VICTORIA In the twilight hours at the busy intersection of Victoria’s Douglas and Johnson streets, Grandma Losah looks on as her protest group halts traffic in both directions with their Save Old Growth signs.
“Grandma, the police are already here,” says a pink-haired protester with a traffic pylon on her head. Flashing lights colour the sky.
“Chiyokten will sing,” says Grandma calmly, moving in time with the steady beat of Indigenous drums to the side of the road. Most of the crowd follows her, obeying police orders to move behind a growing line of officers.
A Coast Salish musician in a traditional cedar hat, Chiyokten beats a drum and starts singing a prayer to Mother Earth in SENĆOŦEN, the language his parents were forced to forget at residential schools.
Cameras surround them.
“That’s Grandma Losah!” shouts one reporter, snapping her picture. Within seconds, Grandma’s photo is lighting up Twitter feeds in the crowd.
Grandma Losah, whose legal name is Rose Henry, has been leading demonstrations against old-growth logging at Fairy Creek, three hours northwest of Victoria, for more than 500 days.
The 63-year-old activist from the Tia’amin Nation on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast, north of Vancouver, was sought out to help lead the movement by Pacheedaht Elder Bill Jones, who invited the protesters to his community’s traditional territory to campaign against the logging of old-growth trees by timber company Teal-Jones.
“Grandma Losah is like a mother to the protesters,” says Jones. Her leadership in the movement “can never be underestimated,” says Rainbow Eyes, a core group member. “She brings wisdom, compassion, leadership and knowledge.”
Grandma Losah is an Indigenous leader, an anti-poverty advocate and a community support worker. She has also been labelled an anarchist, professional agitator and workaholic. But as a child she was abused, treated as mentally retarded, and brought up in virtual seclusion.
It seems only yesterday, she says, that she was eight-year-old Rose, driving with her social worker, Miss Bledsoe, in a little white Volvo to meet her foster parents. “I realized on that drive that I wanted to help others like Miss Bledsoe helped me.”
Rose had spent most of her first eight years in the B.C. Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, five hours from her family’s home on the reserve in Powell River, before being placed in foster care. It took 30 years for her to gain access to her welfare files to understand why. The documents arrived in 2013, the result of a Sixties Scoop class-action lawsuit.
Almost 10 years later, Rose has still not looked at those files, fearing the trauma they might reveal. “All I remember from that time is that I was the only child (in my hospital room) who was able to get out of bed … I was alone.” Nonetheless, she shared the 162 pages of the files with this reporter.
“This child has had a difficult time to survive,” wrote an Indian Affairs social worker when Rose was seven. According to the records, Rose was admitted to hospital because her teenage mother, Florence, was “unable to keep weekly medical appointments” for her daughter’s kidney condition, which cleared up by age seven.
Florence lived in a four-room house with 12 others, “and there is considerable drinking there,” a district supervisor wrote. Rose’s father, Moses, a residential school survivor, was jailed for incest when Rose was four. Although all mentions of Moses’s victims have been redacted, social workers worried for Rose’s safety once he was released.
Upon leaving hospital, Rose had only “one change of clothing, and a pair of shoes that were far too large for her.” Her medical records report her as “mentally retarded” and “estimate her IQ at 60.”
Grandma remembers her foster dad, Howard Lowe, a white teacher, arguing with school authorities who had put her in a “special education” stream: “She is only mentally retarded because she has not been exposed to the rest of the world,” she recalls him saying.
Within a year of moving in with the Lowe family, Rose was progressing well. Still, it would be six more years before she was admitted to a mainstream class.
Grandma still remembers the agony of her first day of junior high, where she was one of three Indigenous students. She was seated beside a boy with the same last name. “That’s your brother,” taunted another student. Indeed, it was her younger brother, John, one of three sons Florence and Moses had hung on to.
The pain of being “not wanted” by her birth parents still shows deep in Grandma’s eyes. “But I got lucky with my foster parents,” she says. Esther and Howard Lowe loved Rose, hiding their tears when social workers tried to reunite her with her birth mother.
After several meetings at the happy Lowe family home, Florence decided not take Rose back to the reserve. Rose says Esther often took her to see Florence at a laundromat when Florence was doing laundry there, but Florence ignored her.
By the time Rose turned 19, the Indian Affairs social workers who once were convinced she was “mentally retarded” now were confident she would “find success and happiness in life.” Rose “impresses as a very sensible, thoughtful and industrious young woman,” one wrote.
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But Rose craved freedom. Instead of finishing Grade 12, she went to Calgary to reunite with a Lowe family foster brother. “I was not ready for that independence,” she says. “It led me on a fast track to homelessness.”
At age 21, in 1979, Rose says she was beaten and raped by a stranger with a gun and left in a dumpster during a snowstorm, naked except for a coat. She remembers the car stopping beside her at the bus stop, the nylon stocking wrapped around her neck and the gun misfiring. She remembers waking up in a dumpster, firefighters taking her to hospital, how cold her bare feet were and police refusing to believe her story.
Grandma says she wrote to the Calgary police 10 years ago asking for the report on her assault. It had been labelled a domestic dispute.
The assault and the injustice propel her advocacy work to this day, she says.
Grandma lost the use of an arm in the attack and was being prepped for surgery 15 months later when she learned she was pregnant. She brought her baby back to her foster home to escape her then-partner’s flying fists. “This miracle child” helped her decide “I wasn’t going to be a statistic,” Grandma says, and she returned to Victoria to finish school.
Rose had participated in political rallies and advocacy with her foster mother, Esther, from age 14. Yellowed newspaper clippings show Rose receiving awards for volunteer work and helping at charity fundraisers. Esther received the Heart of Gold Award from B.C.’s lieutenant governor in 1988 for her community work.
Grandma moved to Victoria just as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was igniting Indigenous activism in the early 1980s and she started speaking at rallies.
David Turner, a University of Victoria School of Social Work professor, was listening. Grandma was drawing connections between race, economic class and human rights. Turner, who was mayor of Victoria from 1991 to 1993, heard her speaking at a rally, approached her, and asked, “Do you know how profound that was?”
Turner says he brought her to speak to his university students and connected her with local activist groups. She pressed home her message about the tough transition from foster care, the need for voting rights for the unhoused and combating racism. “My students really appreciated her authenticity… and liked working with her,” says Turner.
She also travelled around the U.S. speaking at universities and sat at a table with Nelson Mandela at the 2001 United Nations Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa.
As a single mother, Grandma helped raise four foster children alongside her son, working in homeless shelters, as a cleaner and selling street newspapers to make ends meet. “We had to live without hydro sometimes,” she says. She took her children to anti-poverty and anti-logging rallies. “My son was 12 years old at Clayoquot Sound,” the anti-logging protests in 1993, she says. She married James Henry that same year.
Grandma Losah has run five times for Victoria City Council.
As Grandma sees it, the fight she is now leading at Fairy Creek to stop old-growth logging is about more than trees. “In northern Vancouver Island, the last old-growth tree was logged 20 years ago,” she notes. “Now (Indigenous people) are not able to make their medicines. They have not been able to make a canoe since then … It’s a human rights violation.”
Some criticize Grandma Losah for representing Indigenous people when she was not brought up in an Indigenous family.
But Grandma sees herself as a victim of both worlds and says her multicultural background puts her in a good position to lead in the fractious Fairy Creek environment. “My own community said that I was too white to be Indian and in the white community I was too Indian to be white.”
At a recent vigil for her missing relative Bear Henry (who was found alive this month after 10 weeks stuck on a mountain) she welcomed a police investigator to join the circle, to the surprise of the group. “We need to work together with the RCMP,” she told her fellow protesters. “We cannot always be against them.”
At times Grandma Losah sounds less like an anarchist leader and more like a mother. Elder Bill Jones criticizes her for this, saying “she asserts herself as boss.” But Grandma doesn’t seem to care. She always speaks from the middle of a group, not a podium, she explains, because “we are not lesser or greater than the person sitting beside us.”
Many of the Fairy Creek protesters are mouthy with police, but not Grandma. She doesn’t condone drugs, alcohol and physical violence, say other protesters. She sets boundaries, she says, and often needs to be a disciplinarian. “Anarchists are not good at boundaries, or they wouldn’t be good protesters.”
She has ejected fellow land defenders from protest camps for being rude and disrespectful, which makes her unpopular with some.
But Grandma is cherished by most in the Fairy Creek movement. “Grandma Losah is like a grandmother to me but more than that,” says Ojistoh Hemhawke, a Mohawk teenage protester. “From a lifetime of experiences … she is a true role model,” says Rainbow Eyes. She has had a big impact on Victoria, says Turner. “She is quite a symbol actually. An icon.”
As if to prove the point, an angry motorist gets out of his car on Douglas Street and shouts obscenities at Grandma Losah’s family of protesters. Grandma’s steely expression betrays no emotion. She stays until two protesters are arrested and taken away by police. Then she heads to the station to support them. “Both land defenders are out,” she texts me later that evening.
“Now we are working to prepare our plans for spring,” she says. “We can’t let those trees go unprotected.”
Katharine Lake Berz is a management consultant, writer and a fellow in the Fellowship in Global Journalism at the University of Toronto.
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