New Caldedonia attended the play and says she was particularly moved by the depiction of how residential schools affected First Nations people.
“It’s an area of history that grabs us because we can’t imagine it happening now and it shows us how that might have impacted the First Nation communities and their loss of history and culture,” said Mallais.
Striegler also included a scene about the Mennonite settlers in town.
“This was another scene that sparked learning for some audience members, since they didn’t know that Mennonite men had the choice to go to war or to go to ‘work camps’ away from their families and farms.
“The influx of settlers to our area in 1942 was because of this and some of the men had already been to work camps and had come back to farms ravaged by drought.
“If they came west to B.C., they could work in the forest industry as an adjunct to the ‘war effort’ and not have to actually enlist and be forced to kill,” said Striegler.
Immigrants’ coming into town was also an idea that featured heavily in the play – in particular Asian and American immigration.
“I remember in the ‘80s being at parties and people talking about the Chinese coming and taking our jobs,” said Striegler.
“We really need to understand that it was not like that – it was people needing to make a better life for themselves and finding opportunity here,” she said.
In the play, Striegler says the Asian immigration scene was one of her favourites and grew from a childhood experience.
“That whole story came out of my own experience as a kid listening to my parents talk about the new Chinese restaurant in town and that night I had a dream about a pagoda dancing down main street … so that’s how that whole scene developed.
“I love that scene because we get to see some of the beauty of the different ethnicities that have come here,” she said.
The influx of American teachers in the 1960s was also written into the play.
“I think about 14 out of the 20 teachers in this area were American in the late ‘60s and for whatever reason there was a backlash in the community and people wanted them out,” said Striegler.
She added that it was a part of the history of the area that she never knew about and after interviewing some of the Americans involved; she discovered it was a very stressful time for them.
“People in the community were trying to pull their teaching certificates and things like that to get them to leave,” said Striegler.
“We have quite a lot of Americans that live here – and there was quite a stigma against them.
“I included this in the play because I think we really need to dispel some of those myths and to show a little bit of how we behaved and are we proud of that when we look back now? And how can we learn from that to do things differently to make a more welcoming and inclusive community?” she said.
As a whole, Striegler says although many sensitive historical incidents were touched on and the idea wasn’t to scold the community but to instigate change.
“It wasn’t to say you are bad people and you shouldn’t have behaved that way… it was to say – this is just what happened and we don’t want this to happen again.
Let’s be sensitive to the impact its had on everybody that lives around here and let’s be the people that we know that we really are – good people and a good community where we can help each other no matter where we’re from and what we’ve been through,” said Striegler.
So did the play achieve its goal of creating a community more welcoming and inclusive for all, or at least promoting the idea? Some of the views of those involved or who attended would agreed it did to a certain extent.
Charlyne Smilinski with the College of New Caledonia, was the project coordinator and says she felt the play moved the audience in a deep way.
“We have some very sensitive pieces of history that Lisa was able to share in a way that was not offensive and yet allowed us to go back to that point and maybe have some healing happen,” said Smilinski.
“It really put a face on First Nations people and gave an in-depth understanding of first nations culture,” she said.
“I was speaking to a couple who said they were fairly new to Vanderhoof but that the play gave them such an understanding of community, such a connectedness to the community – that’s exactly what we wanted to do,” she said.
Anne Stevens, a Vanderhoof resident who attended the play said she felt the play was a very unifying experience for the community.
“The play did a great job of pointing out the common struggles that we’ve had and I thought it was a really uniting thing for the community,” she said.
Chief Jackie Thomas of Saik’uz First Nations helped open the play on one of the nights and she felt the performance and the diversity project as a whole has sparked some change in the attitudes of the community.
“I think it’s made inroads but I don’t think we’re there yet,” said Thomas.
“I think it’s going to take a long time and we’ve just got to keep working on it,” she said.
She added that just before she went to the play she went for dinner at Pagoda and heard a man sitting behind her commenting “we better hurry up because we paid full price for our tickets to the play.”
“He was saying he paid full price unlike the Indians that are going to the play,” said Thomas.
I didn’t say anything on the stage when I did the welcome … but honestly some of these comments they still come up and it’s just disrespectful,” she said.
She added that she has seen some change in the attitudes towards racism in the community in the last decade or so…
“Twenty or even 10 years ago, these sort of comments were being made consistently by people but now it’s just here and there,” she said.
Sylvia Byron works at the Omineca Safe Home and was the producer of the play. She felt the play brought up a variety of emotions in those involved and those who attended.
“It brought out some pride in our community about the diversity and I think it brought out some uncomfortable feelings just regarding the fact that we didn’t have a perfect little town.
“It reminded people that we have had our struggles as well but we have overcome them,” said Byron.
Vanderhoof Mayor, Gerry Thiessen said he found the play both interesting and encouraging and was overall a profitable evening for all involved.
“As the play went on, it made us realize that we have a history that we need to remember and make changes as a result … but in other areas we can look back and say we’ve worked hard to get to this point,” he said.
Lisa Striegler said amongst the many positive comments she received about her play from the community, one in particular stuck in her mind.
“One women of pioneer age – she gave me a hug and said she felt saddened by some parts of the play and in particular she was moved by the Dick Patrick scene and felt sad about the outcome of that,” said Striegler.
The play is currently being made into a DVD and Striegler hopes this will create a lasting legacy in the community and a basis for change.
“Now I think we need to expand and take advantage of the momentum that has been gained from this project.
“Really we need create opportunities to just be around each other more – people of different culture need to get in the same to demystify whatever ideas and fears we might have of each…the Neighborhood Space and Volunteer Vanderhoof are going to help facilitate that,” said Striegler.
Tickets for the play were by donation and all profits went to Neighbourlink.
The second part of this series of stories about the spirit of Vanderhoof diversity project will look at the Neighbourhood Space, a project funded through the diversity project and how it has effected the community.