Rethinking Canada Day – and Canadian History – in a New Era of Reconciliation

Members of Council’s Canada Day Subcommittee, City staff, and Central Walk – presenting Sponsors of Canada Day – crossing the inner harbour with Indigenous guides, to ask permission to come ashore before hosting the Canada Day Festivities.

WARNING: This post contains details some readers may find distressing.

When I stood up in the canoe on July 1st in Victoria’s inner harbour to ask permission of the Lekwungen speaking people to come ashore, I was participating in a tradition that is thousands of years old. As we got closer to protocol corner at Belleville and Government Streets where members of the Songhees and Esquimalt nations were waiting, and as we began to sing, I was overcome with emotion.

After the uncovering of the graves last summer at the Kamloops Indian Residential School – just a little over a month before we were supposed to celebrate Canada – it didn’t feel right to hold Canada Day events, so we cancelled our plans. We wanted to honour the grief and pain of residential school survivors, elders and everyone across the land who was feeling shock or anger, despair or shame. Last summer was a time for many strong feelings, but it definitely wasn’t a time to celebrate.

In a thoughtful article, “‘We can’t be blind to our own history’: Discovery of graves triggered Canada’s year of reckoning,” Dirk Meissner cites Royal Roads professor Geoff Bird. Bird says, “The discovery of children buried in residential schools across the country was perhaps the most traumatic event in recent Canadian history in terms of defining who we are. When you actually have a discovery such as this, it can’t do anything but impact the nation and its perception of itself … The whole field of cultural memory is what we remember, what we forget, what we silence. We can’t be blind to our own history.”

As non-Indigenous people – and in particular those of us with privilege – we have been blind to our own history. It’s been easy for us to do so because we weren’t negatively impacted by it. In fact, we directly benefited as Indigenous people were removed from their homes to make way for our homes, and our businesses and government institutions.

The more I learn about our collective history, the more deeply immersed in the work of reconciliation I become, and the closer the relationships I develop with the Lekwungen people, the less theoretical and the more real colonization and its painful and lasting legacy becomes.

I’ve been thinking: What would it be like if someone came into our home as a guest, offered us a small amount of money for rent while also assuring us that that we could all live together here, that we’d be able to continue to live in the way we always had. But then they then kicked us out, told us we couldn’t live here anymore, and moved us away. What would it feel like to watch from afar as our house was knocked down, to be so disrespected, our gardens destroyed, nothing left that we recognized.

What if they also destroyed our grocery stores, all our familiar foods, leaving us only with food that is unhealthy for us and makes us sick.

What if every September, they came and took our kids and, if we refused, sent the police to take them. What if we didn’t know where our kids were going? What if our kid got sick or died or was beaten or sexually abused? What if we never saw them again? Our hearts would break. We would go mad with grief and anger.

What if when those first unmarked graves were discovered we knew in our hearts that in one of those graves lay the bones of our kid?

These are the realities of Indigenous people in Canada. This is Canadian history.

So after a year of reckoning – and likely many more to come – we knew that we needed to do something differently on July 1st this year. We began by talking with the Songhees and Esquimalt chiefs and councils to seek their input and guidance. We determined together that the day should begin with, and be grounded in, Lekwungen tradition.

What struck me throughout the process of planning the July 1st events with the Songhees and Esquimalt nations – and what continuously touches me – is their utter generosity despite everything that has happened.

They shared with us the importance of us asking permission to come ashore to hold the festivities: we were honouring them and not taking their land or our welcome on it for granted. They told us the name of one of their canoes, and what the name means. They told us that when we are out on the water, paddling together, that when our paddles move together, we are moving with one heart and one mind.

They let us know that we needed to sing a song when we got close to the shore, and that we’d be greeted with a song. They shared with us about the need to stand up in the canoe when requesting permission, with our paddles facing upward, and they guided us about the words that we should use to ask permission in the right way to make sure that we were honouring the lands and both nations.

This is Canadian history. That these customs, traditions, songs and language still exist despite the cultural genocide on which our country was founded, is a manifestation of the courage, resilience, tenacity and love of the Lekwungen people.

Chief Rob Thomas, Esquimalt Nation (kneeling right) and son Logan, Chief Ron Sam, Songhees Nation (standing back right) and myself with the Lekwungen Traditional Dancers after their performance at the opening ceremony.

Once we got out of the canoes, we were drummed through the crowd along the inner causeway to the stage for the opening ceremony with young members of the the Lekwungen Traditional Dancers leading the way. The opening ceremony began with a moment of silence to recognize that for some, July 1st is a day of grief, hurt, pain and anger. The moment of silence was contrasted at the end of the day with fireworks, where members of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations and their families were our special guests.

July 1st in Victoria this year was about holding and honouring all the complex truths of the day and experiences of life in this country. In one hand we held the pain and grief and anger. And in the other, a need to come together as a whole community and celebrate Canada. The sea of red and white and orange downtown that day was a powerful symbol that multiple truths and experiences can live peacefully side by side. Indeed this is exactly what is necessary for our collective future.

To see some video from the event, check out Global News’ excellent and thoughtful coverage here.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Reconciliation Contribution Program – Opportunity for Victorians to Recognize Lekwungen Lands, Contribute to Nations

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.

City Supports Songhees Nation in Treaty Negotiations with Province and Canada


In 2017, the City of Victoria declared a year of reconciliation, adopted the five municipal calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and began a journey of reconciliation with the Songhees and the Esquimalt Nations on whose homelands Victoria was built. We realized quite quickly that a “year” of reconciliation was a naive notion. We’ve worked well beyond 2017 – and will continue to work for the next many decades – to decolonize the City of Victoria.

When we began the reconciliation process, we went to both the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations and asked if they would like to participate in a reconciliation task force. They kindly told us that a “task force” was a colonial structure and suggested instead that we create a family, as the family is the unit of governance in Lək̓ʷəŋən culture. So we created the City Family, and set out on our journey.

Over the past five years, the City Family, as well as Victoria Council and Songhees and Esquimalt Councils, have shared food and ceremony. We’ve deliberated and made decisions together. We shared a private box when Victoria hosted the World Juniors, and we were all thrilled when a young Songhees member was broadcast on the large screen in the arena, doing the floss!

We co-created and co-hosted the Victoria Reconciliation Dialogues to share our learnings and Lək̓ʷəŋən teachings, culture and ceremony with the community.

We gathered together and wept together when the first 215 bodies of children who died in residential school were discovered in Kamloops last summer. And together we decided to postpone Canada Day celebrations, as Lək̓ʷəŋən elders were grief stricken and unable to participate.

We worked together on the removal of the Sir John A Macdonald statue from the steps of City Hall in the summer of 2018. We did this to make Victoria City Hall more welcoming and inclusive for Indigenous members of our community. And we stood together in the summer of 2021 when the statue of Captain Cook was toppled in the inner harbour. We unequivocally denounced the tearing down of the statue, the vandalism to churches, and asserted that we will get further by standing shoulder to shoulder than by tearing down each other’s cultural symbols.

Songhees and Victoria staff have worked together on park re-naming, street re-naming, the gathering of elders’ stories to share in the new Songhees Park extension that will open this fall on the west side of the Johnson Street Bridge. They’ve collaborated on the design of the Lək̓ʷəŋən Plaza as part of the Government Street Refresh project. And so much more. They too are developing relationships with each other.

We’ve made lots of mistakes along the way. And each time we do, we’ve been lovingly yet firmly corrected. The ongoing generosity of the Lək̓ʷəŋən people, despite everything that has happened during colonization, which continues to this day, is humbling.

This years-long collaborative process – “Na’tsa’maht”, which means, “We are one,” in lək̓ʷəŋiʔnəŋ – brought us to last Friday, when the Songhees Nation and the City of Victoria held a public ceremony in Centennial Square. The ceremony marked an important next step in the return of Lək̓ʷəŋən land as part of the Songhees Treaty negotiations which began in the 1990s.

In a show of solidarity with the Songhees Nation, the City provided a formal letter supporting the Songhees’ Treaty Settlement Lands within City boundaries. (See below.) Although the treaty negotiations with British Columbia and Canada continue, this represents a significant step in the Treaty process. The Province and Canada consult with local governments when considering the return of lands within municipal boundaries to First Nations as part of the Treaty process.

Municipalities can either get in the way and object to the land back proposals, or we can stand by and support. We’re choosing to stand and support because we know this will assist the Songhees in their negotiations and help bring the decades long Treaty process to an end.

When a nation acquires lands as Treaty Settlement Lands, it means that they own the lands outright – unlike reserve lands – and that they are not subject to local government zoning bylaws or the City’s Official Community Plan. In essence, Treaty Settlement lands are a recognition of the right to self determination and self-government.

This is what Songhees Chief Ron Sam said in a joint news release from Songhees Nation and the City:

“Today we celebrate and honour Mayor Helps and Council in their efforts to rebuild the relationship with the Songhees Nation. We appreciate their support in our mission to negotiate return of our traditional lands in Lək̓ʷəŋən territory through Treaty, and for their unwavering commitment to working government-to-government with our leadership over the years.  It is a truly historic day, and we look forward to continuing our respectful and valuable relationship to benefit all families who live in Victoria and the surrounding area.”

To hear more from Chief Sam please watch this terrific CHEK news story. To learn more about the history of the Treaty process, please read this excellent CBC story.

Before each public meeting, we acknowledge that the City of Victoria is built on the homelands of the Lək̓ʷəŋən speaking peoples. To be meaningful, reconciliation needs to be more than land acknowledgements. Reconciliation must be accompanied by decolonization and decolonizing practices. So when the Songhees asked that we stand with them and support them in their treaty negotiations to reacquire land that was wrongfully taken from them – land in the heart of their territory – Council voted to do so.

We did so because we cherish the opportunity of working towards decolonization and addressing the wrongs of the past by supporting the Songhees Nation in their efforts to get some of their land back. Over these past five years, we have built a strong relationship with Chief Sam and his Council that we value very much. It is this relationship that will lead to meaningful reconciliation between the City and the Songhees Nation, to the benefit of their members and our residents. 

Letter to Chief Sam

Dear Chief Sam,

We understand that Songhees Nation is negotiating a land claim agreement under the British Columbia treaty process through the Te’mexw Treaty Association to acquire the following lands as part of its treaty negotiations:

• 1112 Wharf Street
• 430 Menzies Street, and
• 613/615 Pandora Avenue

On behalf of the City of Victoria, I write to express the City’s support for the Songhees’ treaty process and the City’s support for Songhees’ acquisition of the above-noted lands as Treaty Settlement Lands. On June 10, 2021, City Council adopted a resolution to reiterate and confirm this support.

The City looks forward to developing the foundational framework for establishing the collaborative working relationships and servicing arrangements between our two governments in anticipation of the lands becoming Treaty Settlement Lands. We view this collaboration as an important aspect of the reconciliation process.

Please do not hesitate to reach out should you have any questions. Sending my best to you and all of our colleagues at Songhees Nation.

Sincerely,

Lisa Helps, Victoria Mayor

Reconciliation Grant: The Real Numbers and the Rationale

This past week, the Grumpy Taxpayer$ published a blog post and sent out a newsletter with inaccurate information about the proposed reconciliation grant to the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations that Council is considering as part of our 2022 budget process. The Grumpys are calling the grant a “reconciliation tax” which it is not. But more troubling, they printed an inaccurate and misleading financial analysis of how the grant program would work.

When we pointed this out, instead of issuing a correction themselves and saying that they had made a mistake in their analysis of the amount of new assessed revenue that would go to the nations, they simply issued a follow up statement noting that the City had “clarified” the potential costs. They suggested that the City had only just released a report with the potential impact of the annual grant. In fact, this information has been public since December 9th as part of the budget report at the public Committee of the Whole meeting (Item F2).

Their follow up statement did not ensure that everyone who received the original newsletter knew their analysis was flawed. Their misrepresentation and inaccurate statement is continuing to cause confusion among media and their readers. This is unfortunate for a group that claims to be champions of transparency and accuracy.

This blog post shares the real numbers and the reason for the proposed reconciliation grant.

What is “new assessed revenue”?

New assessed revenue is the amount of new tax dollars that a local government receives in a year from new development. Let’s take for example a downtown property that used to be a parking lot but is now a new office building. BC Assessment – which assesses property values – would assess a new commercial building at a much higher rate than a parking lot. What this means, is that the year the new building is built, the City will receive additional tax dollars for the new building.

The next year, and every year after – and for the whole time the building is standing – the City will continue to receive property taxes from that building. Every year, new buildings are built in the city. In the year they are built, the City receives the money from the new buildings that were constructed, as well as tax dollars from the buildings that were new the year before. And so on, year after year.

The idea behind the reconciliation grant to the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations is that as the city grows, the nations on whose lands the city was built should also benefit from that growth. This Times Colonist article from November lays the proposal out clearly.

In order to understand the potential impact of the grant over a 20 year period, in November, Council asked staff to report back on the amount of new assessed revenue the City had taken in over the past 20 years. In other words how much had the city grown in that time and what were the financial benefits of that growth?

I’m not going to share the Grumpys original analysis because that will definitely confuse matters. I am going to share the spread sheet with staff’s calculations and explain what it means.

Between 2002 and 2021, the City generated $30,646,375 of new assessed revenue. This number is not the cumulative financial impact of the new revenue to the City over that 20 year period.

If we had started a reconciliation grant 20 years ago, and given 15% of new assessed revenue to the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations, in 2002, they would have received a grant of $161,799. In 2021, they would have received $4,596,956.

The last two columns of the chart show the cumulative impact of new assessed revenue and the cumulative impact of the grant. This means, between 2002 and 2021, the total new revenue to the City as a result of development in that 20 year period was $271,549,247. If 15% of that had been granted to the Nations over a 20 year period, the total grant amount they would have received over a 20 year period is $40,732,381.

How will the reconciliation grant work?

Public input from those who filled out the budget survey indicated low support for the proposed reconciliation grant. Some people said that we will be putting the City in financial dire straits if we create such a grant program. Others said that reconciliation is a provincial and federal, not a municipal issue. And others objected because it is a lot of money over time.

In response to public feedback, I am not proposing to drop the idea all together, and I hope Council won’t either. But I am sensitive to the fact that in order to succeed for the long term, big ideas like this need to be implemented carefully.

For that reason, when we get to this item in our budget discussions, I will propose to Council – in response to public feedback – that the reconciliation grant start at 10% of new assessed revenue; if a future Council wishes to raise the percentage, they can do so.

Since 2000, Council has had a general policy of putting some new assessed revenue into the Building and Infrastructure Reserves to ensure we are saving to invest in the City’s infrastructure for the future. In 2015, we amended the Financial Sustainability Policy so that the first $500,000 of new assessed revenue must go into reserves, taking an even more aggressive approach to saving for the future.

When I propose the reconciliation grant during the budget deliberations, I will clarify through a proposed amendment to Council’s Financial Sustainability Policy that the 10% reconciliation grant be given to the nations after the first $500,000 of new assessed revenue is added to the City’s Building and Infrastructure Reserve so we continue with our fiscally responsible approach to infrastructure maintenance and repair for the long term.

Each year we put far more into the City’s reserves than would be given out in any year through the reconciliation grant. In 2022 alone we are adding over $24 million into reserves. For details on the City’s reserve fund balances head to pg 17 of this staff report.

Why is a reconciliation grant important?

Over the past five years, we have developed a close relationship with the Chiefs and Councils of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations and with their community members. We’ve witnessed up close their tenacity and resilience. We’ve seen their respect and care for their elders. We’ve seen how they hold up and honour their youth. We’re struck continuously by their generosity, how they invite us in, share their culture and stories with us, how they stand shoulder to shoulder with us, despite everything that has happened through our colonization of their homelands.

Forty million dollars over 20 years could do a lot of good, especially if leveraged to secure matching funds from other levels of government, or invested in economic development initiatives. If City Council in 2002 had started the grant, perhaps housing conditions on reserve would be a little bit better than they are today. Maybe there would be less Indigenous homelessness in Victoria. Perhaps there would be more youth who could speak Lekwungen. Perhaps the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations could have opened more businesses in downtown Victoria. Maybe more action items in the Songhees Nation 10 Year Strategic Plan would have been accomplished. And maybe our whole community would be a little bit better off because of all of this.

It is 2022. Victoria was incorporated 160 years ago this year, and has grown substantially since its incorporation. The Songhees and Esquimalt Nations have not benefited from this growth, in fact they were pushed out to make room for it. In an era of reconciliation where actions need to speak as loud as land acknowledgements, it is time to ensure that going forward, the nations benefit as the city continues to grow and change. We will all be better for it.

Late September Strawberries, and the Work of Reconciliation

I wrote this poem while picking strawberries, a few days before the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation – marked in Victoria since 2017 as Orange Shirt Day – to honour and support residential school survivors, intergenerational survivors, and the families of those who didn’t come home.

Late September Strawberries

maybe it’s climate change
or that we got the soil right
this year, pungent fertilizer applied
at the right intervals
and a commitment to every-two-day-
early-morning watering
no matter the conditions of my life
or that 15 minutes more sleep
would be welcome

maybe it’s the pollinators
the hedgerow at Robyn’s farm
inspiring us to create our own this year
welcome habitat for the bees,
that feed us

we aren’t very good gardeners
by that I mean we don’t
have all the time in the world
to study the soil, the path the sun makes,
reliably, across the yard each day
what should go where and, why
in some beds, things just don’t grow

well

we are good gardeners
earnest on Saturday afternoons
as life allows
planting vegetables
tending tomatoes
and the joy
of that backyard connection

late September strawberries
shorter-day-soak-in sunshine
as we prepare the garden
and ourselves
for what’s next

Songhees knowledge keeper Florence Dick says
that the City can’t have
the name of their Grand Chief
for our street sign
because even though he signed the Douglas Treaty
in 1850 and is long dead
he is also still alive
moves through this land through his descendants
he cannot be pinned down
as a name on a street sign

these strawberries
this land
ours and not ours

what’s next is winter
and the work of decolonization
the learning and unlearning
the shared pain
the deep understanding
that what was done
cannot be undone

those children who never came home
those children who survived

short days and long nights
to tend to the work
the lək̓ʷəŋən are winter ceremony people

I also must do my work
so that as another spring comes
and strawberries bloom
on land that is not ours
I know my role on this healing path
and walk, heart and hand,
with the people
of this land

South Island First Nation Chiefs: “Please don’t lose sight of the young ones that we are honouring”

Along with other mayors, MLAs and MPs across the region, on Friday moring I was invited to stand with the nine chiefs of the South Island First Nations as they released and signed a letter calling for an end to the vandalism that is further dividing our communities and preventing healing from taking place.

The chiefs unequivocally denounced the tearing down of the Captain Cook statue and the vandalism to churches. They said that this was not done in their names or in the names of their nations. They told us that since this vandalism had happened, their young people and their elders had been subject to greater racism and their own properties had been threatened.

They asked those of us in attendance to work with them to create understanding and loving, caring communities. They said that we will get further along the path of reconciliation and towards healing together, arm in arm rather than by tearing down each other’s cultural symbols. “Na’tsa’maht”, some of the chiefs said. This means, “We are one,” in lək̓ʷəŋiʔnəŋ (Lekwungen). With generosity, love, and through ceremony, they called us in, asked us to witness and to share what we learned.

All the words and stories shared were powerful and I listened with an open heart – a heart breaking open with both grief and opportunity. But the most powerful moment of Friday’s event for me went beyond just the words.

At the opening of the ceremony, us non-Indigneous leaders were invited by the chiefs to walk in together with them, shoulder to shoulder, in a procession behind the lək̓ʷəŋiʔnəŋ Traditional Dancers, singing, drumming and dancing the Paddle Welcome Song. Despite everything that has happened and that is happening in our region, province and country – so much divide, so much racism, so much anger and hurt – they invited us to walk with them. In that moment, we were one. I will carry with me that feeling of profound oneness from Friday’s event as we continue to walk the difficult but healing path ahead.

Here is the letter from the Chiefs. Please share it with everyone you know.

“Dear South Island Community Members and beyond,

“We are writing you in a united voice of Nations to share our perspective on the recent events in the South Island and beyond, and to spread hope that we can work together for change, and a safer community.

“These events have brought violence and vandalism to our region and communities, the damaging of property including statues and totem poles is unacceptable. We are all residents of this region, and we need to respect each other.

“We are leaders of the South Island Indigenous communities, and these are acts are not ours, we do not support them, and we do not believe in dividing communities.

“These acts are not medicine, they fuel hate and inhibit the healing that is so deeply needed right now. The disrespectful and damaging acts we have seen are not helping, they are perpetuating hurt, hate, and divide.

“These actions go against our teachings and are not reflective on how we have been taught to carry ourselves. As a collective we feel the need to step in before things continue on a destructive path.

“We are writing this letter because we need to work together towards the goals that strengthen our community and bonds with each other.

“We ask all residents of Southern Vancouver Island and beyond to join us on the road to healing. We need to walk together, support each other, and demonstrate humanity. We honour those that have stood with us, those who are our allies, and those who have listened and supported us.

“All vandalism must stop immediately. Let us lock arms, walk together, and look out for one another. Please do not lose sight of the young ones that we are honouring, and please listen to our Elders and survivors.

In Friendship,
Songhees Nation
Esquimalt Nation
Beecher Bay First Nation
T’Sou-ke Nation
Malahat First Nation
Tsawout First Nation
Tsartlip First Nation
Pauquachin First Nation
Tseycum First Nation”

Canada Day, 2021, Victoria BC: When Our Neighbours are Suffering It’s Not the Time To Celebrate

Children’s shoes, stuffed toys, and 215 orange children’s shirts on the steps of the BC Legislature. The shirts were laid after a ceremony hosted for island nations by the Songhees Nation Tuesday June 8th.

This past week Council voted unanimously to move a planned Canada Day broadcast from July 1st to a broadcast that will air later this summer. It will be guided by the Lekwungen people and feature local artists and musicians and will explore what it means to be Canadian, in light of recent events.

While there has been strong local support for this decision, there has also been some backlash from across the country. The backlash tells me that we have a lot more work to do as a country to understand what reconciliation actually means. Reconciliation is about relationships. And it is place-based.

Victoria City Council didn’t #CancelCanadaDay. We weren’t responding to social media campaigns. And no one actually asked us to rethink what we had planned for July 1st.

Each year the City organizes a Canada Day celebration to bring the community together for a diverse, multicultural celebration of our country. Last year because of COVID-19, an online one-hour televised celebration replaced an in-person community gathering. This year, we were planning a similar event – a diverse, multicultural celebration of Canada in the form of a one-hour TV broadcast which features local musicians and artists.

Staff recently met with long-standing Lekwungen participants in the Canada Day celebrations in preparation for this year’s event. They told staff that they wouldn’t take part in Canada Day celebrations this year, in light of the 215 children’s bodies at the Kamloops Indian Residential School discovered so close to July 1st, and the pain and trauma this is causing.

Here is what Lyla Dick, a lead singer in the Lekwungen Traditional Dancers told the Times Colonist:

“The group withdrew from the planned broadcast out of respect for her mother, a residential school survivor and the ‘backbone’ of the dance group, and all those who attended the schools. Dick said her uncle, who attended the Kamloops Indian Residential School, has been hit particularly hard by the discovery.

“‘Because what’s happening with our survivors right now is the years of suppressing all those memories, it’s like the wounds have opened back up … In our communities, we’ve known all along that there was losses throughout the years. I remember my grandpa hearing of his sister being pushed out the window … I remember stories of my mom’s brother, his punishment in Kuper Island. And mum today just told me about the punishments my dad received when he was in [residential school]. So it’s been known all these years, but not really openly talked about’.”

I had been discussing with staff how to incorporate recognition of the 215 children into this year’s Canada Day event somehow. But until I heard from staff that the Lekwungen people were too grief stricken to participate, I hadn’t considered recommending to Council that we rethink Canada Day this year. I’m not sure how I thought that somehow we could proceed with business as usual, even as the history of our country’s genocidal relationship with First Nations had been once again revealed in a way that is painful for the Lekwungen people, for First Nations across the country, and for many non-Indigenous Canadians.

The more I reflected, the more I understood that holding the usual Canada Day celebrations would be damaging to the City’s and the community’s reconciliation efforts. For the last four years, through the City Family, the Witness Reconciliation Program and the Reconciliation Dialogues, we’ve been building close, heart-based and healing relationships between the City and the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. How could we have a celebration when our neighbours – on whose homelands the City was built – were suffering? And how could we hold a Canada Day celebration without the Lekwungen people who have been part of the event for the last decade?

As First Nations mourn, and in light of the challenging moment we are in as a Canadian nation following the discovery of the remains of 215 children, Council decided to take the time to explore new possibilities this year. In our decision, we noted that everyone will mark Canada Day in their own way this year, with some choosing to celebrate; that is the freedom that a country like Canada provides. But for Council, now is a time where the City can take leadership and provide an opportunity for thoughtful reflection and examination of what it means to be Canadian in light of recent events and what we already know about our past.

For a broader perspective, here’s an interview I did with CBC’s Carol Off on As It Happens Friday evening. (Interview starts at 1:47)

Statement on the Discovery of the Remains of 215 Children in a Mass Grave at the Kamloops Indian Residential School

Eddy Charlie speaking at Xe Xe SmunEem (Sacred Children)-Victoria Orange Shirt Day on September 30 2019, with Kristin Spray. Eddy and Kristin are founders of Xe Xe SmunEem-Victoria Orange Shirt Day which honours residential school survivors and those, like the 215 children whose bodies were discovered this week, who never came home.

On Monday, the City of Victoria is lowering the Xe xe Smun eem-Victoria Orange Shirt Day flag and the Canadian flag to half-mast to honour the 215 children who died at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, and whose bodies were recently found in an unmarked grave. We acknowledge the deep grief of families from the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation and families from the other Nations whose children attended the school and who never returned home. 

The flags will remain lowered from May 31 to June 8 for a total of 215 hours, one hour for each of the children who died. Council will also observe a moment of silence at the beginning of our meeting on Thursday. 

The discovery of the children’s bodies is a reminder to non-Indigenous Canadians that the grief and trauma of colonization is anything but in the past. These children’s bodies surfaced in the present and are a painful reminder to all residential school survivors and intergenerational survivors of their own pain, trauma, and need for healing. 

Taking meaningful action to address the ongoing, harmful legacy of colonialism requires more than symbolic gestures like the lowering of flags. It requires all non-Indigenous people and all levels of government to take action to recognize and honour Indigenous sovereignty, Indigenous laws, and Indigenous ways of knowing. The discovery of the children’s bodies should move us all to redouble our reconciliation efforts in real and meaningful ways.

To close with the words of Eddy Charlie, residential school survivor and founder of Xe Xe SmunEem-Orange Shirt Day in Victoria in a text to me today, “We all have work. Our old ones used to say, never think a path is perfect. The challenge is to stay standing together on that path. That goodness is all we need.”

Is Victoria A Welcoming City?

This booklet outlines the Welcoming Standard against which Victoria will be measuring itself and the goals we are aiming to achieve. It’s very short! Please take the time to read it and share it with everyone you know who might be interested in learning more about Victoria becoming a Welcoming City, or participating in the process.

The first year anniversary of George Floyd’s death is coming up at the end of this month. His murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer sparked international outrage. It brought the Black Lives Matter movement and the existence of systemic racism – everywhere, not only in policing – squarely into the mainstream as an issue that could no longer be ignored.

Creating a Welcoming City Strategy to address systemic inequities and make Victoria more welcoming is an action in both Council’s 2019-2022 Strategic Plan and the City’s economic action plan, Victoria 3.0. When the pandemic hit last spring – like much else that wasn’t part of core operations – Council put this project on hold. After George’s Floyd’s death and the response to it in Victoria and around the world, we felt the need to take urgent action.

For background and context, here is an excerpt from the June 9 2020 Committee of the Whole Report from Councillor Dubow and I:

“At the Council meeting on April 9, 2020, Council decided to put on hold a range of initiatives due to budget constraints from COVID-19 and revisit these on August 6th. The Welcoming City Task Force was one of these initiatives.

“Given the recent events in the United States and Canada as well as the well-organized and thoughtful responses of Victorians against racism in all forms and the desire to create a welcoming city for everyone, it is recommended that we proceed immediately with the Welcoming City Task Force. This will enable Council to harness the energy, creativity, passion and commitment currently evident in our community to make Victoria a welcoming and safe city for everyone. 

“The original proposed funding amount for this initiative was $50,000. This included engaging a consultant, in person meeting costs and stipends for Indigenous members of the Task Force as per the City’s protocol and compensation policy. Given that the meetings will all be held online, it is possible to reduce the budget.

“There is approximately $42,800 remaining in the Mayor and Council travel budget for this year, most of which will not be used given travel restrictions and lack of in person conferences. It is recommended that $40,000 be re-allocated to the Welcoming City Initiative.”

Council accepted our recommendation unanimously and a task force was struck.

The Welcoming City Task Force is co-chaired by myself and Councillor Dubow and is made up of people who reflect Victoria’s increasing diverse population. The members have been working hard with consultants and city staff for many months in preparation to launch an extensive public engagement process, which begins this week.

What is a Welcoming City?
The Welcoming Cities program began in the United States in 2009 as a deliberate way to create relationships between long-established residents and newcomers and to help develop a sense of belonging, connection, and community cohesion. Since then, it has grown into a global movement with the founding of Welcoming International and the development of the Welcoming Standard (pictured above). The Standard lays out the keys areas of civic life that need concerted attention and action in order to create inclusive communities:

  • Government Leadership
  • Equitable Access
  • Civic Engagement
  • Connected Communities
  • Education
  • Economic Development
  • Safe Communities

Not all the categories in the Welcoming Standard are within the jurisdiction of local governments. This is why Victoria’s Welcoming City Task Force includes representatives from other organizations like the Greater Victoria Public Library, newcomer serving agencies and Parent Advisory Council reps. The idea is to co-develop and co-deliver the Welcoming City Strategy together with the community.

Why Welcoming Victoria and How to Get Involved
Victoria is a culturally diverse place. According to the 2016 Census, close to 20 percent of Victoria’s population are newcomers, or people who are new immigrants or refugees to Canada who have settled in Victoria. They face significant social and economic barriers to integration into the local community and into Canadian society.  

Creating a Welcoming City Strategy means foregrounding the lived experiences of newcomers, people of colour, Black people and Indigeneous people to help inform the development of the strategy, so it reflects their needs and desires. We know that even on their own homelands, Victoria can be an unwelcoming place to Indigenous people. This needs to change. Important as well are the voices of long-established Victorians who have a role to play in helping to make Victoria welcoming, inclusive and resilient because of our diversity.

Phase one of the engagement begins this week with small workshops for people to share their experiences and needs in each of the Welcoming Standard areas cited above. At the same time, everyone is invited to share their stories between now and May 30th on the City’s Have Your Say platform. Do you feel a sense of welcome and belonging? What would help to make you feel like you belong and are able to flourish in Victoria? The Welcoming City engagement will be up Tuesday so if you go there as soon as you read this post on Sunday evening, you won’t see it yet – please check back later in the week!

The information gleaned in the workshops and on the story portal will be used to generate a community survey that will go live in early June. Whether you’re a newcomer or a long-time resident, please take the time to fill out the survey. You’ll also find it on the City’s Have Your Say platform in June.

The input from public engagement will help to inform the development of a Welcoming City Strategy that will be presented to Council in the fall. Once adopted, the implementation of the Welcoming City Strategy will be led by the City’s newly formed Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

The success of the strategy will be in the quality of the inputs we get during the public engagement period. For those who are new to Victoria and/or racialized minorities who don’t feel welcome here, who experience racism, who need us to do better as a community, thanks in advance for the courage to tell your stories and share your experiences. We can and must do better. For those of us who are non-people of colour, non-Black and non-Indigenous, we have work to do to unpack our privilege and examine our shared role in making Victoria more welcoming.

I thank the hard-working, courageous, and delightful task force for their work to date, and I look forward to the next steps in this important and necessary process.

It’s Our Responsibility As Non-Indigenous People to Show that Reconciliation Is Not Dead

Photo credit: Colin Smith

This blog post is being written just as CBC announced that Wet’suwet’en, Canada, and British Columbia have reached a proposed arrangement

On Friday afternoon I visited the youth staying at the legislature. They are there to defend their lands, rights, and Indigenous title. I stood in circle with them and listened to their passion, their concerns and their fears.

I went to see them in part because I was on a panel on Friday evening at the Victoria Urban Reconciliation Dialogues hosted by the Victoria Native Friendship Centre. One of the questions that panel host Shelagh Rogers said she’d be asking us is about the role of Indigenous youth in the future of reconciliation. So I went down to the legislature to learn.

A key part of my role as mayor is to support and nurture our young people, the leaders of today and the leaders of tomorrow. When I heard these Indigenous youth say that they are afraid, when I heard them say that our country has failed them time and time again, when I heard about the sacrifices they are making – putting their own lives on hold and at risk – I am moved to speak up.

As non-Indigenous allies, we must speak up against the racism that is rearing its head in response to Indigenous people standing up across the country. We must denounce racism in all its forms. We must call it out. There is never, ever, any excuse or any “good reason” for racism.

When I met with the youth on Friday they told me that they think reconciliation is dead. I can see how they feel this way – it took more than two weeks of protests across the country to get everyone around the table in Wet’suwet’en territory just for the conversation to begin. And along the way there were arrests and further displacement of Indigenous people from their homelands. In a so called era of reconciliation, it shouldn’t have taken this long and it shouldn’t have been so difficult for the conditions for dialogue set by the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs to be met.

What I want to say to the youth is that it is our responsibility as non-Indigenous people to show them and their elders and all Indigenous people that reconciliation is not dead.

We do this by telling the whole truth about the history of our country: that it was built by the removal of Indigenous people from their lands, the tearing apart of Indigenous families, the obliteration of Indigenous laws and ways of knowing the world. We acknowledge that all of these things are still happening today and we do everything in our power to change this. Reconciliation is not dead as long as we are willing to name the colonial and painful truth of Canada’s origin story.

Reconciliation is not dead if we as non-Indigenous community members are committed to decolonizing Canada, to working together to create a new story. This means being committed to honouring Indigenous rights and title and ensuring that Indigenous legal orders can exist side by side with the Canadian one. For me, reconciliation is not dead but it is really, really difficult and painful work, for everyone.

After participating in the Victoria Urban Reconciliation Dialogues this weekend, I am also hopeful. As Shelley Cardinal, the president of the Victoria Native Friendship Centre said in her opening remarks on Friday evening, “Now when the discomfort is here is not the time to abandon each other, it’s the time to walk together.” And as Tsartlip Nation member and MLA Adam Olsen said in his opening remarks, at times like these “We need to call each other in, not call each other out.”