Interview with Tsawout resistance leader Vanessa Benita Claxton

by Sam Orndorff and Vanessa Benita Claxton

One day this past July, I received a message on my Facebook blog from someone named Vanessa. She’d found me on Twitter discussing environmental racism, and said she connected well to writers. I got a rush of anticipation reading her message, in which she asked about writing, but also to spread word of what was happening on the Tsawout (pronounced say-w-out) Reservation, where developers were deforesting land to build an RV park without permission. This introduction and following interview tell the story of how the Saanich/Wsanec are being displaced on their homeland in coastal British Columbia, Canada. This particular story of liberation meanders, but it starts with a ding sound.

The next day, Vanessa emailed me with a GoFundMe link (please donate if you can) and our work had started. We began editing the page and corresponding over the ensuing months, eventually befriending one another. For a glimmering moment that summer, it seemed the development plans stopped. Birthdays came and went. Meanwhile Vanessa had taken up different tactics: organizing, raising money, protesting. She sent a letter to Prime Minister Trudeau, who responded “keen to investigate.” Yet, weeks later, the encroachments and deforestation continued. Later on, her dog died; the day prior he’d spent “watching trees burn.” Her mother was evicted from her home of fourteen years.

Pepe, with wood stacks, a few weeks before he passed. Source: Vanessa Benita Claxton

“Chainsawing started at 7:30 a.m. and the excavating would go until 10 p.m. or past midnight,” Vanessa tells me. “The larger trees would fall with a large thunk. The buzz of chainsaws lost its rattle after those consecutive weeks that left a once majestic forest a clearing of mud, smoke, and nothingness.”

I wish I could say things have improved, but they haven’t much. In addition to Vanessa’s mom being displaced, streams are disturbed by dump trucks, and graveyards have nearly been bulldozed in the process. Each new email brings back news that more trees were cut down for lumber. Some were 125 years old, “removed and the forest brush/medicinal plants burned,” so that a profit can go to non-natives. While the first draft of this introduction was being written in late October, a pond was about to be filled in with gravel. By the time I revise months later, the terrain is stripped of trees unto an exposed earth. Where roots once prevented runoff is now sticky muck. Throughout this time, Vanessa and her family, have taken on the burden of resistance. Their legal challenges seem to have gained the most traction. Yet even in court cases such as this, where property rights are challenged on account of Native sovereignty, as Vanessa told me, “the long legacy of colonialism” persists. To complicate matters, some of her family members helped drive the clear-cutting.

The resistance team is led by her mother, Shari Underwood, along with a family friend, Jonathan Francoeur, who is a permaculturist. I spoke to him on the phone about how he played a role, by giving rides, being a presence when the women felt unsafe, and working with Shari on the civil claim. He struck me not only as open-minded, but a true example of a white person being a long-term accomplice (starting with Idle No More, where he met Shari). These three were all tasked with the challenge of navigating private property law. They haven’t been able to secure an injunction against the illegal development, but a fundamental fact here is that developers entered without consent of the nation. This invasion is a direct violation of international and domestic law, ignoring Indigenous peoples’ right to Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) on projects directly and indirectly involving them and their territory. This new type of community consent was created by Indigenous people themselves and has been law in Canada since the country became a signatory of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2016.

After Abolition accepted our story for publishing, Vanessa and I finally spoke over the phone. There was a lightness in Vanessa’s voice, driven by passion. I almost forgot I called her to talk about a forest. She said that the deforestation had basically stopped, that the RV park might not go ahead now, that a mall was planned and scrapped, since it didn’t have non-native community support, but that maybe the RV park was never the goal at all, maybe they got their lumber and that was enough. Suddenly, something happened to this story that I often notice — the more you investigate a problem, the more complicated the issue gets, accelerating until you’re amid a glut of facts and the topic that seemed so clear starts to become tangled. Still, all this leaves me amazed, in the saddest way, at the horrific pace of capitalism.

Source: Vanessa Benita Claxton

I hope to center Vanessa’s voice, to share tools here that might mutually benefit other Indigenous peoples in similar situations. Vanessa and I also want to contextualize how colonization is still happening, how the powerful take what they want through real and symbolic violence. Defending the environment means putting your life on the line, especially for Indigenous women. They kill leaders like Berta Caceres. Early on, Vanessa had expressed her well-founded fear that she did not want to be a statistic. Environmental injustice like this is a large factor as to why there are so many murdered, missing, Indigenous women (see #MMIW and #MMIGW). Re-reading our conversation, I’m left wondering whether liberating the land is a lot like war. I can’t say, but I can suggest that when coalitions of people come together, they learn much. Through vigilance we can achieve at least temporary legal protections — an ambiguous armistice.

Can you describe what’s happening in your community/Nation?

The developments in Tsawout have been from building a Tsunami wall on the seashore/bay, to market housing on a creek and a RV park through our ancient forest and burial sites. It was approved by the Tsawout Tribal Council because the ones on council are the certificate of possession land holders profiting off leased land. The bulldozed areas are all part of Saanich/Wsanec (Sencoten), according to an archeological overview: “The project area is within the traditional territory of the Saanich Nations who are the speakers of the SENCOTEN language. The Saanich Nation consists of the Tsawout First Nation, Tseycum First Nation, Penelakut First Nation, Tsartlip First Nation, and the Malahat First Nation” (Millennia Stautw Rd RV Park Archeological Overview, March 16, 2018). An overview would not have been conducted without pressures placed through resistance. The forced acknowledgement of traditional land gives rights to the people of the land. Our ancestors and heritage deserve that much. The land was utilized by the entire community for harvesting berries and medicines. Well-constructed hunting spots were dismantled and obliterated, along with traditional territory boundary lines. It was just the beginning of what was to come.

The council members and chief all have lineage to Tsawout, Saanich/Wsanec, Coast Salish territory. What is happening to my Nation is the council is opting for money instead of protecting and preserving traditional lands for our future sustenance. They, in my opinion, are forgetting their lineage. Historically, this behavior of attaining things economically for personal gain was punishable by public shaming or execution, dating back to pre-contact. This was in our oral history. The idea around reciprocity, potlatch communities, honorable leadership was everyone was cared for and had unique attributes to contribute to the community.

Saanich “Wsanec, The Emerging Peoples,” is a Nation of people located on southern Vancouver Island. Tsawout is a Reservation. The Wsanec people were divided up and placed on Reservations in Canada. The people placed on the Reserve were not necessarily from that traditional territory. The community was not notified of the project or the impacts it would have on our way of being. My mother, Shari Underwood, was called to action with a Master’s in Applied Communication from Royal Roads University and traditional ancestry to the land. Shari was directed to protect the forest, aquifers, and land for future generations by her grandparents. She started a movement to protect lands by filing a civil claim in 2017, which halted the project until the fall of 2018.

Keith McRae had a proposal to do a large mall in Tsawout. It was not built because the highway overpass would cost the municipality of Central Saanich 18 million dollars, but the tribal council and developer all refused to pay. The proposed project was on a Sacred creek, Tetayut. McRae advanced several families, many on council, hundreds of thousands of dollars. He invaded the land with ideas his lease entitled him to deforest. He executed a complete clear cut and believes he is the sole proprietor. Many developing properties on Reserve receive the full profit and benefits. The certificate of possession land holders on Reserve benefit with a miniscule percentage to develop lands into an RV park called Ocean Winds on the Tsawout Reservation.

The imposition of a colonial framework within the Chief and Council political system is making things tyrannical and unjust.  We have seen this in action at Standing Rock, Dakota, US, and at Westin Bear Mountain in the Western Communities formerly Langford, BC, Canada. Chiefs/Council of “elders” accepting kickbacks to silence environmental initiatives. Real leaders do not attempt to squash, evict, or silence their people. At Standing Rock, a supposed eviction order from elders was issued. The interests of the future negated, leading to destruction of sacred sites. The protection of forests and water was avoided and preventative measures against natural disasters were forgotten. The impacts of Colonialism, Residential school, imposed Indian Act policies left many debilitated, crushed. A political system is failing us. My great grandmothers did not sell out the future generations. The opportunity to sustain a community was intact in the caring of the mothers who took care of the children, who grew to cherish life.

Source: Vanessa Benita Claxton

The development practices do not preserve our local heritage and have destroyed medicinal plant fields, disrupted streams and ponds, displaced animals and Indigenous people for a more structured close containment, RV park. Invasive plant species will be planted for easier management. It will be uniform and the once-lustrous forest will be no more. It will be affordable lodging for non-native people and vacationers.

How do you feel about everything you’ve described?

I knew it was a challenging battle with the odds not in my favor. I have friends, associates, peers and conscious people in my social network. Those rallying for wild salmon, connections in the Unist’ot’en camp, many resistance allies working on various projects. A cousin and filmmaker attended and detained at Standing Rock. I knew my network but still there was nothing anyone could do. The forest fell for consecutive weeks. I thought I was losing my mind. I reached out to you, Sam, because through your tweets, I knew you understood. I wanted to make my cause as clear as your understandings. At the time, I was way too emotionally involved. With every passing moment, more of the forest was at stake.

We know what happened. It is not taught in school. Nothing prepares you for that. I left for work with chainsaws starting, I never knew what I would come home to. I felt I lost friends. I was helpless to save. I bonded with that forest. It was so precious. Perhaps, I was too spoiled. It was a wilderness haven in my backyard and it was gone in weeks. I felt let down by my political leaders who chose to deforest. The Band Council had the power to protect the land but instead they issued an eviction letter to my mother. She was unemployed and cut off social assistance shortly after. The eviction letter wouldn’t let her claim her current residence. She had children and friends to assist her. I never knew I would have to ever witness a vacant forest and a mother threatened with homelessness. It is challenging because it is not fair.

I feel sometimes saddened and sometimes grateful to be alive. It is a very significant time, things are shifting, knowing my mother, grandmothers and great-grandmothers endured so much. I’m angry but softened by the grief. Holding onto hope and trusting our being here still is the resistance to genocide. I have been gifted great stories, kind open hearts that have embraced my story and encourage me.

The Cowichan Nation, which is about 45 minutes away and was named in the archeological overview, Penelakut, stated on a Facebook event, “traditional plant health is our health.” I suppose that is where my Indigenous heart ignited. We have been forced to witness many ancient plants being burned in large piles. It felt senseless, all that medicine and forest debris, especially going into winter. It could have warmed many households. There is a need to acknowledge traditional land, the keepers, and respect and care for those people of the land, especially Indigenous women: the life givers, protectors, knowledge keepers, medicine carriers. We/They are missing and murdered in North America. The incentive to take the land for monetary gain is the violence done to our women, is to displace, take advantage, or eradicate.

Is there progress?

There is always progress. No matter how small, there is the ripple effect. Every day was a challenge with every creaking and falling tree. Remembering my great-grandmothers Elsie Claxton, Ethel Underwood, and Julia George, who all worked with plant medicine. The men, my great-grandpas, who supported them in raising families. I recognize the role reversal, my great-grandpa, Jean Baptiste Paul aka Chief Thunderbird, was a hall of fame wrestler. He had to obtain a Cowichan Native name to marry my great-grandma, Julia George, Penelakut. She was a Marriage Counselor of very high standing because relationships bring healthy communities. They resided In Tsartlip, West Saanich.

Intergenerational trauma, impacts of residential school, modern colonialism — that is what Indigenous women are progressing through. The unspoken atrocities by our own leaders. The ones who speak up are left for dead or have their children stolen. Idle No More, #metoo, Occupy, Decolonize are all progressive to Indigenous people. It is a historical catch-up for what most Native people already know. We couldn’t say it without being killed or incarcerated, so, yes it is helpful to Indigenous people when citizens assist. It was hard to witness my mother’s tears and helplessness and early morning risings and late nights to bed. She endured so much pain at the hands of our so-called leaders. She raised her children off Reserve. To lose what she was groomed to protect was hard for her. She persevered; our Reservation was placed on my mother’s families’ traditional land. I grew up with my great-grandma Ethel Underwood/Kelly telling me I am not a Reserve Indian. I did not know what that meant until recently.

The return to traditional teachings and understanding, my mother and I, nature, all members should be respected by my Nation. The progression would be nurturing healthy communities. Caring for our mothers so they could care for their babies who protect the land, so another cycle of caring is created. My mother having everything taken from her and still being loving and nurturing is a remnant of that way of being. My ma came to me, the forest gone, eyes full of tears and apologized. Telling me she tried everything. We cried together. I followed her lead but always tried in a new way to persevere. I couldn’t believe that stagnant reality of idiocy that would lead to the demise of such a beautiful haven. I know it may happen to others and I will know how that feels as I look for the lesson in the loss.

Progression. What is next? The forest gone. My ma kept up, though, said it is the water next. She keeps going. Wanting to protect those ancient waterways when anyone else would have felt defeated. Speaking up is our safety. I think reaching out to a large network is progression. Lots of what I shared is embarrassing or painful and part of my healing is sharing my experience. Having uncomfortable conversations with friends, family and coworkers. The sound of chainsaws will hurt me for a while. It took weeks to take down that forest, four men, doing their job. My dog Pepe was still alive when the trees fell beside him. He was an outdoor dog. We brought him inside but he only lasted a few days. He was older and had a good long life in that forest.

How do you keep focused? How do you maintain mental health?

Connecting with others, it was challenging because it was different worlds colliding. It was my Indigenous heritage, Canadian policy on reservation systems, the Underwood-Claxton feud (my parents from the same Nation). There was no time. It was finding channels — many environmental activists already knew the peril and were in similar circumstances as my mother. Bureaucracy is protected in print and usually elitism is preserved but we fail to save our natural environments. It is a recipe for disaster. Indigenous people endure hardship, poverty, and social degradation continually. It was harsh for my mother to be discarded for an RV park but if she did not speak up it would have been accepted. If she did not have children and friends caring for her she would have been in the most unideal situation. Perhaps, we were groomed for this stand. The impact is liberation, I suppose others will not have to endure that experience. They can come forward and we can make that stand for what is right. When you do that you feel very little in those moments because it is a necessity.

I found art outlets assisted greatly by attending concerts, live music. I brought my mother to Robert Plant at the Queen Elizabeth theatre, he opened with “New World.” I had not heard that song before and the video animation perfectly depicted our situation. It was young Indigenous women rising up, fighting, and at the end it was older Indigenous women with the caption, We are Resilient. It was like a big deep breath of fresh air because everyone at home was saying we were crazy. So seeing my mother and recognizing she was always been a fighter helped. Her refusal to accept the dishonor. Her respect for the land and the little people. Indigenous folklore respects, understands, and protects entities. To my understanding, multi-dimensional characters are real. What is preserved and protected in our oral history will soon be present. My grandpa told me stories of a flying serpent that would perch in trees as canoes would go by, his description perfectly matched the skeleton found on Hornby Island.

My sanctity is in a compassionate family: a powerful saving grace, a little sister and little brother, an older sister, and my mother listening and guiding. A very compassionate employer, counselor, lovers, friends, and even strangers. I spoke to whomever would listen. It aided me to share and seek counsel and learn that this doesn’t happen often. My mental health still suffered, challenged by opposing ideals.  I felt validated by professional people. Ultimately, I had to make decisions about how I wanted to live. Protecting what is sacred seemed like convincing people to believe in a Sasquatch. I felt my heart language only reached certain people; the non-conformist, non-capitalist, non-rapist people.

Deaths came, as did birthdays, and learning to appreciate life became more important than any of these battles. It was still daunting. I learned many hard lessons about self-care. Some nights I was emotionally exhausted. I had this sinking feeling walking past my band office not knowing what they were going to do to us. Towards the end my lil’ sister said we looked like we wanted to die. Some days it felt like my face would fall off from the anguish. I received prayer counselling. It was like a thread wrapped and entangled my heart was pulled out and I felt instant relief. I started facing it and recognizing I couldn’t hold on to what was gone. Any grounding exercise: breath work, meditation or prayer helps being present.  

I was absolutely amazed that my mother pursued these tasks selflessly as a one woman army before any one came to her aid. I was not embarrassed by my mom’s poverty and hardship. I was embarrassed by her being attacked socially and economically. I was embarrassed I was related to those people that are supposed to be my people.

What type of relationship do you have with the land?

My relationship to the land started when I was young. I grew up with access to one of the most beautiful beaches. My great-grandma lived oceanfront. She had lots of eagles visiting her all the time. She was very Native in her teachings. I understood how to listen, witness, observe Nature. My mother was raised by her grandmothers, so my conscious awareness of nature and Indigenous values was not abnormal to me.

Pic of my sister and I, James Island in the background, most valuable piece of Real Estate in BC at one time.

When I was well into womanhood, my grandpa shared a story about a certain area to walk and that it would bring visions. I spent lots of time there by myself. I witnessed many artists and visionaries attending that space for inspiration.

What relationships do you see with others, human and non-human people?

I am strongly into legend stories right now. The creatures that I don’t understand that have been displaced like me. I believe they matter. My grandpa spoke of that flying serpent. I believe in the metaphysical and the legends or teachings speak of the spirit world. I’ve heard Sasquatch stories, the delicateness in regards to this lifeform. I am eager to see the 9-foot Eagle that lives in the Mountains. A few sightings occurred. The most majestic creature. I could barely believe my eyes at the pictures online. It sat on a top of tree briefly and when it flew it dwarfed the landscape.

The beings, the ancestors, the forest energy in itself is just becoming understandable by science in plant consciousness. How we treat water. Native ceremonial or spirit bathing and the real sensible practices of respecting Nature makes great sense to me. I believe the tides are turning.  I believe messaging Sam was significant because this story would not have been told.

It was hard when my mom was being called crazy by people that are monsters to me. In how they conduct themselves and try to destroy everything and everyone. I went through stages of not liking humanity. I went through the greatest understanding of ecocide. I really love the natural world. I find so much kindness and love in people. I feel this experience aided me in being a better me. It is still hard. The most difficult relationship I have is with myself. Learning I am of no assistance to anyone unless I care for myself. Listening is the best medicine.

What other people/organizations have been involved?

I wrote letters, one to the prime minister. My mother went to the highest in Indigenous services, ministers, the prime minister. She connected with heritage branches, an archaeologist with the BC Museum, Environment Canada, federal and provincial departments. Local neighboring First Nations elders and Chief and Council. But we are on a Reserve.

I was concerned for landslides, as the only thing holding up our slope was trees. Natural Resources Canada. The local Member of Parliament, MLA couldn’t help as it is not a provincial issue. I told the same thing to the Chief and Council, as we fall under First Nations land management and Tsawout land code. The problem is tribal council members are doing private developments.

Do you see your struggle being connected to other struggles in other times/places?

Yes, I see parallels especially now. With oil projects, farm salmon, and the Amazon forest. I feel like some Indigenous people already endured this heart ache. I had activists tell me my heart would be broken. I still had to try.

This seemed to happen so quickly. There is definitely a quickening of understanding. A conscious awareness surfacing. A trust in something greater then self. Moving on, healthily.

Walking through initial bulldozed site before clearcut

What do you think about decolonizing?

I like Dr. Michael Yellowbird’s philosophy on decolonizing through mindfulness. Seeing where I’m colonized. Seeing where I need my independence, benefiting from the intergenerational healing that occurred during this fiasco.

What about liberation?

Liberation is arising anew, entirely in the concept, for me. It is surfacing in dreams, messages, and I’m processing what it is right now. I feel like I walked out of a war. I also think when you’re newly liberated you don’t fully understand until you see those you liberated walking strong. It is starting to happen and it is so uplifting.

Any advice for others?

I feel you intuitively prepare yourself for the tasks at hand. All that really matters is you honor yourself and do your best. Do not forget self-care and healing through forgiveness. I can see where I could have improved. Drink lots of water, remember to nourish yourself, resist running away. Treasuring what is. Trusting in others ability to engage and assist. Many have said to me the Earth repairs itself. The earth is capable of miraculous things, respect that. The ability to make yourself ill with these battles is overwhelming. Think in the mind frame of miracles. Xals, in Sencoten means creator, praying and practicing a belief in something greater transcends.  There is so many stories waiting to be shared and we have limited time on this earth, share.

I recommend an artistic outlet. Investing in true Indigenous artistry by researching your sources. Artistry will heal my war wounds. You know you’re in good company if you can be yourself. I feel art is a privilege. I hope I will be granted that luxury. It’s evaded me since these last years of focusing on other things. Art requires a connection to self and mobilized out of animosity. I think it will be pleasant to share stories. Stories are healing.

3 thoughts on “Interview with Tsawout resistance leader Vanessa Benita Claxton

  1. Wow. Great article. It’s relieving and refreshing to think about it from this point of view. I hope that this article will help increase understanding about the influence and consequences of these kinds of developments and the beliefs and practices that help people resist and live through them.
    HÍ SW? KE Thank you Vanessa and Shari and Sam for including me.

  2. Very much needed and beautifully written. There is much i could say but the simplest and most authentic response is My soul has always responded when hearing drums or native songs, I have always and always will have the utmost respect and earth connection with the First Nations People.
    I a few years ago was a non native living at Tsawout , I felt very humble and honored to have the opportunity to get to know more about history tradition, stories, song and how one practises true earth guardianship. It wasnt lost on me one day not ever at how twisted it was that I a white person was living on First Nations land all the while all the above written was going on and people, elderly, families where losing their homes
    Trees being clear cut and hauled out truck after truck ( people need to understand Tsawout is a small part of a penninsula that has been developed and developed somemore, Tsawout in my knowledge was the only place that had creeks, marshlands, medicinal native plants, and beautiful big cedars old cedars. Supossibley
    Protected but witness this not to be true, my heart ached with each day of buzzing chainsaws each thud of old trees falling for what??? Joni Mitchells lyrics “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot ” played over and over in my head. I always felt a bit uncomfortable in the one could say hypocritical position I could be viewed in, I supported in ways I knew I could. One year I had signs up and down the highway stating statistical facts about how many First Nations women and men who have been murdered and missing, how many years right up to present day, I placed red dresses on the bushes along side the highway each piece representing someones loved one missing or murdered, the red dress idea was in honoring Jamie Black an Albertan native who does fantastic powerful imagery on continued broken treaties, genocide lost resources of first nations. The other time I hung a banner over the highway supporting and bringing attention to Standing Rock.
    I find it an alarming red flag that our Orcas are in trouble our salmon is in trouble I see trucks of lumber that now carry quite small trees (all but a few ancient old growth forests have all been logged) I scream in my head “wake up wake up! Stop!stop! This destruction the irony for me is I feel the only chance we have of helping reverse the damage is in the wisdom and knowledge of the First Nations people where I Think now theres the irony if things had been righted 100s of years ago had we showed respect fairness take only what you need, give back, gratitude, and faith, what a different, rich, healthy earth we would be living now. I am sorry this response got winded but I am very passionate on these issues and injustices. Please stop the development and land distruction on Tsawout what has already been taken and developed and money exchanges privately is already far to much. I may not be 100% politically correct but Im a 100% sure my heart and support respect and gratitude are with First Nations and Tsawout is personally dear to my heart.

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