Ringing in the Old...

Points North

By James Fife

Well, that was fast. It's nearly the holidays again. It seems just yesterday Marilyn and I were standing in front of the huge stage at Government and Belleville ringing in 2017 and the 150th anniversary celebration during Victoria's big New Year fest. There was such a feeling during that gathering of looking forward to a promise of change in the coming year. Much has changed during the year, even in my individual life. But as I think back to us standing among the milling crowd, one New Year's resolution makes me ponder what change has really occurred. That is the promise to make 2017 the Year of Reconciliation.

For reasons I may get into in a later article, my integration into Canadian life took a more concrete form this year in my taking an online law class from UBC. The course is in Canadian public law, and the last unit of the course is, appropriately enough, aboriginal law issues. I had previously read some of the history of relations between native populations in British Columbia and the in-comers. But now I was exposed in greater depth to the actual workings of the interaction and particularly the efforts of First Nations to obtain recognition of land claims and other traditional rights in some famous Supreme Court decisions. I became aware of more, and in specific detail, about this aspect of Canadian history. I learned how aboriginal rights get determined and when they engage the 'honour of the Crown' in satisfying them. It has all been an intense introduction to past failures to reconcile.

But I probably became aware of the Year of Reconciliation the same way that a number of others in the New Year's crowd did: the official announcement of the Year in the opening program. The announcement was accompanied by a ceremonial acknowledgement of the entire City of Victoria's presence on unceded traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. It then became a pattern throughout the year. Nearly every public event we attended where there was some sort of official introduction contained a reminder of our all being residents in another's house. This was different. Normally, in the United States and Canada, the fact that some other Nations were First is only a background concept rarely acknowledged in any public way.

That connection of the past brought into the living present had struck me some time ago when we first started visiting Vancouver Island. As I looked at road maps, I was amazed to see blocks marked as reserves within and right on the edges of urban areas. In the U.S., reservations are deliberately placed in remote areas. San Diego County has more Indian reservations than any other county in the country, but you'd never know it until recently, being located well out of sight of the mainstream world. It intrigued me to see signs of those First Nations being more integrated with the broader society—at least geographically. 

In the U.S., the public profile of Indian nations only recently vastly increased when the law changed to permit them to operate casinos, even in states where gambling was not legal. That sounds like a fairly petty or mercenary achievement, but it was a new recognition that those nations were separate legal entities, reflected in having somewhat different laws than the rest of the surrounding communities. It was also important, because it was the start of a growing self-sufficiency for the tribal members. It makes me hopeful that promotion of self-sufficiency of Canadian First Nations would have a similar effect, not by building mega-casinos, but in a number of other ways small and large. I thought immediately of the proposal to convert traditional bay-front land into a tourist camping venue, the joint agreement for use of the Royal Roads campus, or the more modest endeavour of the Songhees food truck (something I was happy to support for its great food as well as its economic effect). That growing public presence I see for First Nations, their involvement and consultation—from traditional medicine dances in Centennial Square to a planned cultural centre at Ogden Point—is heartening. I hope to see it continue and grow. It even inspired me to make my own small effort to promote that public acknowledgement, in a way that brings it home. My suggestion for naming the new James Bay branch library was to call it "Lekwungen," to honour the original name for the area. It would permanently enshrine the name on a public amenity that will be used for decades by new generations who'll be reminded of the connection to the original peoples of James Bay.

Major problems still remain for reconciliation, north and south. The opposition to harms to native land from the Dakota Access pipeline in the U.S. is matched by a similar fight to protect indigenous lands from the Trans Mountain pipeline in B.C. So, as the Year of Reconciliation ends and 2018 begins, we should work to make sure the process of reconciliation does not end with the turn of the calendar page. When we ring in the New come January 1, we should continue to ring in the Old, and continue the commitment to right past wrongs. 

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