Design for Biodiversity – Carleen Thomas, Tsleil-Waututh Nation (The People of the Inlet)

Written by Zach Camozzi, Louise St Pierre
INDD200 Faculty zach Camozzi (2018-20) Charlotte Falk (2018-20), Sophie Guar (2020), and Amanda Huynh (2018)

The Design for Biodiversity project asks designers to consider how our discipline can support biodiversity and ecological relationships within local coastal regions. In 2019, phase 2 of the project brought students to Thluk-Thluk-Way-Tun (Barnet Marine Park).  Coastlines in this territory have been cared for since “time out of mind” (Thomas, 2019) by Coast Salish nations, including the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. In an intimate lecture, Carleen Thomas of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation shared her lived experiences, family history. Her skillful weaving of past with present narratives captured students’ attention. They began to ask questions that were less about outcomes, solving problems, and capturing data, and more about questioning and building personal relationships with the ocean. It was a pivotal moment.

“If we are to be creating a presence in natural environments, we need to be informed of how we are, and have been, affecting and will continue to affect these locations.”
- INDD200 students Dee and Yutaan Process Book
“When something is solved we normally don’t care / think about it anymore. Instead of looking for solutions we should focus on the experience and how that experience can provoke awareness of preserving and caring for the ocean."
- Anonymous INDD200 Student

Carleen spoke of traditional life on the shores of səl̓ilw̓ət (Burrard inlet), and the relationship the Tsleil-Waututh have with the biodiversity there: Littleneck clams, butter clams, horse clams, barnacles, urchins, fish, and orcas. Carleen painted a picture of a very different inlet, one that included clamming, berry picking, summer and winter villages. She overlaid this with a simple message: there is an “interconnection between the health of a culture and the health of the environment” (Thomas, 2019). Many of us understand that the current reality is a fairly bleak contrast; one of pollution, water acidification, pipelines and tankers. Digging for clams is a very visceral way to understand these impacts. Their reduced size, thinner shells, and scarcity can all be experienced directly. This was compared Carleen’s stories of what a healthy ecosystem once felt like. Students expressed inspiration, envy, honour, and respect for Carleen’s discussion on her family history.

“Carlene comes from a culture with rituals that are deeply connected with nature, I envied this but realized that the rituals do not have to be hundreds of generations old. I can make my own rituals that connect me to the place/ environment that I occupy now.”
- Anonymous INDD200 Student
“We were very inspired by these memories and stories, that could be traced back to family and friends and not a textbook."
- INDD200 students Julia  and Lucia Process Book

Imagery of Carleen’s relatives were used to share not only family stories but also to offer direct links to the geographical range that her people care for. Say Nuth Khaw Yum Provincial Park (Previously Indian Arm), “the Land of the Serpent” (Thomas, 2019), was prominent. To this day the Tsleil-Waututh care and steward the stunning waters of Say Nuth Khaw Yum Indian arm and səl̓ilw̓ət Burrard inlet, standing up against the trans mountain pipeline and the colonial, modern, extractivist views it embodies. Carleen has seen first hand, from sitting on beachwood with her grandchildren and playing with seaweed, that the inlet can recover if humans take on a role that includes themselves in a web of biodiversity and gives all life the time and attention required to participate in recovery.

Photo Sourced:ecuad

Carleen Thomas is a mother, grandmother, spouse, sister, and community member.  In her role as a Special Projects Manager,  Council Member, and Relationships and Protocol coordinator for the Tsleil-Waututh Nation (People of the Inlet), she has worked on building community relationships for the Tsleil-Waututh Nation with many diverse entities, from fisheries, to museums, to intergovernmental tables. The work ranges from policies, to creating space for indigenous voice, to governance. She works on projects that are in transition, transformation, and forward-looking to building better, equal, working relationships.  She has spent a lot of time with the Indigenous Advisory & Monitoring Committee for the Trans Mountain Pipeline, and educating about climate change.

Thomas, C. (Nov 15, 2019) Carleen Thomas lecture - Tsleil-Waututh Nation 101.  Retrieved from