A Sense of Place in History

“A Sense of Place in History”
An Interview with Brian Robertson


Interview  by Espen Fikseaunet*
Photos by Noriko Nasu-Tidball
*Studying social anthropology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim
and currently enrolled in the First Nation Studies at UBC


603A0051In the southernmost part of Dunbar, not too far from the Musqueam reserve, I meet with Brian Robertson. At the sound of the doorbell I open the door to find a very tall, middle aged man, dressed in semi-formal attire. Nothing about his style reveals the fact that he’s an artist –  nor, for that matter, do we have any telltale clues that he’s a historian and scientist. He reveals all that later on. As we exchange polite greetings the discussion soon moves on to Norway, the country where I’m from, and one of many countries that Brian has visited. Already he’s beginning to talk about some of his experiences and opinions, so we decide to move to the table where the conversation can be recorded. With maple tea and dark chocolate in front of us, we launch into the first question.

– What led you into music?
“Well, it’s one of those situations where I’ve kind of evolved into being a musician and a singer/songwriter. Playing music, much less creating and performing it, was not something I started until well into my life.”

Brian goes on to explain how he loved dancing as a child, and how that prepared him for his musical endeavors later in life. Eventually he picked up the guitar and started singing in his late twenties. His main genre is Folk Music, possibly as a result of the strong tendency towards Folk in the 60s and 70s when he first started out as an artist. Some years after he started songwriting he became part of a performance collective called “Rhythm n’ Greens”, a sort of satire on the old “Rhythm n’ Blues” music. Their main objective was to combine activism with music to protest with less ideological tension, and they would perform at protests to lighten the mood. As for dancing, he keeps attending dance events today.

It doesn’t take long before I realize just how chatty and knowledgeable the Vancouverite sitting across from me is. Besides writing songs about environmentalism and history, Brian touches upon themes of love, the blues, and the experience of traveling. He also informs us that his first degree was in metallurgical engineering, and that he took a second degree in science prior to becoming a historian. The balance between science and art is fascinating, so I ask more about what drives him in these two directions:

Espen Fikseaunet and Keiko Honda

Espen Fikseaunet and Keiko Honda

– What inspires you?
“A wide range of experiences from my varied working life, my love life, environmental concerns and other issues related to politics. I think the best songs – and certainly the ones I enjoy performing the most – come from one’s experience.”

In addition he finds artistic inspiration in history, and is currently particularly preoccupied with BC history. He elaborates: “I’ve done a lot of things in my working life on this coast. I’ve been a commercial fisherman, a salvage diver… I grew up in the forest industry working in paper mills, which were a highly visual mechanical place to be around, and at times very dangerous. So I thought there was a lot of imagery and romance about the West coast.”

This romantic image of the province does not, however, overlook its darker sides. Two principal recurring themes he revisits are environmental sustainability and Aboriginal rights. Having grown up in the forest industry, he believes that both logging and fishing can be done sustainably. At the same time he points out that sustainability requires institutions to effectively regulate production, as well as a thorough understanding of what is an integrative approach to nature, and what is not. Referring to the modernization processes that are often mistakenly assumed to be synonymous with development, he explains his viewpoint on the more negative side of benefiting from natural resources: “It’s a passage of time. It’s ‘progress’. But it’s also a time when people have to move away from the rural environment, and no longer have a kind of claim or understanding to it. And so it gets kind of abandoned and used for much narrower reasons. Corporate reasons.”

603A0277Brian is reluctant to identify as a hardened environmentalist who believes we can’t exploit nature. Nevertheless he doesn’t shy away from becoming politically involved. But activism does not come without a price. He informs us of his participation in the logging blockades on Clayoquot Sound in 1993, where he was among the 1000 people arrested and convicted of criminal contempt of court.

His art, his concern for the environment as well as for Aboriginal rights and history, are all interconnected. Certain aspects of Aboriginal tradition appeal to him on a personal level. “One [aspect] is the ritualized expression of environmental values, like the first salmon ceremony. It seems to me that simple striving for legal protections for the environment is not enough; adopting those sorts of ritual practices in our modern world may help us better realize its sacred nature and our responsibilities as individuals within it.”

At this point in the interview we’re getting to my main subject of interest, as I traveled 5,000 miles mainly to learn about First Nations. He has my rapt attention. “My involvement in aboriginal issues began in the early 1990s, providing historical background materials relating to Indian land claims, and has continued to present day.” A range of questions come floating to the surface of my mind. I choose to go for a personal one:

603A0258– Why do you choose to focus on Aboriginal/settler themes?
“History is a main line into developing a sense of place; what is this place? What am I in it? These questions brought me into the Aboriginal history and the connections with settlers.”

His standpoint is that any reasonable country should have an equitable legal system. In contrast to that ideal, he describes BC and Canada as “…a province and a country that is pretty smug about its valuing this ideal. When you look at that history and how it’s been applied in British Columbia, you realize that minority rights are not very safe.” Over the course of the interview Brian kept repeating one quote by Judge Thomas Berger, who has poignantly described the situation as “…a stain on the honour of the crown”. I am familiar with the critique. But I do allow myself one hopeful question:

– Do you see anything that the government’s doing right?
“I see there’s a slow growing awareness of how deep the situation is. But I still run into people all the time who haven’t got the vaguest idea of what is going on, who walk around and say ‘This was done a hundred years ago. Why are we still dealing with this?’”

He goes on to expound on a number of projects and resistance movements that have come, occasionally from the top down, but usually from the grassroots. His knowledge on the subject proves to be exhaustive as he shows familiarity with the broad features as well as specific details of cases. Despite this, Brian is reluctant to take on the role of an expert, at least partly because he doesn’t actually have a directly relevant degree. But that doesn’t prevent him from participating in projects and giving what he has to offer. He self-identifies as a historian who has a passionate interest in erasing the “stain on the honour of the crown.” I want to know more about his work in the wider context:

603A0211– How do you see your contribution in the global sense, when looking at the needs of humanity and the world today?
“As best I can, I push for causes as a researcher, musician/songwriter, sometime agitator and voter.”
He portrays his own influence as modest, yet holistic in approach. His use of artistic channels for promoting socio-political causes is intriguing. I want to determine whether he experiences some dissonance between the creative process and using the art as a means to an end.

– Do you have a specific message that you wish to convey, or is this art for the sake of art itself?
“The writing of a good lyric, one that really nails what you’re trying to say, is incredibly satisfying. That said, my music often does have messages – that this coast and its people are really beautiful, that people should know more about the kinds of injustices – historical, economic, environmental – that plague us.  And that there are a lot of interesting, fun and enlightening connections in what may seem commonplace.”[[]]




Brian and Espen after the interview

Brian Robertson is a much travelled Kerrisdale resident whose working life has been varied, and includes being a commercial fisherman, cabbie, engineer, resource economist and, for the last twenty or more years, research historian on First Nation issues.