First Nations leaders in Port Alberni voiced their disappointment with city council’s decision to keep the name Neill Street the same during a council meeting on Monday.
Robert Watts, a member of the Tseshaht First Nation, spoke before the motion was debated, and voiced his support at renaming Neill Street. He began his speech with a song, and explained, “My late father always said if I was to ever do a speech that I felt very important about to some people that are higher-standing within our community, to always start the proper way. So I brought my rattle.”
Watts, who attended A.W. Neill Middle School and currently lives on Neill Street, voiced his opposition to honouring Neill’s name in this way.
“A large part of [Neill’s] life was opposing people like myself, people of other races, a large part of our community,” he said. “And I think it would be a good move on behalf of the city to change the name of the street. It would move our city forward instead of being stuck where we’ve been stuck for many generations.”
On the topic of reconciliation, Watts further acknowledged, “It’s just one part of this piece of the puzzle. It will lay the groundwork for future work that the city could do.”
Following council debate, the motion to change the name of the street was defeated. Although Mayor Mike Ruttan brought forward another motion to further the city’s efforts and commitment towards reconciliation with First Nations in the community, some members of the community were not appeased.
During the question period, Jolleen Dick, a Nuu-chah-nulth resident in the Alberni Valley and elected councillor for the Hupacasath First Nation, stepped forward to express her disappointment with the council’s decision.
She said she felt “sick” while sitting through the city council meeting.
“The comments this evening extremely disappoint me on the attitudes of experiencing a small but significant change in the community that would result in a small nominal amount just comparable to other interesting spending of the city of Port Alberni,” she said.
“Although some of you may disagree, you are sending the message that it is okay to maintain racist values in the community.”
Dick, who said she was speaking as a Nuu-chah-nulth person and city taxpayer, not in an official role, addressed city council with a number of questions. She asked whether or not they were prepared to allocate a significant portion of their budget towards reconciliation equivalent to or above a potential name change.
“We hear people say ‘reconciliation values need to be coming from First Nations people.’ I am here. I have spoken, and I hope you take my questions seriously.”
Other residents stepped forward to make their disappointment known. Huu-ay-aht First Nations hawiih (hereditary chief) Jeff Cook was the last resident to step forward during the question period.
“For those of you that don’t know, I went to residential school for 13 years in Alberni,” he said. “Like many other students who were there I experienced racism, and it still happens today.”
He pointed out, “The residential school I went to was on Mission Street. And just a note that the Tseshaht First Nation went through the process of changing the name of that road. They changed it to ‘Somass.’ They went through the process, it was fairly simple, it didn’t take them too long.
“I think they recognized the fact that the name had bad overtones.”
Cook said he hopes that the motion will hopefully be debated and talked about over the next little while, because he still wants to have conversations about it.