Indigenous issues in B.C. and the Stikine electoral district are important and complex. The historical treatment of Indigenous peoples has resulted in socioeconomic inequality, over-representation in the correctional system and other social and health impacts that reverberate through generations.
Very few treaties have been signed in B.C. and when the Province joined confederation it did not recognize Indigenous title. However, in 2019, B.C. enshrined the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in a step towards reconciliation.
But Indigenous rights and title is still far from a settled issue in the province and projects like the Coastal GasLink pipeline illustrate that there is still much to be resolved. The outcome of the 2020 provincial election will impact the course of reconciliation into the future.
Christian Heritage Party of BC candidate Rod Taylor thinks that the wrongs of the past need to be acknowledged fully for meaningful reconciliation to take place.
“The first aspect of reconciliation must be a full and frank admission, confession, I guess, of what’s taken place in the past,” he said. “We can’t sugar coat that. There was mistreatment and disrespect shown. It’s a root that needs to be dealt with and hopefully it can be dealt with because it requires grace on all sides; it requires everyone to have a full grasp of history and we have to come together and say what are we going to do now as Canadians.”
Taylor points to the damage caused by policies and the generational impact of breaking the family, and that every effort needs to be made to keep children under the care of their parents.
“We can’t undo the things of the past, those are things that are part of history. It can’t be completely done away with, but we can acknowledge it and offer resolution of the errors of the past.”
Rural BC Party candidate Darcy Repen and Liberal candidate Gordon Sebastian both advocate education as a method to move forward with reconciliation.
“I think the key for me is in our region and throughout the province and throughout Canada, that we need to begin to acknowledge the fact that our foundational cultures in the places that we live are the Indigenous cultures,” Repen said.
“The problem I think is that while those foundational cultures have always been there the dominant culture has not been the Indigenous culture, it’s been the colonial English culture.”
Repen said that there is much to be learned from the variety of Indigenous cultures in the region.
“As a representative I would try to drive the uptake in what they’re offering and trying to get the people that most need to hear those messages and most need to hear the history of the wrongs that have been done, get them in and get them exposed to it because I think that will potentially heal a lot of the open wounds when the people that still retain a really negative perspective start to learn how painful it’s been for the people on the other side.”
Sebastian thinks education and training for non-Indigenous and Indigenous people alike is critical.
“This is an opportunity now for us to step up and really hit a three-bagger, really make a good shot that this is time for education in the schools to really focus on the students when you teach them, racism, you’re not born that way, it’s taught,” he said.
He pointed to recent examples of racism in healthcare settings and that reconciliation means training in the history and issues for professionals. He also said that Indigenous people have a role to play too.
“We have to step up, we have to be accountable, we cannot sit back and protect our children and not allow them to be disciplined in school and go there and raise hell with the teacher, we have to step up and be accountable and make sure our children get there and get their education and at the same time we have to educate the professionals whether it be teachers, health care people, educate them, the First Nations really are different.”
BC NDP candidate Nathan Cullen said UNDRIP is a step in the right direction but more needs to be done.
“Fundamentally it means marching further down the path of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it means changing the way we make decisions, moving from top down Victoria or Ottawa to much more local and co-management with Indigenous communities,” he said.
“It means doing what we are doing in part with the Wet’sewet’en, affirming, reaffirming rights and title that preexisted far before Canada did and finding a new way to be together because as the Supreme Court has said no one’s going anywhere, we need to find that path that requires a lot of patience and humility and practical changes on the ground so people’s lives improve and we get along much better than we have in the past.”
The Coastal GasLink project has highlighted unanswered questions surrounding rights and title, as well as the role of hereditary chiefs and elected band councils.
Rod Taylor said the dual system of elected band councils and hereditary chiefs is a barrier to resolving such an issue.
“One of the troublesome aspects of negotiating in this broken system we have with broken lives and broken relationships is that both federal and provincial governments and businesses like Coastal GasLink, they don’t know who they’re dealing with. They have the band councils that are a result of the Indian Act with all its flaws and then there’s the hereditary chiefs and the two do not always agree.”
He believes that it is up to the Wet’sewet’en people to decide once and for all who should govern them and negotiate on their behalf.
“It has to be a clear decision that all sides can recognize and work with in the future.”
Gordon Sebastian said if he was asked to be involved in negotiations under a Liberal government he would include band councils in a supporting role, but true authority resides with the hereditary chiefs.
“The Wet’sewet’en hereditary chiefs actually are the ones that actually have jurisdiction over the lands and their families,” he said. “We will get right down to figuring out who has the history of this territory and how was it used, and I would say sometimes we find that the connection has gotten weak over the years or the connection has gotten stronger, but we will look at all of that stuff rather than ignoring it.”
“We’re talking about humanity here, we’re not talking about two lawyers arguing about rights and title, this is humanity we’re talking about. People who have had their families live on the ground and buried in that ground, that’s what we have to talk about.”
Nathan Cullen blamed the previous Liberal government of ignoring the role hereditary chiefs play in Wet’sewet’en governance and pursuing a “divide and conquer strategy.” He said the NDP’s work on a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Wet’sewet’en is a step in the right direction.
“This government has set up the MOU table, the rights and title table, which is probably going too slow but making some progress and I generally prefer dialogue and conversation over conflict and I think that’s what we’ve seen for the most part since January, February once this table was established,” he said.
“I think we need to redouble our efforts and reaffirm those rights and how we are going to be working together in the future, because that’s the reality, we have to work together in the future in a better way than we have in the past.”
Repen put the blame on both the Liberals and the NDP. He said that he has been frustrated watching the process and feels like he could have contributed something more meaningful to discussions.
“I definitely understand where the [Office of the Wet’sewet’en] and the hereditary chiefs are at right now,” he said. “They’re really feeling that they’ve been disrespected and they’re absolutely right. Both the NDP and the Liberals have always tried to work their way around free and prior informed consent and to try and manipulate the Indigenous people in those negotiations.”
“It’s really tough, though, when you have these projects landing and there’s not been any preliminary discussions of use of the land base and how to do things right and then all of a sudden the government is under the pressure from the corporations and from their own budgets to get these things done and really it causes them to become quite manipulative in their interactions with the Indigenous leadership.”
Aside from the Coastal GasLink project, there are much broader negotiations surrounding rights and title in the Stikine riding. Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have expressed concern with a lack of transparency in the process.
Gordon Sebastian said that money being involved in negotiations is a major reason people are concerned.
“The reason why people are suspicious is that all the government and proponents do is put money on the table and then people wonder ‘oh was there more money handed out, why are we so docile, why are we accepting this, what’s happening?’” he said.
“You’d be suspicious if your brother gave someone your ride and he received money, you’d want to know how much money he received, especially if he’s using your car, so people are quite suspicious of that kind of a process.”
He said that money is problematic because it is impossible to put a dollar-value on people’s history and connection to the land.
Repen and Taylor both called for more transparency.
“We need to be getting together and collaborating and being open, all parties at the table, business interests, First Nations, the other people living in our region. This approach and this way of negotiating, there’s no way that it ends well. Somebody’s going to end up feeling like they weren’t heard or that they didn’t have a seat at the table,” Repen said.
He said both the NDP and Liberals have been reactive, instead of collaborating and planning with everyone in the area about what the future of the landscape should look like.
“One thing that’s not a huge secret is what kinds and what volumes and what types of natural resources and other opportunities we have in our region. I’m all for diversification of our economy, but that’s really kind of fallen by the wayside. We put so much energy into battling over things and very little energy into coming together and establishing a plan and an approach that’s beneficial for everyone that’s here.”
Rod Taylor agreed that negotiations should be more transparent.
“I don’t like any kind of secret negotiations,” he said. “If Mr. Trudeau and the Canadian government claim to represent all Canadians, not just non-indigenous, but all Canadians, we should all be aware of what’s on the table and where the negotiations are going.”
He also believes that the land that is now Canada is very different than it was before colonization, and that reality should be reflected in the future.
“I think when we’re looking at the specifics of the Northwest here, and the failure of governments in the past to come to agreements, to make realistic and just treaties with the peoples that lived on this land before European encroachment, I think we have to look at where are we now as a nation,” he said.
“Is it realistic to return to 630 individual nations with boundaries like other world nations or are we one nation with a bunch of people from different backgrounds, including Indigenous people and Europeans, including people of African descent? I think my desire would be to see all Canadians operating under the same set of rules and if there is land belonging to families and clans and tribes that’s legitimately recognized as theirs, I think it should be decided once and for all where those lands are.”
Cullen said this election is important to determine the future of Indigenous rights and title in B.C., and that it is appropriate to have community engagement throughout the negotiation process, not just engagement at the end. He said that work was paused when the writ was dropped in September, but would resume under a re-elected NDP government.
“We’ll get started up, I believe if the NDP are re-elected, if not then I actually don’t know, the Liberals have called the [hereditary chiefs] a fringe group and their leader has called them irrelevant so I’m not sure that the same level of interest and dialogue exists within the Liberal party so I don’t know it’s future,” he said.
“I think this is a critical election for that reason if nothing else, but if we want to continue down a path of dialogue and reconciliation it’s really going to depend on the outcome of what happens on [Oct. 24].”
With files from Thom Barker