Mayor Mike Ruttan greeted a packed council chambers on Monday night by acknowledging that the crowd was on “unceded” Tseshaht and Hupacasath territory.
This was just one of the three recommendations for reconciliation brought to city council by Hupacasath elected councillor Jolleen Dick and Tseshaht elected chief councillor Cynthia Dick during their joint delegation at the beginning of the March 27 council meeting. All three of the recommendations were accepted.
The council meeting was the outcome of months of tension that began with a proposed motion to consider renaming Neill Street, which was met with public backlash, despite the support that it drew from local First Nations. Council voted down the motion, but instead came forward with a new motion to work with local First Nations on the topic of reconciliation.
On Monday night, those members of public made their voices heard.
Jolleen and Cynthia Dick walked with a group of hundreds up Argyle Street, from Harbour Quay to City Hall in support of reconciliation. All city councillors attended the walk, as well as Ruttan, MP Gord Johns, a representative from the local MLA and a number of elected and hereditary First Nations leaders.
“Today I stand proud,” said Trevor Little, a teacher at Haahuupayak Elementary School, before the walk. He said he was glad to see the amount of support, from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous walkers.
“When outsiders support us, you create a current inside us that says, ‘I’m ready for change. I’m ready to talk.’ When more people know, it empowers us.”
The crowd gathered again outside of city hall to exchange words and songs before the council meeting.
Johns was surprised by the numbers. “I’m so blown away to see how many people have come out today to stand together, to walk to together,” he said. “This is a historic moment.”
Cynthia Dick warned that not all of Tseshaht felt comfortable joining the walk for reconciliation. “There are a lot of people who don’t feel comfortable crossing that bridge,” she said. “It’s important to start bringing action to our community so we can start having that togetherness that is missing. Don’t let it end here today. Bring peace to Port Alberni.”
Jolleen Dick brought forward a number of questions to council following their decision regarding Neill Street. One of these questions was: what does reconciliation look like?
“This is what reconciliation looks like,” she announced on Monday. “A lot of healing needs to happen,” she went on. “But I know that we’re well enough to start the process.”
During her time working at the chamber of commerce, Jolleen Dick learned that not many people in the Valley know about the local First Nations and how they operate.
“It’s a sensitive topic at times and must be handled with care,” she said during her delegation to council.
“We hear comments from leaders in our community that the relationship is perfect. ‘Our relationship has always been great with the First Nations.’ We feel differently on these statements.
“I can comfortably acknowledge that between us as politicians, we get along great,” she clarified. “When it comes to government to government, it is a different story. Meeting three times in the two years that I’ve been on council doesn’t constitute a relationship. We are neighbours that barely know each other.”
“From the events that have been taking place since the Neill Street renaming, it has become heartbreakingly obvious that racism is a growing issue in our community. You cannot say that racism doesn’t exist in Port Alberni. Racism and reconciliation are two separate issues, but very similar in nature. Racist remarks and beliefs impede our ability to move forward as a community, to build meaningful authentic relationships that are long-lasting.”
She added, “I am thankful for those that have walked with us today. We didn’t need to prove anyone wrong. We needed to prove that the community is taking a stand against racism.”
Cynthia Dick then stepped forward and said that in order to move forward, she wanted to acknowledge where things are currently. “Currently, we live in a town where racism and negative attitudes have gone ignored,” she said.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge that although it may not be your reality, as you sit up there, it’s the reality for many people in Port Alberni. It’s the reality for the Tseshaht members. For the Hupacasath members. For a lot of the Nuu-chah-nulth who currently reside in Port Alberni.
“And not only that, it’s a reality for people of non-Aboriginal descent. And until we’re willing to address it for what it is, we’re never going to be able to move forward. So I felt very strongly that today had to happen.”
She addressed council specifically and said she was ready to begin working towards a solution. “I think we all want to see a healthy community where each person is living a good life,” she said. “But until we’re willing to sit at the same table, we’re never going to find solutions.”
Ruttan proposed a committee as the way forward. “What I’m thinking of in terms of the composition of the committee is people who would be essentially experts in their field. People who would be representatives of the Tseshaht, people who would be representatives of Hupacasath and representatives of the city, but not necessarily the elected leaders.”
He added that the representatives would be experts in fields such as tourism, business, marketing, history and law. He estimated a committee size of around 12 members, and clarified that this would be done in consultation with the two nations.
Jolleen Dick brought forward her own recommendations, which included representatives from each nation and the city meeting every six to eight weeks. “Just to catch up and figure out what’s coming up, what’s coming down the stream,” she explained. “I really know if we begin those dialogues that we wouldn’t be in the situation we are now. I know that there would have been a more formal way about going choosing to rename the street or not. We wouldn’t be having to deal with messy.”
Councillor Ron Paulson thanked the Hupacasath and Tseshaht for their history lessons over the years and for making council aware of First Nations history.
“It’s up to us to make sure that today and the future is different and better for all of us,” he said.
Council agreed to pass the mayor’s motion, and a terms of reference for the committee will be brought to the next city council meeting on April 10. Council also accepted the three desired outcomes brought forward by Hupacasath and Tseshaht and will put them into action.
These three outcomes include adopting the United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation, implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s specific calls to action, and acknowledging that the city of Port Alberni is on the unceded territories of Hupacasath First Nation and Tseshaht First Nation when opening council meetings and events.
Later in the meeting, Ruttan added that the city is working to establish a memorandum of understanding with the Hupacasath First Nation and a renewed protocol agreement with the Tseshaht First Nation, with more to be announced as it occurs.