Eugene Sam of the Lekwungen Dancers performs at a ceremony in Centennial Square on March 11th.
Photo Credit: Kellie Hart.

Over the past few months, in partnership with the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations and guided by the insights and leadership of the Reciprocity Trusts, we’ve been working to create a very simple program for local property owners to make a voluntary reconciliation contribution to the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. Last Thursday, a strong majority of Council endorsed this idea and will likely vote to ratify it on April 7th.

One of the criticisms of this policy innovation that we’ve heard from some members of the public – as well as one of our colleagues – is that local governments don’t have a responsibility or the jurisdiction for reconciliation and should leave reconciliation to the federal and provincial governments.

Municipal Responsibility and Jurisdiction

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its report, including 94 Calls to Action. Five of these calls to action were directed to local governments. In 2017, when Victoria began our Witness Reconciliation Program, we adopted these five municipal calls to action and committed to working towards them.

Specifically, TRC call #47: “We call upon federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments to repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous peoples and lands, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius, and to reform those laws, government policies, and litigation strategies that continue to rely on such concepts.”

For cities, reconciliation must include recognizing both the impacts of urban growth and the increasing economic value of Indigenous lands, which Indigenous people don’t benefit from because of declarations of European sovereignty and displacement from their own homelands.

As part of the 2022 budget, Council is introducing a five-year pilot project with a $200,000 Reconciliation Grant to the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. Council made this decision as a small gesture to recognize that the wealth generated by the City in the form of property taxes comes from Lekwungen lands, and that reconciliation and decolonization must involve more than words.

Reconciliation Contribution Program

The reconciliation contribution program proposed last week is in addition to the grant the City has already committed; it is an opportunity for Victorians to participate directly.

Over the past few years, many Victoria residents have participated in reconciliation initiatives – from attending the Victoria Reconciliation Dialogues, to participating in the Victoria Orange Shirt Day event on September 30th (now the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation), to learning about Lekwungen culture through their neighbourhood associations.

Last summer, many non-Indigenous Victorians came face to face with the history of the residential school system – some for the first time – as the first 215 unmarked graves were discovered outside the Kamloops Residential School. Many people have asked at these events and in this context, what more they can do as individuals to participate in meaningful reconciliation.

The reconciliation contribution program really is as simple as it sounds. Beginning in 2022 and each year thereafter, when property tax notices are mailed out, a separate form will be included that explains the City’s reconciliation work and the principle of reciprocity. This form will present an opportunity for property owners to decide whether or not they would like to make a voluntary contribution, over and above their property taxes. Property owners will be invited to voluntarily contribute an amount for example equal to 5% or 10% of their property taxes, or another amount of their choosing.

The City will collect this money and will send it to the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations alongside the City’s Reconciliation Grant. The money will be used by the nations to achieve objectives that they have set out for themselves likely including things like economic development, language revitalization, housing, education, and more.

This same process will be followed each year, giving property owners an opportunity to opt in each year. Just because a property owner makes a contribution one year does not mean they are obligated to do so the following year.

Reciprocity Trusts

For the past year, Reciprocity Trusts, a Victoria based non-profit initiative, has been working with south island Indigenous nations, municipalities and residents to create a new way to recognize Indigenous lands. They have been building support across the south island region for members of our communities to voluntarily contribute an amount based on their property taxes to south island nations, including the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. This a way of recognizing where they live and work and the wealth generated from these lands.  

Reciprocity Trusts is in the process of setting up a Regional Trust for Southern Vancouver Island that would facilitate a voluntary transfer of wealth from renters, homeowners and business owners to First Nations in the region who choose to participate and receive Reciprocity payments. Once the trust is set up, the recommended Reciprocity payment will be based on an amount equivalent to 12% of a resident or businesses annual property taxes, and wold be eligible for a tax-deductible receipt.

In the future, as work between Reciprocity Trusts and the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations unfolds, Council can consider working with the nations and the Trust to hand over administration of the program to them.

Why the Link to Property Taxes?

As Councillor Potts pointed out on Thursday during the Committee of the Whole discussion, the reconciliation contribution program is part of the ongoing government to government relationship the City has been building with the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. Government to government relationships are key to reconciliation and decolonization.

The Songhees and Esquimalt Nations are not a charity or a cause. They are sovereign nations, which, through the process of colonization have been displaced and removed from the heart of their territory as we occupied it to build the City of Victoria. The principle of reciprocity means recognition of the fact that residents, businesses and the City itself generates wealth from living on Indigenous lands; with this wealth comes responsibility.

Councillor Alto put it most eloquently, “The reason to tie the reconciliation contribution to the land is that people who have a benefit from the land have an opportunity to share the benefit of that land with the original stewards and owners of the land.”

In Closing

During Committee of the Whole, we discussed whether people who rent and don’t own property or people who live on Lekwungen lands outside of the City of Victoria may also wish to make a contribution. When the proposal comes forward to Council on April 7th, we will hopefully amend it to make this possible.

Even for those who aren’t able to contribute this year, I hope that when people receive the new form in their property tax envelope, it will be an opportunity to think about the Lekwungen lands from which our wealth is generated. And I hope it might inspire each of us to ask how we might participate in meaningful reconciliation and decolonization with the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.

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