Frank Assu is a man with a mission, and a very busy one. He just finished self publishing his first book, ‘Lekwiltok Anthology’, that came out in January of this year, is attending Vancouver Island University in order to become a teacher, works for the Canadian Coast Guard and is married and the father of four children. On top of all of this, last year he submitted a petition to the City of Campbell River to clean up Campbell River’s famous landmark, Big Rock, and have it declared a municipal historic site.
Assu’s book is a collection of essays about his people, the We Wai Kai of Quadra Island. (Assu is a grandson of the well known Chief Billy Assu). The book deals with the stories and legends of the Laichwiltach First Nations and as Assu puts it, he felt compelled to capture his family’s oral traditions on paper – for his children, and for anyone else who might be interested. Although this project did not directly affect his decision to try to do something about Big Rock, he admits to be being inspired indirectly while reviving Laichwiltach legends for the book. So what is the connection?
Big Rock has long been the focus of legend and has an air of mystery surrounding it . It is a geological anomaly. The 30 ft high rock, sitting perched between the Island Highway in Campbell River and the ocean (see photo), appears to have no physical relationship to anything surrounding it. There are no other big rocks nearby, no deep holes, no cliffs or mounds… the area is quite flat. It is perhaps because of this that local First Nations peoples created legends surrounding its meaning and how it arrived where it is. There is more than one legend, and as Assu explains, each tribe that settled the area created their own legend. The legend he grew up with involves a grizzly bear from the mainland and its desire to jump over to Vancouver Island; although warned by the Great Spirit, that if it missed it would be turned to stone. It did miss and became Big Rock. At the Campbell River Museum, the animated video story of Big Rock is based on a Comox legend, and involves an octopus. It is also thought that it could be a remnant of the Ice Age.
However, Assu does not like to assign the history of Big Rock to any one group or individual. As he says, the Big Rock is really part of “the collective history of Campbell River”.
What concerns Assu is the fact that this legendary rock has been the target for graffiti, which often includes profanity, and it has been used by protesters and demonstrators. If designated a protected historic site, signage woul be put in place, it would be cleaned up, and a coating of clear protective paint applied, so that it could easily be wiped clean of markers and paint should attempts be made to defame it again. Big Rock is a tourist attraction, and Assu would like to educate visitors and residents alike about the significance of the rock. In fact, he intends to collect stories from others, not just First Nations stories, about how the rock might have been important in their life – as a landmark, a meeting place, associated with an early memory…, and produce a second book that would be ready at the time of the site’s unveiling.
His petition has passed the first step through the Culture and Heritage Committee, and is now in the hands of city council. He has been assured that the future looks rosy for the rock, and it will take about a year for the process of designating it a municipal historic site to be completed. The next step will be to get provincial designation (and he has at this stage received both verbal and written support from MP John Duncan and MLA Claire Trevena); then on to the federal level to have it declared a national historic site (the Honourable Kevin Krueger has given written support in principal), then finally, he hopes it will be recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site.
Assu wrote his first book so that “my people would have a reference for their own history – something tangible”. Now he aims to present the “life” of Big Rock, which again will be a collection of stories, and make it a respected and tangible symbol for all residents of Campbell River to be proud of.
Assu will be giving his first reading of Lekwiltok Anthology at the Campbell River Museum Saturday, May 8 at 1pm – the book is for sale at the museum, We Wai Kum House of Treasures, Ocean Pacific, and Campbell River Touris Information Centre in Campbell River; Courtenay Museum, I-Hos Gallery and the Laughing Oyster in Courtenay; and the Book Bonanza, Nuyumbalees Centre and Quadra Crafts on Quadra Island.