Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Edge of Perception:

"Can we talk of integration until there is integration of hearts and minds? Unless you have this, you only have a physical presence, and the walls between us are as high as the mountain range."
Chief Dan George

We tend to react to people, places and things based on our individual perceptions. Our perceptions are largely governed by our value systems, childhood, education, culture, family values and so on. Therefore, as individuals, with a wide variety of  experiences, two people can look at the same thing, come up with two entirely different conclusions and both be right - or at least neither is wrong.

Dispute Resolution 101
So it stands to reason that if we can link specific experiences to our perceptions we can determine whether our reactions are accurate or not. If they are inaccurate we should be able to simply adjust our perceptions based on new information and change the way that we act and react with the person, place or thing.

For example; it would be tough to find two people more at the opposite ends of the human condition than me and my Wife. She is detail oriented, organized, structured and very fond of rules and regulations - I am ... ummm ... not. 

We have been in some humdingers as far as disagreements go. 

As our marriage progressed, and the initial, lust-driven, infatuation gave way to the painful process of getting to know each other, we realized we respond to many situations not just differently but, in many cases, the exact opposite of each other. Realizing that we are now stuck with each other, and this was really as good as it gets, we went to work on figuring out how to squash these disputes in the early stages before they got ugly.

Surprisingly it was only a matter of coming to a few simple realizations:
  1. Just because I'm right does not mean that she's wrong;
  2. Our perceptions together often form a "higher truth";
  3. We would rather be wrong and happy than right and single;
  4. In a marriage you have to pick your battles and live to fight another day.
This is a simple model for dispute resolution. But it works. 

This works for a community as well as for a household. As a community planner I often deal with opposing perceptions: industry vs. environment, liberal vs. conservative, labour vs, management, Ford vs. Chev, and so on. In my experience the solution is rarely found in either extreme. It is usually found in a combination - or a dialogue between the extremes.

Let's test it against a more complex situation. 

One of the great divides that I have encountered growing up and living in British Columbia is the rift between the Native, or First Nations, people and the non-native people. Here there are many disagreements. Mostly around the management of land and resources, and mostly based on culture and perceptions. 

In the book "The Resettlement of British Columbia" author Cole Harris has constructed an accurate historical geography of British Columbia. He describes BC as being "resettled", not "settled". According to Harris, there was a sophisticated and thriving indigenous population long before the Europeans came in successive waves of fur trade, gold rush and agricultural settlement. The "resettlement" undertaken by Europeans was based on the perception of Terra Nullius or "Empty Land".

So the opposing perceptions were:
  1. We (First Nations) had a sophisticated culture, society and economy that was disrupted and crippled by the European resettlement.
  2. The land was "empty" and by developing it We (the Settlers) brought commerce and infrastructure that increased the liveability of the land.
In his book, Cole Harris outlines the "Geography of Smallpox". It is historically accepted that the Gold Rush saw 50,000 miners roll through B.C. in 1858 and these largely unwashed miners brought an epidemic of Small Pox that nearly wiped out the indigenous population. 

Harris points out that the Spanish introduced Small Pox to the Indigenous populations of South America in the 17th century. The disease then spread spread north into the USA and Canada through trade routes and war parties into the American Plains and finally across the Rocky Mountains into B.C. long before European resettlement. 

Based on journals of the Hudson's Bay fur traders, Royal Engineers and early Gold Commissioners, Harris estimates a 98% depopulation of First Nations people prior to the first European arriving on British Columbian soil.

If Harris is correct then the idea of Terra Nullius is an inaccurate perception. The problem is that Terra Nullius is embedded in our history, stories, laws and legislation. There's a lot at stake in these perceptions. Coming to a common understanding on this matter may be a tall order; however, if we could re-educate the population on these ideas, and alter the perceptions of the non-natives regarding Terra Nullius, there would be less friction around the Land Question in BC.

When we talk about the complex applications of a simple principle like "two people can disagree and both be right" it gets messy. There's not much we can do about the thinking of a generation. We can influence the thinking in our homes and practice these simple principles of tolerance and understanding with each other. 

For now my wife and I will continue to adjust our perceptions to avoid arguing about what the best route is to drive from our place to the Starbucks. By passing this on to our kids by example we hope that the introduction of new ideas and changing of perceptions will not come as difficultly as it does to the rest of us.

Best, Sam Edge
The Edge on Strategy


  1. Great article Sam Edge! I'll have to read Harris' work. Did you read Tom Swanky's "The Great Darkening"? Swanky proposes pretty convincingly that smallpox was also given purposely to First Nations in the Chilcotin and Cariboo to clear the way for railways, gold miners and settlement. In his work, Governor Douglas was personally responsible for creating a cadre of Hudson Bay executives who brought infected people on routes from Bella Coola and Bute Inlet to Quesnel. These human inocculators passed their disease on to communities as they went and passed on infected blankets. There was a 90% drop in the Chilcotin population within a few years. Bella Coola dropped from 4000 to 5000 people to several hundred in the same few years. Shuswap or Secwepemc populations dropped and it's my understanding that most or all of the Secwepemc bands all have mass grave sites where the dead were taken. One of these at Green Lake was partially excavated in summer 2013 to move corpses that were eroding into the lake. Lhtako Dene or Red Bluff in Quesnel have a story of people coming in the night by canoe in the late 1850's and distributing infected blankets secretly, and hundreds or thousands died. Simon Fraser witnessed many villages in the Fraser delta from Hope to Musqueum that were completely wiped out in 1805 by smallpox. I think there is all the evidence in the world to show what a genocide took place here and how much was lost. Thanks for your writing!

  2. Excellent Information Bill thanks for your input and support. I did work with Tom Swanky as a consultant on a project with the Esdilagh Nation and found his work fascinating. My idea has alway been that there was an inherent misunderstanding between the Re-settlers and the Indigenous people but Swanky points out the there is evidence that clearly shows intentional harm toward the first people in some cases.


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