Contesting culture at Stanley Park

Rena Soutar wants Vancouver’s Indigenous peoples to feel at home in our public spaces.

Vancouver has a rich cultural heritage. Minorities, though, don’t always feel welcome in city spaces such as Stanley Park, says Rena Soutar. She is aiming to change that.

“There’s no such thing as a culturally neutral space,” explains Soutar, the new reconciliation planner for Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation. This is especially true of places like Stanley Park. “Our taxes paid for it, and we hope that we’re going into a place where everyone feels welcome. But we’ve built spaces for everybody, which means we’re not representing anybody. In a space that expresses the dominant culture, it naturally makes marginalized people feel unwelcome.”

Soutar, along with Geordie Howe, the park board’s cultural archaeologist, will discuss culture in Stanley Park on February 27 in a presentation given as part of the Vancouver Heritage Foundation’s evening lectures series and held at the University Women’s Club at Hycroft Manor. The presentation, Stanley Park: Digging Deeper and Rethinking Cultural Heritage, explores the ways in which Vancouver’s park board is opening itself up to minority Indigenous peoples.

Colonial systems

Like many, Soutar believes Stanley Park is a key example of a public space that represents dominant white culture.

“The architecture is from another tradition entirely and all of the activities that we do inside the park don’t come from here,” Soutar says. “We’re not playing traditional Aboriginal games. We’re not gathering and skinning fish. So culturally it’s not built to look as if any other people were here. That’s not a complete picture of Vancouver.”

Rena Soutar, the new reconciliation for Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation. | Photo courtesy of Rena Soutar

Stanley Park is famous as an untouched preserve of nature, but in fact, the reality is very different.

“[Indigenous peoples] were summarily ousted from the park. There were several villages, and by the time they were removed they were a little bit multicultural. There’s a lot of archaeological evidence of all the millennia of occupation. It was a pretty lively place,” says Soutar.

Calling Stanley Park untouched denies the past of these peoples, a past that continues to make itself felt.

“It’s not an accident that there are tons of berries and lots of useful trees,” says Soutar. “These were cultivated and encouraged. [The park] was basically one big garden that was designed to support the villages that were there.”

In order to rectify some of the difficulties in the past, Soutar and her fellow park board employees are working with representatives of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. Soutar’s role as reconciliation planner involves looking at how Indigenous peoples feel in the park and at how the park board regards these people.

“People haven’t traditionally looked at how organizations like the park board treat the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh territory we’re on,” she says. “And also the urban population of First Nations, Métis and Inuit ancestry. What is it about our systems that make us colonial?”

Indigenous perspectives

Soutar has long been involved with Indigenous peoples in British Columbia. Her previous work included a stint with the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games, for which she sourced Aboriginal artwork. She is also the author of Songhees, a book about the Coast Salish people whose traditional territory includes parts of Vancouver Island, San Juan and the Gulf Islands.

“It’s a cultural 101,” she says. “It’s a view for outsiders of who these people are, their resilience and where they intend to go – how they’re trying to steer their children so that they have a strong future rooted in tradition.”

Soutar has her own outsider perspective on Vancouver’s indigenous communities.

“I myself am First Nations, but I’m not local. My ancestors are from Haida Gwaii. I’m a visitor here just like everyone else,” she says, laughing.

This stranger status has been useful in her current position.

“Having to figure out what my indigenating means in the work that I do has been really helpful,” says Soutar.

For more information, please visit