Know Your Neighbour

How outreach work at Beacon Hill Park helped Bear Henry connect with the past

Originally from the Penelakut reserve near Chemainus, Henry spent several months as one of several unofficial, unpaid organizers at the Meegan Community Tent

By Nina Grossman
April 3, 2021
Know Your Neighbour

How outreach work at Beacon Hill Park helped Bear Henry connect with the past

Originally from the Penelakut reserve near Chemainus, Henry spent several months as one of several unofficial, unpaid organizers at the Meegan Community Tent

By Nina Grossman
Apr 3, 2021
Nina Grossman / Capital Daily
Know Your Neighbour

How outreach work at Beacon Hill Park helped Bear Henry connect with the past

Originally from the Penelakut reserve near Chemainus, Henry spent several months as one of several unofficial, unpaid organizers at the Meegan Community Tent

By Nina Grossman
April 3, 2021
How outreach work at Beacon Hill Park helped Bear Henry connect with the past
Nina Grossman / Capital Daily

At nine years old, Bear Henry stepped into a canoe with a Penelakut chief, silently guided by the strong stoke of the leader’s paddle through the choppy waterways of the Fraser River. Communicating in fluent Hul'q’umi'num, the chief taught Henry their people’s history. 

It was a dream, but Henry (who uses they/them pronouns) felt a visceral connection that carried into waking life. 

At 36, Henry is still trying to grapple with the missing pieces, reattaching the cultural cords severed by residential schools and the Sixties Scoop. 

Originally from the Penelakut reserve near Chemainus, Henry spent several months as one of several unofficial, unpaid organizers at the Meegan Community Tent—a set of small temporary structures where people living in Beacon Hill Park could access food, warmth, and shelter over the cold winter months during COVID-19. 

Jutting out off the side of Beacon Hill Park, the tent claimed a portion of Cook Street, just north of Dallas Road. Its unusual location was the final product of long-winded council deliberations with neighbours and community groups, many of them protesting the tent’s proximity to their homes. 

The structures might have been inside the park—distanced from any neighbourhood—but a trust, created when the land was turned over to the city in 1882, effectively banned it from being erected on park land, and the street location was a final compromise. The tent’s funding, which came in the form of an emergency social services grant, expired March 31, and the busy makeshift community centre was packed up and taken down, one month BC Housing’s self-imposed deadline to find shelter for all of the city’s unhoused people. 

The Capital Daily spoke to Henry in February, after an Arctic front and 20-centimetre dump of snow left community organizations scrambling to find additional shelter spaces. In the style typical of Victoria winters, the sun was melting slush off the sides of the warming tent only days later. 

Henry sat in a two-person camp chair and lit a cigarette. 

“It’s not how my grandparents or my ancestors would care for people,” they say. “They wouldn’t just leave them out in the cold.” 

Next to the tent, the branches of deciduous giants reached over a chain link fence enclosing the limits of the 139-year-old land trust’s power. 

The idea of a Beacon Hill Park Trust is steeped in colonial irony to Henry, because the park itself is sitting on unceded Lək̓ʷəŋən territory, where, at a time before colonization, Henry’s nomadic ancestors would also have  lived.  

“My ancestors settled here 10,000 or 15,000 years ago, and eventually moved away,” they said. “Most of our spiritual advisors or healers would have lived in this area.”  

Penelakut Tribe is part of the Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group, comprising six First Nations in southeast Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands and the Lower Fraser River. The group’s marine traditional territory encompasses the Strait of Georgia, Juan de Fuca Strait and a portion of the Puget Sound— – land connecting Coast Salish communities through trade, travel and culture. 

Community ‘in my DNA’

Oral histories are one of the ways Hul’qumi’num Elders have shared the roots of their people’s land, informing consultation policy and formal declarations of territory. But it’s also how Henry has connected with their own history, learning from their grandmother that at one point in time, their family was 10,000 strong. 

“It’s in my DNA to be with community,” Henry said. 

Henry’s life is woven with displacement and transience. In and out of their mother’s care, their aunt’s care and several foster homes, Henry was diagnosed with clinical depression at nine, and started using crystal meth as a teen. 

“We’re all from intergenerational poverty. It’s really all I know,” Henry said. “My mother was part of the Sixties Scoop. She suffered a lot at the hands of the government.” 

Henry’s aunt, Rose Henry, credits them with linking four generations of the Henry family. Starting with a school assignment when they were 15, Henry started tracing a forgotten past using only the first name of their maternal grandmother, whose children were taken at birth. 

“That really showed (their) personality, (their) perseverance on anything that (they) put (their) mind to,” Rose said. “(They) just go and get it.” 

“The cultural genocide by force of assimilation is strong,” she added, “But the culture is in our DNA, and it’s awakening.” 

Henry suffered with the residual effects of the Sixties Scoop, Rose said. 

“To watch (them) go through all the ups and downs of transitioning from (their) mother’s home to foster care…to life on the streets and falling into addiction, it was hard to watch,” she said. “It’s an incredible journey (they’ve) been on.” 

Over their life, Henry has been housed, homeless and briefly jailed. They’ve lived in Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, Prince George and Los Angeles. 

Henry’s nomadic life is an echo of their ancestors’ transience—moving from place to place for security, safety and resources.

 “My Indian name is Dinezeck,” Henry said. “The spirit that wanders.” 

Addiction, trauma, mental illness and homelessness were impetus for a career in outreach work, and Henry found their place in support worker roles for various Vancouver Island non-profits.  

“When I first decided to actually address my trauma and started helping Indigenous youth it was interesting because [I had] a lot of visceral reactions to our stories and struggle and survival,” they said. “I did that for eight years.”

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Henry completed three years of a social justice studies degree at the University of Victoria. They worked as a residential support worker for the Victoria Cool Aid Society and as a mental health worker for the Vancouver-based Portland Hotel Society. 

Not all of the jobs ended on good terms and Henry didn’t always feel accepted by colleagues. 

“A lot of the time I was the only one with lived experience,” Henry said. “And there was pushback — pushback from my coworkers because I’m not on their ‘level.’” 

“But I understand what it’s like to be squished by a system that’s cruel and inhumane,” they added. “It’s cruel to keep people shackled and chained to cold, harsh, damp, dark environments.” 

Before it came down, Henry drove to the community tent nearly every day. They organized donations, served coffee and when needed, helped to de-escalate conflict or adverse behaviour. They’ve been housed for several years  and live on disability funding. 

Henry laughed and called themselves the “queer mom” of the operation. They shrug when asked what draws them to the park, day after day. 

“I want to give legitimacy to people who are here,” they said. “I think that we all bring something unique to the table. We’ve all learned something or we’ve all achieved something through some kind of hardship.”

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