At the start of every council meeting for the City of Victoria the mayor makes a point of recognizing they’re on the traditional territories of the Esquimalt and Songhees nations.
You will see public officials replay a similar routine before meetings and events in meetings across Vancouver Island.
It’s a tradition that started not long ago, but one that Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps feels is important.
“We’re on their territories and I think it’s something we need to remember,” said Helps. “It’s a very public and formal event — council meetings, held in a public government building, so I think it gives some weight and some precedence.”
The topic of reconciliation was front-and-centre last week after the city of Port Alberni rejected a bid to rename a city street named after former MP and accused racist Alan Webster Neill.
City council was swayed by public backlash against the move, epitomized by presentation where resident Cameron Stefiuk told council reconciliation was not his responsibility.
Not everyone agrees.
The City of Victoria has declared 2017 the Year of Reconciliation in conjunction with Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation.
What the year will involve exactly has yet to be determined, but chief Andy Thomas of the Esquimalt Nation and Ron Sam of the Songhees Nation are eager to see what the year has in store.
Sam said the nations aren’t going to tell the city what reconciliation is, and if it’s going to happen, it has to come from the people who’ve declared it. For him, reconciliation is about finding a good way to move forward, being comfortable with each other, feeling like First Nations belong and what they are doing is important.
Thomas is already starting to see some new opportunities on the horizon, but said there’s still a lot of work to do when it comes to building relationships and making them last.
He wants First Nations to be able to make their own decisions, noting a lot of decisions were made on their behalf.
“We want our people to be recognized, to have our rightful place on our own homeland without anybody holding something over us and telling us we can’t do this just because,” said Thomas, who feels the country can’t go on for another 150 years doing the same thing.
“Sometimes I say don’t call me a Canadian citizen because I am not. I am an indian under the Indian Act. I don’t have the same rights as a Canadian citizen, I don’t own my own land, I don’t own my own house and we can’t develop our own land without going to the minister of Indian affairs. All of this has got to change.”
The Government of Canada’s vision for the country’s 150th birthday revolves around themes of diversity and inclusion, reconciliation with indigenous people, the environment and youth.
The Canada 150 Fund will provide support to several initiatives that are part of the Reconciliation in Action: A National Engagement Strategy, which includes a series of national reconciliation gatherings, a national gathering of spiritual leaders and youth, a national thought table on reconciliation, and a celebration of reconciliation in Winnipeg.
For Helps, one of the main reasons for reconciliation is to address racism.
“There is still a lot of racism targeted particularly against First Nations people and you can see it and you can feel it and you can hear it,” said Helps.
She noted the real work will be figuring out how the community can be engaged in the acts of reconciliation.
“It makes me feel like we have a lot of work to do as a community. Racism comes from misunderstanding and fear so we have to build relationships.”
Helps isn’t sure what projects and initiatives will come up this year, but so far a call has been put out for a paid indigenous artist-in-residence and the push is on to build the longhouse with the nations on top of Beacon Hill.
There may also be a new installation outside of City Hall, and city staff may spend time with the band administration, sharing their expertise on running the city and learning various things from one another.In addition, Helps plans to wear a beaver cape, made for her by an indigenous woman, at every council meeting this year and any time she’s invited to make a formal address as mayor.
The Indigenous Perspectives Society (IPS) has also launched its 10-week Button Blanket Project, which involves sewing four button blankets with images of whales, eagles, ravens and wolves from Jan. 17 to March 21. When completed, the blankets will hang on the walls of the IPS training room as symbols of their dedication to reconciliation.
Helps got the idea to declare 2017 the Year of Reconciliation in Victoria after attending a conference in Winnipeg last year. She was struck by the mayor and council declaring 2016 the Year of Reconciliation following the release of the final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
Luke Marston is the Ladysmith-based carver who created the Bentwood Box which travelled the country with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, collecting the stories of First Nations people.
Marston told the University of Manitoba Today the box’s mission continues.
“I feel like it was a necessary move to have it still to be active,” he said. “They say they collected 7,000 statements and they’re all in that Box.
“I don’t believe that the journey of the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada] is over, I don’t think that healing can be done that quickly – undo all this in five years – especially with the diversity of the people that were affected through the schools.”
The idea that reconcilation is not the responsibility of every day Canadians today runs counter to what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set out to accomplish, according to a post by resident Perry Bulwer at www.albernivalleynews.com.
“That comment shows that Stefiuk is either wilfully or unintentionally ignorant about the issues at stake and has no real understanding of what reconciliation is,” he wrote. “Just like South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s process was about systemic discrimination and abuses, so was the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s process.
“Whether or not any one person, including Stefiuk, was responsible for discrimination and abuses is totally irrelevant. Reconciliation is about redressing the systemic discrimination and abuses of the Indigenous peoples that continue to this day.”