Discovering Cultural Connections on the Fraser River

Rivers run deep through Vancouver’s history. The lower mainland waterways have connected communities and sustained livelihoods for generations and provided a source of rich cultural heritage for Indigenous peoples. The Fraser River in particular was named a Canadian Heritage River in 1998, based on its vast cultural and natural heritage, including geographic formations, rich and ongoing First Nations history, and significance to European settlement.

Learning Indigenous history, culture, and stories of the Fraser River Basin is essential to creating a more complete understanding of the river and the central role it has played for riverside communities since time immemorial. The Fraser River Discovery Centre Society (FRDCS), which operates the Fraser River Discovery Centre in New Westminster, BC, has a mission to bring together the many voices of the Fraser to discover, celebrate, and inspire passionate stewards of the river. Through rotating exhibits and hands-on programs, the Fraser River Discovery Centre presents the river’s contribution to the life, history, and future of British Columbia and its people.

To help further this work, FRDCS was recently the recipient of a C$250,000 grant from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation in conjunction with Seaspan and Southern Railway of British Columbia Limited. The gift will specifically support programs in partnership with First Nations (Musqueam Indian Band), including school programs, public information and dialogue programs, and interactive exhibits.

Frank Butzelaar, Chief Operating Officer, Washington Companies, spoke of the enduring association with FRDCS. “Our Washington Companies — Seaspan and Southern Railway of British Columbia — have enjoyed a long relationship with FRDCS and we value the work they do creating informative dialogue and innovative pathways for learning about the cultural, environmental, and economic significance of the Fraser River. In particular, this grant will help to create greater awareness of Indigenous peoples’ relationship with the river and establish new ways in which we can work together to sustainably manage this valuable resource.”

The partnership with the Musqueam Indian Band will develop xʷtatəl̕ləm (Place of Learning About the Indigenous Heritage and Teachings of the Fraser River). FRDCS will work with the Musqueam and other First Nations to share information about the Fraser River and work towards Reconciliation and the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Nolan Charles, Council Member for the Musqueam Indian Band for 30 years, expressed his great appreciation for the gift to FRDCS. “This donation is in the true spirit of partnership. I see this gift in the context of a community potluck, where everybody brings something to share. Seaspan and Southern Railway of British Columbia didn’t just bring a dish, they brought a whole platter! I am blown away by the size of the platter that will feed all our little ones with knowledge. You folks are amazing!”

UNDRIP and Truth and Reconciliation are a catalyst and focus for the Musqueam and the partnerships they develop. Nolan went on to highlight the importance of laying the groundwork that will allow dialogue for future generations. “Modern scholarship meets traditional learning. We want to tell the history of the Fraser and we want to be inclusive. We want to learn, share and teach our knowledge of the Fraser with our community and this donation opens up so many possibilities. This puts us in a good place, with good people — at a community level — supporting Article 25 of UNDRIP and some of the Truth and Reconciliation calls to action, that help us build student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy and mutual respect.”

The Discovery Centre also acts as a meeting place, to exchange ideas about the Fraser River, connect communities up- and down-river and to provide a place to discuss, debate, and showcase the living, working Fraser River. 

“This support from Seaspan and Southern Railway of British Columbia is critical to moving forward with both xʷtatəl̕ləm and our Fraser River Education Programs as we continue to recover from the impacts the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the Fraser River Discovery Centre,” said Mark Rizzo, Chair, Fraser River Discovery Centre Society. “The donation — the single largest we have ever received — helps ensure we can further educate our visitors and the region about the Indigenous, economic, environmental, and socio-economic importance of the living, working Fraser River.”

The true spirit of being good a community partner and neighbour is to develop meaningful and deep relationships — and with good fortune they will be as deep as the flowing waters of the Fraser River.