LAND BACK: Talking Indigenous Rights & Reconciliation with Kevin John

Kevin John is a local musician, beloved Kaslovian and burgeoning activist. Growing up as mixed heritage Kyuquot in the Kootenays, he has witnessed the reality of Indigenous erasure and the very real struggle of unearthing their precious stories. Kevin is dedicated to fighting for Indigenous rights and reconciliation in this region and beyond. We chatted about how the trauma of this moment has ignited his inner warrior, and how justice for Indigenous people can be achieved. 

The Sentinel is located on the traditional unceded territories of the Sinixt, the Syilx, and the Ktunaxa peoples. 

Watch and experience Kevin’s gift of music and activism on Saturday June 12th during his set at The Kemball Building, livestreaming on The Langham Facebook Page

Interviewed by Lina Konovalov, Marketing Coordinator at The Sentinel

Lina: Hey Kevin! I’m so happy to see you, even though it’s under such saddening circumstances. What a wild few weeks! Between what is going on at Fairy Creek, and the discovery of the bodies of 215 children in Kamloops, everything feels extremely heavy right now. How are you doing?

Kevin: I’m pretty tired at the moment. It’s been really crazy, however I am feeling more fired up and empowered than I ever have. I feel a lot more clarity in my purpose and what I really stand for.

Lina: That’s a really positive outlook. You’re making lemonade out of lemons. Ever since I’ve met you, you’ve always been very open about your identity as a mixed heritage Indigenous person and as the child of a residential school survivor. Can you tell us about your story? 

Kevin: I’ve grown up here in the Kootenays, which is where my mother’s side of the family ended up. My father, who is Indigenous, went to a residential school on Vancouver Island, and met my mother at Kyuquot. Shortly after I was born, they separated, essentially because of the trauma he carries from those experiences. Growing up in an essentially white-washed family, I barely saw Indigenous people in the Kootenays. There was no real presence of them – and in a sense that saved me from a lot of racism I could have experienced. At the same time, it was part of the assimilation program. Like, it’s just fucking easier to be white. Slowly through my 20s it became something I identified with more. Especially in the last week with the residential schools being revealed for what they truly are, it’s become the most important thing in my life. 

Lina: I really see you standing in that before me. I’ve loved witnessing you grow into your wholeness as an activist and community leader. You definitely inspire those around you and instill thought and conversation in a really gentle, compassionate way. What has been your experience with elevating Indigenous voices and issues in the Kootenay region? 

Kevin: The history is largely invisible here. I took up the quest to find the stories of the Sinixt, who are one of the main bands in this territory. It’s been hard because a lot of their history has been intentionally erased and suppressed. When we started tearing down statues of colonial leaders over the last year, some people were like “You’re erasing our history!” – and it’s like, no. We’re not erasing history. We’re just not celebrating these people anymore. The history is still there, all written down. The real history that has been erased is the Indigenous history. The stories of the slaughters that went down. There are no plaques or gravestones for them. It’s been really difficult to find that history, especially because I’m not in my traditional territory. I don’t know if we’ll ever get those stories back. Though, I’ve had the good fortune of meeting a couple people who know the history. The Ktunaxa are getting more recognition. They own and operate Ainsworth Hot Springs. 

Lina: That is super sad to think about. That juxtaposition between Canadian history being documented, versus the Indigenous stories that were erased and the storytellers that were killed. It’s a privilege to know your past.  We’ve spoken about you moving to the island and being a part of that work to keep Indigenous tradition alive – without people like you, it’s going to get lost.

Kevin: Yeah, and sadly a lot of youth are not interested in it. It’s changing somewhat, but it isn’t made easy to be involved in your culture and to know your stories. The flip side of that is, though, for anyone who is interested, the mentorship is there. If you show up with the right intention of wanting to keep the culture alive, there are people who will take you under their wing.

Lina: Have you noticed any impacts in your local community thanks to your work and the work of other mobilizers and allies?

Kevin: We recently got the municipal government to do a land acknowledgment in their local council meetings. That was huge! It came about in part of my own efforts, and the efforts of my aunt and uncle who are really involved in restorative justice and prison systems. Also, the lowering of the flags was an impactful moment. I cried when I saw that. It’s a small gesture, but if it hadn’t happened at all I would have been completely outraged. There are small steps heading in the right direction.Lina: Small steps here, but also everywhere! Incredible work is taking place in so many communities outside of this region. I was lucky enough to visit Fairy Creek a few weekends ago, and I was blown away by the strength and determination of Indigenous activists. They’ve had enough. Do you think we’re finally at a place in society where Indigenous issues are being addressed head on?

Kevin: I think it’s getting a lot harder for people to ignore it. It’s really in our faces. We had had the BLM movement really kick off last year, and we’re seeing statues getting torn down. I think that people are really ready for change. With the way social media works now, it is a lot harder for people to sweep it under the rug. The pressure on the politicians is key. For them to ignore it at this point would look really bad. I’m also a bit skeptical of social movements and their staying power, but we will see. It’s a good time to strike while the iron is hot.

Lina: A weird disassociation can take place within viral movements. I work in social media, and here I am using the #215children hashtag on a walk in Victoria and blindly end up in front of the parliament where the public vigil is. Suddenly, I’m faced with the reality of that grief, even after days of being exposed to it online. I don’t think I experienced that grief until I saw that in real life. What else can we do, besides hashtags, to get people to connect with that profound sense of loss?

Kevin: It’s another double-edged sword. A lot of these conversations are complicated. It can become a sensationalized thing that people forget about once something else happens. On the other hand, we’re spreading a lot more information and educating people a lot more than we have in the past. It’s really important for people to feel into it – it’s grieving.

Lina: I think one important thing people can do is to get away from their phones and connect with their community. Find out whose territory you live on. Connect with those people, first and foremost.

Kevin: Yeah, meet them! Go for coffee. How do you connect with anybody? You learn about them.

Lina: Obviously there is still an enormous amount of work and reparations that needs to be done in order for this country, or whatever you want to call it, to move forward. Looking into the future, what kind of changes do you think are paramount on a provincial and even national scale?

Kevin: Land acknowledgment, followed by action. The words are one thing, but they don’t mean anything unless you see a change in behaviour. If you say, “Sorry for stealing your car,” and keep driving it around and maybe offer me a ride home, it’s not good enough. You need to give the car back. Indigenous people need to live however they want to live and be able to self-govern in their traditional ways. There is never going to be real reconciliation until that happens. I can see why a lot of people are terrified by that – they think their livelihood won’t continue. That’s not what will happen. There will still be resource extraction and the demand for it, however we would do it more intelligently and in a sustainable way that also benefits the Indigenous populations.

Lina: If only we were wise enough to realize that giving Indigenous people their land and sovereignty back would be so healing to our environment. They know how to live in harmony with the land, whereas all we know is how to exploit it. We’re at the point now where we need help. This is where Fairy Creek and the Indigenous rights movement intersect, because the solution is going back to those traditional ways of living symbiotically with the environment.

Kevin: Yeah, there’s a lot of wisdom there. We have to synthesize the two, because both cultures do have a lot to offer each other. There just hasn’t been a lot of listening. Also, this is for everybody! We’re all going to need those trees to breathe. You can’t breathe the money.

Lina: I know that many folks are cautious approaching these issues, and fear speaking up or getting involved. Especially here in the Kootenay region where many residents have grown their wealth out of resource extraction. Do you have any recommendations for skeptics looking to learn more about Canada’s legacy of oppression and violence against Indigenous people?

Kevin: There’s The Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. And tons of books. It’s a tough story to put out there, how you were abused in terrible places as a child. We can’t just expect to walk up to people and have them tell us what it was like. We can refer to the reports and the writers. Go familiarize with Indigenous-run news outlets in Canada. Familiarize yourself with their world views and perspectives.

Lina: Are you finding that so-called “white saviours” are co-opting these issues and leading the charge? I know that seemed to be a touchy point of debate at the blockades, the tension between the mostly white environmental protection movement and the fight for Indigenous sovereignty.

Kevin: 99% of Indigenous people already knew how messed up those schools were. Now that it’s coming out, everyone is all fired up and sharing. It’s good for people who didn’t know about it, but for the rest of us it’s like ‘Yeah, we told you’. The Truth and Reconciliation Report came out six years ago! It feels like that’s what it takes for change to happen, for a bunch of non-Indigenous people to get fired up. It can be frustrating. I’m cynical that this social movement is going to have staying power that way. Instead, it is time for Indigenous populations to take control and look after their own food sovereignty and water, our own education and healthcare. I’ve been involved with some people putting those wheels in motion, and it’s very promising. We don’t have to wait for the government to make it happen.

Lina: Well, with people like you leading the way, I think progress and justice for Indigenous people is inevitable. Amazing work, Kevin. It seems like we could talk forever, because the amount of suffering that could be addressed is insurmountable. However, meaningful differences are being made every day. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and wisdom, and all the good work that you do. Is there anything else you wanted to talk about before we go?

Kevin: I’m a musician – that has been my personal development and therapy. Performing is becoming my platform to speak out. I am starting to choose more songs that are topical. As an artist you have a responsibility to reflect society back to itself. So, I’m performing a show. It’s Saturday at 4pm in front of the Kemball building in Kaslo, and it will be live-streaming on the Langham facebook page.