A provincial apology to the Hesquiaht First Nation better have been sincere and not part of a Liberal strategy aimed at apologizing to minority groups to score political points, Pacific Rim-Alberni MLA Scott Fraser said.
At a community feast in November, Minister of Aboriginal Relations Ida Chong apologized to more than 400 Hesquiaht members for the historical hanging of one of their ancestors 143 years ago.
But recent events have questions circling the sincerity of the apology.
Documents recently leaked to the Opposition NDP revealed a plan to woo the province’s ethnic vote in the upcoming provincial election using taxpayer-funded government staff and resources.
Called the “Multicultural Strategy”, the scheme was conceived in 2012 and advanced an ethnic outreach that called for “quick wins”, such as making apologies for historical wrongs. The plan is aimed at the Chinese, South Asian, Vietnamese, Filipino, Korean and Japanese communities. Specific mention is made of the Komagata Maru incident in 1914.
The plan was condemned by Liberal and NDP officials alike. Clark’s deputy chief-of-staff, Kim Haakstad, resigned; Liberal MLA John Yap stepped down as multicultural minister; and an investigation into the matter is underway.
The timing of the plan and the province’s apology to the Hesquiaht is ironic, Alberni-Pacific Rim MLA Scott Fraser said.
“It is within the frame of when the strategy was being hatched,” Fraser said. “Right now I’d say the odds are even that they are linked.”
The plan makes no mention of First Nations wrongs, Fraser said, but he wonders whether the apology to the Hesquiaht was a test-run for others that would have followed should the plan have rolled out.
“We don’t have anything yet that indicates this but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something there,” said Fraser, who has initiated a series of Freedom of Information requests into the matter.
Fraser says that he and the Hesquiaht tried doggedly for eight years to get an apology from the province for the hanging but were stonewalled each time.
But in the fall of 2012, an apology from the province suddenly shifted into high gear. “It came out of nowhere and surprised all of us,” Fraser said. “I was never made aware of what exactly changed within government to produce this.”
The apology and what led up to it was a long and complicated process, Chong wrote in a statement e-mailed to the News. She would neither confirm or deny if the apology and strategy are linked or not.
Discussions with the Hesquiaht started in 2008 under then Aboriginal Affairs minister Mike de Jong, and research went on through 2010, Chong wrote.
In October, 2011, former Aboriginal Relations Minister Mary Polak initiated discussions with the Hesquiaht, and committed to addressing the issue.
“This was a complicated and very compelling cause. We took proper and due time, consulted with our First Nations friends, and have made strides to reconcile,” Chong wrote.
Fraser worked extensively with the Hesquiaht on the apology and has mixed feelings about proceeding.
“This is an awkward one to walk because I don’t want to take away from how important the apology was to the Hesquiaht or to the family,” Fraser said. “This was supposed to be about doing the right thing, not about getting a quick win.”
All that mattered to the Hesquiaht is that they received the acknowledgement of wrongdoing, Hesquiaht Chief Councillor Victor Amos said. “All we ever cared about was that we got something out of the province and we accomplished that,” Amos said.
“It may not have been a full apology, but at least my grandfather’s life is cast in a different light now and that still means a lot.”