Re-branding Victoria

By Chris Creighton-Kelly, April 2013

Let’s recreate the city’s image by putting the land and its peoples front and centre.

He has had a few glasses of wine. So he, a non-native person, insists on telling me this: “There could be colourful banners, murals on the side of buildings, outdoor pole carvers and businesses selling aboriginal art.”

I respond by saying this is what we already have in Victoria. He counters by saying yes, but we need more of it. He is well-intentioned, but apparently, in some cases, there is a limit to the human imagination!

This exchange has sprouted from a lively dinner party conversation. All eight of us agree on one thing—the “little bit of old England” image that Victoria has projected to the world is in serious need of an update. A number of suggestions are floating at and above the table—an eco-sustainable city; an island/marine-based city; a high-tech city; an education city; an arts city. What would that look like? Who would need to invest in that? Who would be the stakeholders in changing this image? Who would not want this to change?

A few weeks earlier, giving four teenagers a ride into town, I overhear their spirited mockery of fish and chips, tartan shops and tea in the afternoon. Someone suggests that the Inner Harbour feels like a movie set. I catch that most of this is for old people, that Victoria is not really hip enough.

And yesterday, at an art opening, the artist, while talking about his work, mentions that his creative community includes some musical Peruvian friends, “…not what we usually associate with Victoria, it is not known as a hotbed of Peruvian music.” Giggles all around the gallery audience.

So it is in the body politic. Re-branding Victoria. Let’s face it, this little bit of old England thing was a little bit ill-fitting in the first place. Certainly it is true that folks from the UK were some of the first settlers to make contact with the indigenous people of this land. But telling a complete, honest tale of our city has to take into account other folks with an Asian, African or South Asian heritage. Not to mention different countries in Europe.

And most critically, any story—any history—of Victoria must put First Peoples first. I asked Janet Rogers, a Mohawk writer and Victoria’s poet laureate, about a new image.

“First of all, I am curious about the intention of this re-invention. For me, if it is simply linked to tourism, that is problematic.” 

We talk about where any city’s image comes from. Usually it has its roots in history and geography, however vaguely. From these two, certain myths are created. But sometimes these myths are imposed without a truthful evaluation of the past, without due consideration to all of its citizens. 

Rogers puts it this way: “For this image to be more authentically Aboriginal, it has to be more than branding. Indigenous people need to be consulted from day one. They need to drive the project, to design the process and to direct the activities that would comprise any new image.”

Thinking about art, she continues, “Of course, there needs to be a greater presence of aboriginal art in the city. But we need to go full circle—there needs to be aboriginal culture, aboriginal life ways, foods, plant life...” 

She has my imagination stirring. This would mean a real re-think. It would involve starting with the land. 

I recall the vital work of Cheryl Bryce, a Lekwungen woman and lands manager of the Songhees People. Over the last two decades, she has devoted herself to researching, remembering and restoring Indigenous food systems in what is now called the CRD. She sees this ancient/new method of identifying, reclaiming and harvesting plants as part of a de-colonizing process. She regularly gives what she calls “De-colonizing Tours.”

I ask her if her work is for locals or tourists. “It can be both. There is a fine line there. I want to show people that the history of colonization has impacted the land and that this, in turn, affects all of us who live here plus anyone who comes to visit—what we harvest, what we eat, what we consider as harvestable. The reason that our lush, local land base even exists is due to my ancestors. Especially the women bent over in the fields weeding, harvesting and burning.”

She talks about how, “...an ecosystem works together and impacts everything—history and culture. People need to know the truth, the real story of colonization. We need to go farther back in time and go deeper in the present time.”

I feel inspired. But I wonder how this could work in real life. I wonder how to make us care about this—both the throngs of visitors and those of us who are lucky to live here.

Cheryl affirms that she wants to see “the living presence of First Nations people. I want to see it everywhere—owning the businesses that sell our art, changing the street names, sharing the stories.”

Maybe such an image change is not possible. Tourism is generally aligned with relaxation, downtime and resting, not heated discussions about Canada’s colonial history! 

Marketing a place is not usually associated with being provocative. Those folks who are invested in a certain way of promoting our corner of the planet do not really want controversy—contested history, contested futures—to intrude on a placid, easy-going narrative. Just jump on the double-decker bus, next we are off to see a castle.

But all of this simply begs the question: Who decides a city’s image? Could it be its citizens, rather than its power brokers? Could it be community values instead of the imperative of commerce?

It is hard to put a finger on Victoria’s exact values. It is some sort of amalgam that cares about outdoor activities; public and community service; respect for elders; local heritage; environmental sensitivity—especially water-based; art, performance and literary appreciation; gardening year-round; wellness at all ages; and a locavore, sustainable food supply. 

Now put First Peoples—all of the Coast Salish people that abound on the southern tip of our island—at the centre of this list. Not added on, as an afterthought.

If re-branding is to have any depth, it will mean re-imagining and then re-constructing a new Victoria image. In our mediated world, more and more folks are seeking the real thing, the genuine article. And there is nothing more genuine than our relationship to the land.

Perhaps a city’s image can be evocative, rather than provocative. Imagine standing at your favourite spot on the land. Or even better for an island, where this land meets the water. Now close your eyes. For thousands of years, indigenous people have stood here before us. To understand the meaning of this place, to (re)create an image for this land we now call Victoria, we have an unambiguous, palpable responsibility to begin with this fact.

So, my fellow citizens, it is time to bid bye-bye to teatime at the Empress. To Union Jacks on red buses. 

Are you ready for an extreme makeover?

Chris Creighton-Kelly is a Canadian artist and writer who lives in the Victoria area. Along with France Trépanier, he is the co-author of Understanding Aboriginal Arts in Canada Today.