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Census data provides unprecedented insight into Squamish Nation community

The annually collated data will be used to track the evolution of the Squamish Nation’s viewpoints on housing, education, health and culture
Spectators and paddlers gather for the Swáywey̓ (Ambleside Beach) Canoe Races hosted by Squamish Nation July 1, 2023. | Nick Laba / North Shore News

The Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) has published the results of its first ever self-run census, offering a rare glimpse into the demographics, experiences and viewpoints of its members.

One in three Squamish members participated in the project, named Eslhílhkw’iws Chet (we are all related), when it ran in 2022 from July until October. Each of the 1,233 respondents answered questions on housing, employment, health, education, culture and language, alongside more finer aspects of Indigenous living, including their experiences of racism or safety within the community. 

The pride of Squamish Nation members is palpable, with almost all respondents stating they were proud of their identity, and believed that knowing and learning about Squamish culture was important. Of those surveyed, 98 per cent said the Skwxwú7mesh sníchim (Squamish language) is worth saving, with the majority ‘strongly agreeing’ that the language should be taught in schools and is vital to members’ identity and existence.

While much of the community can speak some of the Squamish language, mainly words and phrases, only 8 percent reported being somewhat fluent, with 30 percent of respondents unable to speak the language.

All activities that made Squamish Nation members feel most connected to their culture were acknowledged in equal measure, with spending time with family and friends, sharing or learning about Squamish history, spending time with knowledge keepers or Elders, dancing, singing or drumming, participating in ceremonies and speaking or teaching the language all ranking equal importance.

Of the members who took part in the census, just over half live on reservation land. The majority of those who don’t, 83 per cent, indicated that they wanted to move home back to Squamish territory. 

The findings confirm what the Nation was already hearing through other community engagement processes, said Squamish Nation spokesperson and elected councillor Sxwíxwtn (Wilson Williams).

"The most significant response for planning and program design is that nearly all members currently living off Sḵwx̱wú7mesh lands want to move home within the next five years, and that the biggest barrier they face is availability of housing."

This is especially true for younger people, said Williams, with those aged between 19 and 30 the most likely to feel that housing contributes to their levels of stress.

In terms of overall wellbeing, a third of those polled would consider themselves "somewhat" happy or content, while just over 40 percent would consider themselves "quite" happy or content. Most would rate their physical, spiritual, mental and emotional wellness as "good" or "fair," with less than 15 per cent of members rating all elements of wellness as "very good." 

The darker elements of Squamish history still linger for much of the community, with 94 per cent of those surveyed having had a family member placed into residential school, and 60 per cent having had family members taken during the '60s Scoop. While most members report feeling culturally safe in most places they visit, there are still experiences of racism in the wider community, and many services outside of the Nation, including child welfare, justice, and police services, still feel culturally unsafe.

The information garnered from the census will help Nation members better understand their own community's needs and values, in addition to informing the Nation itself on future decisions regarding development and services, said Williams. 

"Through this project, the Nation set out to identify what information would be most useful to leadership, the administration, and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw members, as well as develop the policies and processes that enable data sovereignty and self-governance," said Williams.

"The guiding vision was for this project to enhance self-determination, rebuild and reinforce connections between family and kin, and leave a legacy of both useful information and new skills and understanding to support Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw in years to come."

Data from Eslhílhkw’iws Chet is currently being used to determine how to best distribute resources and plan for the future needs of the community, as the Nation "strives to bring all Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people home," he added. 

All the information from the Squamish Nation’s inaugural census is displayed on the Nation’s website. Just like the Canadian Census, Eslhílhkw’iws Chet was designed to be repeatable, with its second instalment to take place later this year.

"This will allow us to look at how the feelings and priorities of members are changing over time, and therefore reinforce or refocus work being done to support member needs now, and into the future," said Williams. 

Mina Kerr-Lazenby is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.