Stingray Sisters in Vancouver


WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following article contains images and voices of deceased persons.

In memory of Alice Eather

On the west coast of Canada, the Musqueam people are carving a totem pole in 800-year-old red wood cedar sourced from Haida Island near Vancouver. In just a few days the artists will have finished transforming this magical tree trunk into a contemporary Musqueam totem pole. The finished piece will be called ‘ Reconciliation’ and is set to make a historic point in the relatively new nation of Canada.


Every image on a totem pole is significant. On this red wood giant, the images tell the story of colonisation, destruction of nations, stolen children, boarding house abuse, resilience, survival and reclamation of identity from the point of view of the First Nations survivors. In a true act of reconciliation, this memorial totem will replace the flagpole at one of the largest universities in the country, the University of British Columbia. Kunibídji First Nations warriors, Alice and Noni Eather, saw this tree being carved after travelling almost three days from Maningrida, Arnhem Land, Australia to arrive in Vancouver - fortuitously on International Women’s Day.

The sisters were invited as guests of the Vancouver International Women’s Film Festival to present and talk about their film ‘ Stingray Sisters’. The film is centred around Noni, Alice and Grace Eather and their fight to protect their community and lands from experimental forms of offshore mining. The story of colonisation and the destruction of First Nations lore is one we are familiar with in Australia. But it’s a story that should resonate across the world. Witnessing this artwork taking shape made us feel Australia was further from reconciliation than ever before. The story carved in that tree trunk in many ways mirrored our own national history. But where is our reconciliation pole in Australia? One that would replace the Australian flag?


It wasn’t this experience alone that led us to believe Canada were ahead of Australia in terms of true reconciliation. We had many experiences during that time that indicated Australia had a long way to go in making amends for the past. Despite the historic similarities, the differences between where our Indigenous communities back home are and what we saw in Vancouver were stark.

At the TsleilWaututh community in Vancouver City, the First Nations council managed the development of their own houses on their own land. Brisbane, Australia is a city of comparable size to Vancouver and is second home to the Stingray Sisters. In Brisbane, we’ve never heard of acres of land dedicated to housing First Nations managed by First Nations people.

The TsleilWaututh in Canada ran ecotourism businesses from which the First Nations people profited. In Arnhem Land, projects are decided upon by the government of the day and royalties from these projects are handed out to individual Traditional Owners. This tactic of handing out funds to individual people creates division and conflict between clan groups, ultimately weakening communities. TsleilWaututh had their own departments of environment, planning, economic development and their own language schools on site at the reservation. The Tsleil- Waututh First Nations council ran like a local government within the broader governments. We’d never witnessed such a thing.


Our TsleilWaututh hosts, Carleen and her brother Bones, told us that generations before had fought hard to be recognised and while the progress made was significant, the TsleilWaututh are still facing major battles. Battles that we knew too well, including fighting to prevent disastrous mining projects from being approved. We bonded over that and vowed to support each other into the future. But they weren't the only people with whom the sisters' stories resonated.

Our film ‘Stingray Sisters’ was the Closing Night film at Vancouver International Women’s Film Festival. The response to the sisters’ story was incredible. All the way across the other side of the world, people in Canada cared about the sisters’ struggles, about our First Nations’ struggles. We were not alone. The festival audience, female filmmakers, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh leaders were all backing the sisters. This was the reminder we needed. First Nations are not alone when it comes to standing up to protect their country. They’re not alone in wanting and deserving more for their people who have been oppressed for so long. They’re not alone in wanting true reconciliation for First Nations people.


Now in Australia, we are at the pointy end of a long battle over the need for Treaty versus Constitutional Recognition. Both major political parties are pushing for constitutional recognition but many within the Indigenous community believe that would be an empty symbolic gesture. The community of Maningrida are excited that one of the Stingray Sisters has been shortlisted to have a seat at the table of this national debate.

We know the First Nations in Canada have struggled immensely and these Nations have many more struggles ahead but we have also seen the gains these communities have made. Thanks to the Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh nations, we have been inspired. First Nations in Australia have always been told to accept what the government is offering because that’s all they’ll get. We know that this is not the case. The sisters feel stronger than ever that the First Nations people of Australia should outline the terms of any national agreement. Recognition in the Constitution would not mean recognition at all. It would mean the First Nations of Australia are to accept things the way they are.

A treaty with the terms carved out by the First Nations of Australia for the First Nations of Australia is the only way forward. A treaty is about accepting the past as truth, acknowledging the damage created and actually allowing the First Nations survivors to tell the nation what a fair agreement looks like. A treaty should be a plan drawn up by First Nations in which the colonisers, for once, are not the first ones at the table. Isn’t it time for the First Nations of Australia to carve out their own story? For one day, it would be nice for our Australian First Nations people to feel truly proud of the term reconciliation.


This article also features in issue 8 of HYSTERIA.