It started with a suggestion to rename a street and a school.
In early 2017, a motion came to a city of Port Alberni council meeting suggesting a new name for “Neill Street”, after the link to A.W. Neill—an Indian Agent and proponent of Japanese internment—was discovered. Backlash from the public, especially online, led city council to decide against this name change. But this was only the beginning of a much larger movement in Port Alberni.
On March 27, 2017, a Walk for Reconciliation, led by Tseshaht First Nation chief councillor Cynthia Dick and former Hupacasath First Nation councillor Jolleen Dick, culminated with a presentation at city hall. More than 100 people took part in the walk. Mayor Mike Ruttan proposed a committee moving forward, and the Alberni Valley Reconciliation Committee was formed.
Co-chaired by city councillor Sharie Minions and Cynthia Dick, the committee consists of representatives from Tseshaht, Hupacasath and community members from Port Alberni.
“The biggest impact [of the Walk for Reconciliation] was to see so many people interested,” said Dick. “We hear a lot of negative things, so to see that many people walking…anything beyond that was a bonus.”
The committee met for the first time in November of 2017. The first few meetings were “somewhat superficial,” said Minions.
“When we started the Reconciliation Committee, none of us knew each other very well,” she said. “I think we were nervous about how to get started.”
It was Cynthia Dick who suggested that committee members talk about their families.
“That was the meeting where we took a turn and started doing good work,” said Minions. “That was when I started to feel comfortable.”
On March 27 of this year, the community joined together again for a forum, led by the Reconciliation Committee, to explore next steps. The last few committee meetings have focused on recommendations to further reconciliation in the Valley, which will be passed on to city council.
Scott Fraser, MLA for Mid Island-Pacific Rim and Minister for Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, said he was impressed by the forum and the way the City of Port Alberni has taken a lead role in reconciliation.
“It’s important to recognize that local government plays a significant role in reconciliation,” he said. “It’s a big step forward. We’re trying to learn from all over the province how to move forward with the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action. We’re developing a framework to do that.”
Some of the recommendations that came out of the forum suggested adding Nuu-chah-nulth names to street signs, flying the Tseshaht and Hupacasath flags at city hall and turning March 27 into a Day of Reconciliation in the Alberni Valley.
“I think that day is an opportunity to get involved and to get engaged,” said Minions. “What we want is to help the community access First Nations history and culture. Street signs are an opportunity for that. It’s a good way to help the community learn.”
“When we focus on renaming, we are missing the point completely,” added Dick. “It’s just about a path forward. The end goal is to build better relationships. That’s reconciliation.”
Local governments, said Fraser, have an advantage over the province because they are closer to what is happening on the ground.
“It’s really the purest form of government,” he said. “It helps inform how we develop policies at the provincial level. The province can’t dictate reconciliation. It has to start at the grassroots level.”
There are different models being used by different municipalities across the province when it comes to reconciliation. In Tofino, the mayor and council will often hold meetings in Ahousaht and Hesquiaht to discuss key issues. The municipality of Squamish also works closely with Squamish Nation.
The Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District was one of the first regional districts with a model where treaty nations became partners and directors on a regional board. This is not a perfect model, as the two non-treaty nations—Tseshaht and Hupacasath—do not have voting seats on the board, but they are often invited to sit at meetings and provide perspective.
At the most recent Union of B.C. municipalities meeting, Fraser said he “had never been busier” answering questions about how to move forward.
“People wanted to get advice,” he said. “There was a lot of interest at the local government level.”
During the forum in March, Minions said that the most common sentiment she heard was from people who wanted to know how they could get involved. “It needs to start with understanding,” she said.
“It’s going to take a number of steps for the community to get where we are,” added Dick. “It’s going to take more culture, more laughter, more being together. Next, I want to see that relationship building.”
There was a lot of uncertainty with the new committee in the beginning, said Dick, but their work has been coming more into focus.
“We’re still in the exploring stage, but it’s been great getting to know everybody’s perspective,” she said. “It’s been a huge learning experience for me. It’s very exciting not knowing where it’s going to go.”