Flipping the script on the Doctrine of Discovery

This week an amazing team of Indigenous filmmakers got together to plot out the trajectory of a RAVEN documentary film being shot in and around Kamloops BC.

Here we go….. it’s day 5, and we’re sitting in a circle, working out the script. The team wrestles with the Doctrine of Discovery and its papal decree that all lands occupied by ‘non-Christians’ could be stolen by colonizers. How could this ancient doctrine from a far-off Pope have been the basis for the theft of ancestral land? 500 years later, it still twists Indigenous people’s lives — and their lands — out of shape. 

We learned, thanks to Robert Simon, litigation coordinator for Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc, how the upcoming title case has, at its heart, a challenge to the racist Doctrine. By proving that their title existed as deeply articulated laws prior to colonial contact, the case holds the promise to elevate Secwepemc authority in their 180km² territory, while revitalizing Indigenous legal frameworks that have governed these lands for thousands of years.

The movie will follow Autymn: muralist, science fair champion, tattoo artist, filmmaker. She’s a young woman on a quest to understand the forces that shape her life in her Secwepemc community. Seen through her eyes, the documentary will introduce knowledge keepers, cultural practices, sacred places, and stories that illuminate the title case and the path forward for her Nation.

In one scene, shot at dusk in a burnt-out pine forest, Autymn recalls last summer’s wildfires that blazed on the ridge right above her home, and how her family had to evacuate. She remembers with anger how Indigenous firefighters had to walk to reach fires while other non-Indigenous crews were flown in helicopters. Eventually, the province began to defer to Indigenous knowledge of the territory, so that firefighters like Autymn’s uncle Marshall Gonzales could drive fires into areas that had previously been managed through cultural burning, extinguishing them.

In another scene, Autumn attends a ceremony for Le Estcwéy, “The Missing”, on the one year anniversary of the ‘discovery’ of mass graves at Kamloops Residential School. Here is a community confronting sheer evil, with Canada failing to accept full responsibility for genocide.  It’s dark: there are tears, and there is anger. 

Yet: the event also feels like a family reunion. Yes, they tried to kill us, say speaker after speaker, but we are still here, and just LOOK at us. The strength, love, and passion swirling through this gathering is electrifying.

We are also witness to a quieter but equally historic event: the signing of an agreement between Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc and B.C. to adopt the new Directives to negotiate, rather than litigate, matters relating to rights & title. Murray Rankin joins Kukpi7 Roseanne Casimir at an unassuming banquet table in front of a handful of people to make a commitment to ‘walk on two legs’. moving beyond the transactional nature of Canada’s duty to consult First Nations towards a relationship that affirms the UN Declaration of Rights and Titles’ requirement for free, prior and informed consent. 

This document affirms Secwepemc sovereignty and the reciprocal relationship the Nation has with the province. Casimir welcomes the promises, but adds a warning: “It is not the relationship that we’ve had. Our territories have been exploited without equitable sharing, and decisions have been made exclusive of Secwepmec te Stkumlupsn. So long as justice is withheld from us, so long will dissatisfaction and unrest exist.”

Canadian governments have long emphasized their commitments to reconciliation on the one hand,  while on the other hand working to deny Indigenous Peoples’ title and rights in the courts. Accountability comes down to people – people like the elders, chiefs, Autymn and her peers — who refuse to step back to make way for exploitive corporations in their communities. We are following a long history of Secwepemc leaders raising the bar in protecting Indigenous rights & title. 

It’s an honour to see so many gifted people, drawn together to craft this documentary film, support RAVEN’s fundraising work. It’s about so much more than a ‘campaign’ to these youth: it’s their past, that is full of sorrows but also rich and deep, and their future, which — based on the abundance of  talent and heart driving these young people —  looks incredibly bright. At the crossroads, with overtly racist policies and cultural erasure in one direction and a revitalization of law, culture, and language in the other, this generation stands to make profound changes not only for this Nation, but for Indigenous peoples everywhere. 

To support the Secwepemc Title challenge and keep the pressure on B.C. and Canada, please donate. 

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