Indigenous Communities

Reclaiming Roots: Unearthing the lost history of Qayqayt First Nation

Chief Larrabee embarks on a journey of self-discovery and unearths forgotten lives, culture

This is the second part in a series about the Qayqayt First Nation’s journey of discovering and reigniting a lost culture and history. Read Part 1, Reclaiming Roots: A mother’s anguish transforms a painful history.

When Rhonda Larrabee received her Indian status card as a member of the Qayqayt First Nation (also known as the New Westminster Indian Band) nearly 20 years ago, her phone rang off the hook.

She began hearing from all sorts of people, including other First Nations leaders. She received calls about fishing rights and other things to which she was entitled but hadn’t been on her mind at all. She simply wanted to reconnect with her ancestry after growing up believing she was of Chinese-French descent.

One of the most impactful calls she received was from a Squamish First Nation woman working for the Katzie First Nation. She asked Rhonda, “Do you know the responsibility of you being reinstated into this band?” Rhonda replied, “Well, no.”

She and her brother, Ron, met with the woman and were overwhelmed after a three-hour conversation.

Conducting research with her husband, Bryan, Rhonda began to understand the Qayqayt history. “There were 400 people who called themselves Qayqayt village. And they were displaced and they were stricken with a smallpox epidemic. Now it’s like they never existed,” Rhonda says. “They shouldn’t be forgotten.”

Rhonda, who is now chief of the Qayqayt (pronounced ka-kite) First Nation, became the first documented person of the First Nation since the New Westminster Indian Band was placed on the Inactive General List of Reserves in 1951. Her mother, Marie Bandura-nee Joseph, was a member of the last family to live one of the three former Qayqayt reserves — a 22-acre piece of land near the current site of Kruger Paper in New Westminster, B.C. The other reserves were on Poplar Island, which was their traditional burial ground, and 104 acres of land on the south banks of the Fraser River, which was then called the South Westminster Indian Reserve and is now called Bridgeview in Surrey, B.C. The Qayqayt First Nation is the only First Nation community in B.C. without a current land base.

The federal government allocated the reserves to the Qayqayt people in 1859, but archaeological remains indicate the area along the Fraser River was the ancestral home of ancient tribes including Qw’ó:ntl’an (or Kwantlen, associated with the present day Sto:lo). The Qw’ó:ntl’an was among the groups whose ancestral home was centred at what would later become known as New Westminster.

Several villages were important to the Qw’o:ntl’an people at this location, including a site called “Qayqayt” (meaning “resting place”) situated across the river from the City of New Westminster. This seasonal fishing village and hunting base was also a place for the Qw’o:ntl’an people to pick cranberries. After Fort Langley was established in 1827, the Qw’o:ntl’an moved 30 miles up-river near the fort to establish themselves as middlemen between the fur traders and other First Nations groups.

Rhonda’s grandparents were among the few that still lived on the reserve in New Westminster, even after the federal government sold the land. Her mother, Marie, was born there, but was sent to residential school in Kamloops after her parents passed away. Most of the Qayqayt land was shut down due to the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission, which authorized the addition, elimination and removal of reserves throughout the province between 1913-1916. A smallpox epidemic reduced the population from 400 to 100.

Rhonda’s aunt and uncle were the last two living members of the Qayqayt First Nation, but they didn’t know at the time about “Indian status,” which they needed in order to be officially recognized. Even though they were still on the band list, they were not documented as living on the Qayqayt reserve. The New Westminster Indian Band was consequently placed on the General List of Reserves – Inactive. Rhonda’s aunt and uncle subsequently passed away.

When Rhonda proved to what was then the federal Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development that she was Marie’s daughter, she was not only named a member of the New Westminster Indian Band, the band was also removed from the list and deemed active.

With a commitment to honour her mother’s history, Rhonda slowly became involved with the City of New Westminster and Douglas College, and it “mushroomed out from there,” she says. Other First Nations also offered support, such as the Katzie First Nation’s provision of boats and expertise when Rhonda and her family sought fishing rights. The Qayqayt community was granted permission to fish in the Fraser River for food, social and ceremonial purposes in 1996. Rhonda’s brother, Rob, now leads fishing for the Qayqayt people.

Rhonda’s brothers, Rob and Rod, have gone down the red road, embracing their traditional spirituality. Ron, her eldest brother, recently passed away.

Shortly after receiving her Indian status, Rhonda was elected chief of the band council, the governing body for the community. The band council now has four councillors and there are 12 official Qayqayt members, although Rhonda says there is a larger community of under 100 people.

Rhonda is grateful that a new elementary school in New Westminster, on the site of St. Mary’s Hospital where Marie was born, is being named École Qayqayt Elementary School. “That is a big honour for us,” she says.

Since retiring 14 years ago, Rhonda has dedicated herself full-time to creating cultural awareness, especially among children. She has also focused on building a relationship with the community of New Westminster, and the complex, expensive process of filing a specific claim with the Department Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada regional office in Vancouver.

Specific claims deal with particular grievances relating to the administration of First Nations lands and assets under the Indian Act, as well as the fulfillment of treaties. Without a current land base, the Qayqayt First Nation cannot work with the B.C. Treaty Commission, which is the independent body responsible for facilitating treaty negotiations among the governments of Canada, B.C. and First Nations in B.C.

One of the most challenging aspects of this process has been putting together the claim, Rhonda says. She’s happy it was submitted last year with the help of a lawyer being financed through a federal grant, researcher Sandra Isaac and others in the community. The claim moved to the Department of Justice in Ottawa in February 2013, where it is currently under review.

Qayqayt First Nation is working with Urban Matters to explore the community’s options for re-establishing a permanent reserve, cultural and community space. They are also developing a strategic plan to consider directions for the community during this time of transition and into the future.

Her steadfast commitment to this journey always takes Rhonda back to her mother. “Everything I have done, I have done because of and for my mom,” she says. “Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren and the generations after should know where they came from.”

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