"The world owes all its onward impulses to men ill at ease. The happy man inevitably confines himself within ancient limits."
- Nathaniel Hawthorne
"Solutions will not be found while Indigenous people are treated as victims for whom someone else must find solutions."
- Malcolm Fraser
During my opening comments, I urged folks to not be afraid to ask anything. I promised not to be judgemental and to answer as gently as I could, for the sake of having a robust discussion. It did not disappoint, and as in the quote above, I think that allowing ourselves to a little bit "ill at ease" allowed for an open and progressive conversation.
I wanted to share some of the questions here, and my responses, because I think they are genuine, heartfelt questions shared by many people, especially non-indigenous people, and I was glad for the honesty, even if it veered away (often) from being politically correct. I am certainly not sharing these questions so that we can think negatively of the people who asked them. Maybe some of my answers could use some tweaking, I'm open to that discussion too!
Q: What is the best path forward for local governments to build relationships with local First Nations?
A: It's an unsatisfactory answer, but I don't think there is a best path. Every community is going to be unique, and we do ourselves a disservice by trying to copy the processes other communities have used. The key thing, in my opinion, is to first seek to develop open lines of communication and mutual respect between communities, one at a time, which could very well require stopping in at the band office for casual visits, or having informal lunch meetings between mayor and chief, and just seeing what steps naturally flow from those conversations.
I think it is also important for local governments to be willing to do our homework, and not to expect our First Nations neighbours to hand-hold us through the entire process. We can do things like acknowledge the territories at the beginning of meetings, endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and even pursue our own cultural competency training (like the TRC's calls to action suggest) to show that we are genuine about understanding and working with local First Nations.
In some cases, a high-level protocol agreement like the North Island Regional Protocol Agreement can be a helpful, formal first step, wherein we agree to recognize each other, communicate, and try and find ways to work together. From protocol agreements can come Memorandums of Understanding, service agreements, and other foundational documents to help us figure out how to work together well. However, even without all of those pieces in place, we shouldn't be afraid to reach out and begin that work of building a mutually beneficial, trusting relationship between councils and communities.
Q: Do First Nations people do cultural competency training to understand our ways of doing things?
A: I think that growing up in Canada gives all First Nations people a pretty good baseline understanding of non-First-Nations culture!
Q: How do we "acknowledge the territories" when there's overlapping territories or many different communities within our boundaries? What about treaty nations?
A: I think the ideal is to be able to acknowledge and thank the specific nation on whose land you're meeting, something like "We acknowledge that we are on the unceded traditional territories as well as treaty lands of the Kwakiutl Nation, and thank the Kwakiutl people for allowing us to gather here."
If it's more complicated than that, you can acknowledge the nation instead of the band/tribe (i.e. "We acknowledge that we are on traditional, unceded Coast Salish land") or nations ("We acknowledge that we are on the traditional, unceded and treaty lands of the Kwakwaka'wakw and Coast Salish Nations, and thank them for allowing us to gather here") or even the generic "We acknowledge that we are on unceded aboriginal territory."
Maybe my wording isn't perfect - that's ok! I'm fine with being corrected, and I don't let my fear of mispronunciation or saying it a little bit wrong get in the way of doing the acknowledgement. Ideally, local governments would ask their neighbouring First Nations leadership for suggestions around how to do the acknowledgement properly, but the key thing is to show that we understand and respect First Nations' connection to and ownership of the land.
Keep in mind, BC has half of Canada's First Nations language groups - that means that, linguistically and culturally, there is more diversity in BC than in Europe! We know how generic it is to say "Europeans" instead of speaking about specific nations - the same applies to indigenous communities. Vancouver Island alone has three nations (Kwakwaka'wakw to the north, Nuu-chah-nulth on the west coast, and Coast Salish to the south and east) and each of these nations has many tribes/bands, each with their own dialects. How cool is that!? It's important not to lump all First Nations communities together, nor to make any assumptions about culture (traditional or modern) because each community is totally unique.
Q: Why should we invite First Nations to partner with us on these things, when they don't contribute to taxes?
A: In British Columbia, most of the land is unceded, meaning that no treaties were signed, nor were battles won by the colonizers, that would have given the land rights over to the colonizers. Cities, towns, mines, dams, etc. have all been built on lands that technically should still belong to the traditional land holders, the First Nations.
So, any revenue that the government has received from the use of these lands (i.e. stumpage fees from logging crown land) could be considered a contribution to government revenue by the First Nations, the actual land owners. I know many people don't agree with that, but the courts continuously confirm it, and the BC Treaty Process demonstrates that the provincial and federal governments recognize the need to settle this outstanding land issue to bring them certainty.
Not only that, but many many First Nations people (myself included) live off-reserve and/or are not status Indians, and therefore they DO contribute to income taxes, property taxes, and other forms of taxation. In the north island, over half of the school district is now First Nations. While Port Hardy's population is fairly stable, my community's growth rate was 15% in the last census! That's fairly consistent with others in the area.
Plus First Nations folks tend to stay in the community that we're born in more often than other demographics. So, I think many of our small rural communities are going to see a demographic shift where more and more of our citizens are First Nations, giving even more weight to the need to do the relationship building ASAP so that we can provide the best possible services to all of our community members.
Q: What about families that have been here for 100 years - don't they have any land rights?
A: This is a really tricky question... lots of non-First-Nations folks are really, genuinely scared and angered by the prospect of having their land returned to First Nations ownership. "Are they just going to kick me out? My family has been here for generations!" - I get it, it doesn't seem fair.
However, 100 years of occupation hardly compares to the 10,000+ years of First Nations occupation. We can't ignore that. Imagine you lived in your home for 50 years, and then one day your houseguest (having been there for two weeks) decides they liked your house. Imagine they have enough power to force you out, then they invite all their friends over, and they ignore you for six months while you're outside in the yard. Eventually you call the cops, who agree that you should get your house back - doesn't that just seem inherently reasonable? It's simplistic, but that's kind of where we're at right now.
That being said, I don't know of any band that wants to go in and kick people out of their houses in order to reclaim the land (even though it was done to us.) There are many other ways to approach this, and in some (not all) cases it means the government trades other areas of unoccupied land (or cash settlements) in lieu of First Nations getting back the heavily settled parts of their territories.
Q: I've heard of First Nations signing peace treaties with each other, in the big house... If we're having a hard time getting them to come to our meetings, can't we hold a potlatch? Couldn't we just rent the big house and invite a bunch of people and try and do things that way?
[I have to say, this question really called upon all of my diplomatic abilities!]
A: First of all, I honestly commend this suggestion -it's creative, and it also seeks to decolonize by recognizing that forcing First Nations to take part in local government practices (like meeting in town hall, signing paper protocols, etc.) maybe isn't the best way to go. I think it's great to try and seek out new ways of doing things, that are more in keeping with local cultures... however....
The big house is not just our governmental institution. It's our church, the centre of our spiritual world. It's simply not possible or acceptable for just anyone to throw a potlatch, there is a huge amount of protocol and preparation around it. However, maybe it's possible that a town council could host a feast, which is less sacred but still a valuable way to try and encourage that dialogue and relationship building.
It's also theoretically possible that, if the council was willing to put up the necessary funds, they could maybe work together with a chief to be part of that chief's potlatch - I would love to hear your thoughts on this idea!
Q: How can we get the provincial and federal government to keep us more informed about things like land use planning, that is taking place behind closed doors? We feel left out of the process - we're not being consulted about our land use plans!
A: First of all, welcome to the club. First Nations haven't been consulted about our own lands for centuries! It's pretty a recent development, actually, that we've had any jurisdiction and involvement at all.
Of course, it's still annoying for local governments when we're left out of processes and then big changes come our way. I think this makes an even stronger case for First Nations relationship building - if we already have those lines of communication in place, it's that much easier to ask our local chiefs and councils to let us know when big things are coming down the pipe. It's also likely to be easier, if we want to lobby the provincial or federal governments, to have First Nations allies who will confirm and strengthen the need for more communication and collaboration.
However, it's important to remember that First Nations mostly deal with the federal government, and local governments mostly deal with the province... it's not apples to apples, and we shouldn't expect to be treated exactly the same way.
There were many other questions, many other points brought up, and many stories of amazing, inspiring, successful work happening in communities. When I hear stories of the overt racism my mom faced when she was younger, let alone my grandparents, I feel very fortunate and grateful for all of the hard work that has gotten us to this point, where government at all levels seems genuine about trying to build those relationships. At the same time, there's a long way to go! Let us all be a little bit ill at ease, and willing to have tough conversations, for the sake of moving these issues forward.