Camp Suzuki: Howe Sound puts reconciliation into action


It has been two years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released 94 calls to action on how to achieve reconciliation. Indigenous-led movements like Idle No More ignited important conversations throughout the country around rights and title. While reconciliation rhetoric has become popular, resources continue to be stolen from Indigenous communities and treaty rights are ignored.

By definition, to reconcile requires action. Yet many non-Indigenous people rarely interact with their local Indigenous communities or are familiar with Indigenous land rights violations occurring in their backyards. Learning the history of residential school systems and including land acknowledgements has been the extent of engagement with reconciliation for many Canadians.

A summer camp on Gambier Island was the last place I thought I would engage with reconciliation — but Camp Suzuki: Howe Sound is not your average summer camp. Led by the David Suzuki Foundation in partnership with the Squamish First Nation, it was a truly unique and unforgettable experience.

Leading an effort that centered around reconciliation required putting traditional camp experiences into a different context. Every morning at 7:30 a.m. we started our mornings with a shokum. In contrast to a polar bear dip, the shokum was a peaceful and solo journey where you moved from the salt water into another world. It was a time for self-reflection and healing of mind, body and soul. Chief Ian Campbell shared traditional knowledge with us followed by a morning drum and song before we calmy made our way into the water for a cleanse.

After shokum, we had Squamish language lessons. With many Indigenous languages being lost across Turtle Island (North America), few Indigenous people speak their mother tongue. Chief Ian Campbell and Squamish leaders Becky and Swo-wo invited us to help keep their language alive by learning and sharing phrases. Toward the end of camp, participants replaced “thank you” with “u siyam” and were speaking some Squamish with one another without prompting.

To understand the lands and water from an Indigenous perspective requires deep listening to elders who are the knowledge keepers of oral traditions. Led by tribal canoe family skipper Wes Nahanee, campers took canoes around the waters surrounding Chá7elkwnech (Gambier Island). As we paddled, Chief Ian Campbell shared traditional stories about the land, the sea and his people. We paddled, sang and laughed together as we learned to see the land and water from a new perspective.

After every meal, thanks was given for the food through song, dance and drumming. As the week progressed Squamish children, who were timid at first, started to lead the singing proudly, encouraging their new non-Indigenous friends to join in. By the end of the week, everyone joined for the traditional whale, frog and eagle dances after a meal. We built relationships of trust and understanding around our common humanity. Reconciliation became a central pillar for a camp that also cultivated an appreciation for the region’s biodiversity and trained young people for leadership, stewardship and advocacy in environmental areas.

We co-created the environment for reconciliation by sharing meals and a common space. It was a space for participants to reach across divisions to build respect and friendships. That is reconciliation in action.

Jennifer Deol