Reconciliation is a learning process for us all

This article was first published in the Times Colonist August 29, 2018, 12:17 AM.

Reconciliation with Indigenous communities is an important undertaking in Canada today. What reconciliation looks like, and how we build trust in order to move forward to create a future of equal opportunity and respect, is an uncharted journey guided largely by respect and a willingness to listen, to learn and to try.

To take action on reconciliation,  city council created the city family, a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous members appointed in June 2017. The city family is a body of council and reports to council.

When city council voted to endorse the city family’s decision to relocate the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald from the steps of city hall and expressed a desire to work with the community to find a more appropriate public space for it, I knew that council had made the right decision. And I still think that today.

But now that I have had time to reflect on the process, I feel the need to explain some things that have weighed heavily on my mind.

As mayor of Victoria, I apologize for not recognizing that the city family’s process might make some people feel excluded from such an important decision. I didn’t recognize the great desire of Victoria residents to participate in reconciliation actions. The process going forward will enable this.

Reconciliation means following Indigenous leadership. It means listening carefully to how symbols and monuments that might be meaningful to many can create barriers for others. And it also means being in dialogue and creating opportunities for true learning and conversation among Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. But it is complex, and so we will make mistakes as we navigate and try to walk this road together.

I made a public commitment to bring the wishes of council and the public for a wider community conversation about reconciliation and a new location for the statue to the city family. I will do this. I have also arranged a meeting with the John A. Macdonald Society and invited the statue’s sculptor, John Dann. These conversations are also important steps in the reconciliation process.

I do not speak for the whole city family — I am but one member — but I can explain from my point of view why the statue needed to be removed from the steps of city hall even though we had not yet selected a site to publicly relocate it.

This action was not, as many news articles have suggested, a symbolic or empty gesture. The statue in its original location was a barrier to Indigenous communities’ engagement with city hall. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls upon all levels of government to engage with Indigenous Peoples on reconciliation action. Without relocating the statue, we were not able to invite First Nations to city hall in good faith and respect.

Reconciliation needs to take place in the real world, not just in our hearts.

Macdonald shaped one of the greatest nations and strongest democracies in the world. When we look around the world today, we have a lot to be thankful for. Moving the statue does not erase this history.

The statue’s relocation to a more appropriate public place — and all the conversations that have taken place and will continue to take place — only serve to broaden our understanding of Canadian history.

It’s time to move forward together.

As we work through the process of reconciliation as a community, with the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations on whose homeland the city was built, we have the opportunity to create a more welcoming, inclusive city for everyone. And this is something I’ve heard loud and clear that all Victorians value.

Reconciliation and Removal of John A. MacDonald Statue from Steps of City Hall

Screenshot 2018-08-08 07.45.13

In 2017 the City of Victoria began a formal process of reconciliation with the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations, the Lekwungen speaking peoples on whose homeland the City is founded. When the City first approached the Nations, it was in a very colonial way, asking them to sit on a “reconciliation task force.” Through conversation we learned that a more Indigenous-focused approach would be a better way to proceed if we were sincere in wanting to pursue truth and reconciliation. In response, we formed a City Family and began a Witness Reconciliation Program.

Council set this process in motion through approval of the Witness Reconciliation Program in June 2017. As part of this process, decision making with regards to reconciliation (other than budgetary allocations) are made by the City Family with the Songhees and Esquimalt Chief and Councils as witnesses. Witnesses, in Lekwungen tradition, listen to the story of the family and give their input and guidance to find a good way forward.

Part of the conceptual framework endorsed by Council in June 2017 included the following language:

“For the City to do more than talk about Reconciliation, we must be prepared to question convention, learn from Indigenous custom and tradition, and risk doing things differently than our usual routines and processes. Our comfortable reliance on terms of reference, timelines, work plans, benchmarks, checklists and other conventional assessments of success and progress will not add value or meaning to this work, move it forward, or demonstrate our readiness to face and embrace the challenges of Reconciliation.”

This language in the June 2017 report outlined what might be considered a decision-making process:

“After each Witness Ceremony is complete, and the advice of the Witnesses offered and heard, the City Family will facilitate the actions needed to realize the ideas endorsed by the Witnesses.”

The City Family has been gathering since the summer of 2017. We gather once a month in my office at City Hall and share food and conversation. One time, recently, I suggested to the family that perhaps we could “come to you” and meet at the Esquimalt Nation or the Songhees Nation. Hereditary Chief Ed Thomas gently pointed out, “You don’t need to come to us. You are always already on our territory.” This is just one example of the many humbling and generous truth-tellings that has been shared during the process.

After a year of discussion, deliberation, truth-sharing, and seeking counsel from the Songhees and Esquimalt Chiefs and Councils on multiple occasions, the family decided on the first concrete action we would like to take as we continue the path of truth and reconciliation. We will remove the statue of Sir John A. MacDonald from the front doors of city hall so that the family members and other Indigenous people do not need to walk past this painful reminder of colonial violence each time they enter the doors of their municipal government.

In addition to being the first Prime Minister of Canada, John A. MacDonald was a key architect of the Indian Residential School system. In 1879 he said, “When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

I am ashamed to say that I have an undergraduate degree in Canadian history, a master’s in Canadian history and a half-completed PhD in Canadian history. It is not until we began this Witness Reconciliation Program that I learned about the role that Canada’s first prime minister played in developing residential schools, the effects of which are well known to be still felt today both by school attendees and their children and grandchildren.

The statue will be removed and stored in a city facility until an appropriate way to recontextualize MacDonald is determined. We do not propose to erase history but rather to take the time through the process of truth-telling and reconciliation as part of the Witness Reconciliation Program to tell this complex and painful chapter of Canadian history in a thoughtful way.

Members of the City Family have worked together to craft this language that will go on a plaque where the current statue stands. The witnesses – the Chiefs and Councils of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations – have provided their input and approved the final wording:

In 2017, the City of Victoria began a journey of Truth and Reconciliation with the Lekwungen peoples, the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations, on whose territories the city stands. 

 The members of the City Family – part of the City’s Witness Reconciliation Program – have determined that to show progress on the path of reconciliation the City should remove the statue of Sir John A. MacDonald from the front doors of City Hall, while the City, the Nations and the wider community grapple with MacDonald’s complex history as both the first Prime Minister of Canada and a leader of violence against Indigenous Peoples.

 The statue is being stored safely in a city facility. We will keep the public informed as the Witness Reconciliation Program unfolds, and as we find a way to recontextualize MacDonald in an appropriate way.  For more information please visit www.victoria.ca/reconciliation

The statue will be removed on Saturday August 11th and the plaque installed immediately. After an appropriate amount of time has passed (as determined by Elders from the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations) a cleansing, blessing and healing ceremony will be held in the space where the statue formerly stood. In the longer term, as determined by motion of Council in late 2016, a piece of art representative of Lekwungen culture will likely go in this space.

For the full City Family Story and documents that will be presented to Committee of the Whole tomorrow please head here and see item I3.

New housing for Indigenous women facing homelessness

image001 copy.jpg

This is a project I’ve been working on with the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness for a very short time! It’s good to see it come to fruition so quickly.

The Government of British Columbia is partnering with the City of Victoria, Atira Women’s Resource Society and the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness, to build new modular housing for Indigenous women, with 24/7 support services.

“Having access to a safe, stable place to call home is crucial for anyone who is experiencing, or is at risk of, homelessness,” said Selina Robinson, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing. “Indigenous people are over-represented amongst the homeless population. And homeless women, especially those who are Indigenous, can face tremendous risks. That’s why I’m really pleased to see this project moving ahead.”

Once operational, each of the 21 homes will include a bathroom and kitchen. Residents will also benefit from:

  • 24/7 on-site staff support, including daily meal services, employment training, and culturally specific and life-skills programming;
  • Health and wellness services, including mental-health and addictions treatment;
  • A shared amenity space and access to laundry facilities; and
  • Custodial and maintenance services.

“Indigenous women are the strength of their communities, families and culture, but for too long they have also been victims of violence, homelessness and poverty,” said Scott Fraser, Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation. “By providing a safe, secure home and culturally appropriate support services, as we are with these new supportive homes in Victoria, we are sending the signal that government and its Indigenous partners are here to help Indigenous women in the spirit of reconciliation, and ultimately, in respect for their culture, history and traditions.”

“The need for housing in Victoria has reached a critical level,” said Rob Fleming, MLA for Victoria-Swan Lake. “These new modular homes will provide Indigenous women in need with an affordable and safe place to call home, while accessing the support services that they need to reach their potential.”

Neighbouring residents and businesses will have an opportunity to learn more about the project at an open house. Open house details will be announced in the coming weeks.

The temporary housing will be operational for approximately five years, and will be on the 800 block of Hillside Avenue, as part of the Evergreen Terrace complex.

“Indigenous women are more likely than other women in Canada to experience both violence and homelessness,” said Lisa Helps, mayor of the City of Victoria. “This housing at Evergreen Terrace provides the opportunity to interrupt those trends, and bring culturally responsive, safe, and affordable stability to the lives of Indigenous women in Victoria, while building community.”

“We are thrilled to be involved in this critically important project that we believe will help address the root causes of homelessness for Indigenous women, which are the loss of children and connection to culture and land,” said Janice Abbott, CEO, Atira Women’s Resource Society. “In addition to providing the immediate safety and security of stable housing, we will work with the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness and the female tenants to help rebuild those connections. We truly believe that if we can find a way to support women in parenting their children and provide children with the opportunity to be raised in their families, we can help eliminate homelessness and violence against Indigenous women.”

Pending municipal approvals, construction is anticipated to begin in fall 2018, and will be complete by March 2019.

“The Aboriginal Coalition currently supports Indigenous women through a program called the Indigenous Women’s Circle, geared towards strengthening Indigenous self-identity, providing life skills and food security and building a sense of family and community. We are very pleased that through the modular housing project, we can now also offer a safe space for the women to call home,” said Fran Hunt-Jinnouchi, executive director, Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness. “The women we support face multiple barriers, are often caught up in the chaos of domestic violence, and are at high risk. Culturally supportive housing has the potential to transform lives. I am optimistic and excited about the possibilities.”

Once the facility is operational, a 24/7 contact line will be available to answer questions and address neighbourhood concerns. In the meantime, questions and comments can be submitted to: communityrelations@bchousing.org

Our Thoughts Are with the Esquimalt Nation upon Chief Andy Thomas Sinoopun Passing

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Today, we lost a great man and leader, Chief Andrew Thomas/Sinoopun of the Esquimalt Nation.

Chief Thomas was a champion for his people. Grappling with the ongoing legacy of colonialism, he became dedicated to ensuring a prosperous future for the youth of his community.

He was also a very personable, funny and committed man who will be greatly missed by everyone on Victoria City Council and the entire community.

I have been honoured to know Chief Andy Thomas over the course of my time on City Council and particularly through our Witness Reconciliation Program and City Family. He was an inspiration to me and to Council, and his legacy will live on as we continue to walk together on this new path of truth and reconciliation.

Chief Andy said to us “Reconciliation is your work, your responsibility. We will work with you, guide you and share the labour but it is your burden to carry, and you must do what is needed to put that burden down, piece by piece.”

As a City and as a community we will continue to do this work in this spirit.

On behalf of City Council and the City of Victoria, I extend sincere condolences to the entire Thomas family at this difficult time.

Wholehearted Support for Songhees Games Bid

Something remarkable happened in Victoria recently. Late last Monday morning I walked into the Songhees Cultural Centre on the lower floor of the Steamship Terminal Building in the inner harbour. I’m not sure what I was expecting. But I was thrilled to see such a packed room. And happy to see so many of my colleagues; there was a least one elected official from each local government across the region.

We were there with local business leaders, media, and community members to throw our wholehearted support behind the Songhees Nation in their bid to host the 2020 North American Indigenous Games.

The North American Indigenous Games were created in the 1990s as a catalyst to support the health and wellbeing of Indigenous youth through sport and cultural activities. The Games today are a symbol of respect, friendship and athletic achievement. The event serves as a powerful opportunity to showcase the rich Indigenous cultures from across North America and to foster understanding.

Teamwork and the practice and rewards of discipline and dedication are transformational experiences for anyone. These are particularly important for Indigenous youth for whom we must all work together as a community, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to ensure this next generation has a future full of cultural pride, optimism, opportunity, health and prosperity. Pride, success, celebration and harnessing the strength of their distinct cultures – these are transformational experiences for everyone, but especially for youth on which the Games focus.

Bringing the North American Indigenous Games to Greater Victoria also makes great economic sense. The Games will be a significant economic generator and for the entire region. The Toronto games generated over $44-million for the regional economy. And we expect more delegates than Toronto.

Family members, coaches, and chaperones will come, along with 5000 athletes who will compete in the following sports: 3-D archery, Athletics, Badminton, Baseball (male), Basketball, Box Lacrosse, Canoe/Kayaking, Golf, Rifle-shooting, Soccer, Softball (female), Swimming, Volleyball and Wrestling.

The Songhees dream of hosting the Games is not a slam dunk by any means – Winnipeg, Halifax and Ottawa are all in the running. And the Songhees and their partners have a lot of work to do between now and the bid deadline of March 16th. But there’s something special happening here in the region that bodes very well for their bid: we are united as a region behind them

In his remarks at the event Chief Sam shared with us a word in the Lekwungen language, “NÉTSAMAÁT” which means “together we are one.” This North American Indigenous Games bid is a big deal in an era of reconciliation. It’s an opportunity for us as settler allies to stand with the Songhees and partner nations and to support them in any way we can.

And when they are successful in winning the bid we will celebrate with them, as a community. And when they host the games in 2020, we will stand beside them as they watch their young athletes compete with pride in their culture and with achievable aspirations and opportunities for a very bright future.

Originally published in the Victoria News.

Victoria Commences its Witness Reconciliation Program

WC4

On January 1, 2017 at the City of Victoria’s annual New Year’s Day Levee, and in the presence of local First Nations, City Council proclaimed 2017 a Year of Reconciliation. Since that time, Council has been in conversation with the Chiefs of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations on how best to approach the work of Reconciliation.

Together, the City and the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations have created a program reflecting Indigenous family witness ceremonies. The City’s Witness Reconciliation Program brings together Indigenous Witnesses from both the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations’ Councils and a City Family. The Program is meant to be a fluid process — one that is flexible, adaptable and evolves to foster a long-term relationship between the City and its Indigenous partners.

WC5

“We look forward to working together with the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations on a new path of Reconciliation,” said Mayor Lisa Helps. “As we have learned from Esquimalt and Songhees Chiefs, Reconciliation begins with listening and deepening understanding, and is a living process of collaboration, imagination and action. Recognizing the depth of our work together, and the need to respect Indigenous traditions in doing that work, we understand that 2017 is the first of our years of Reconciliation.”

The Witness Reconciliation Program will focus on building and nurturing the relationships needed to facilitate trust and demonstrate the City’s ongoing commitment to doing the work for as long as it needs to be done.

“Reconciliation is a journey honouring the truth and reconciling the future. It is about respect, both self-respect for Aboriginal people and mutual respect among all Canadians. Reconciliation must become a way of life,” said Songhees Nation Chief Ron Sam. “Songhees Nation welcomes the opportunity to work with the City through the time needed to nurture our current and future relationship, to take action, together, in the spirit of Reconciliation, and with respect for our traditional ways.”

Esquimalt Nation Chief Andy Thomas acknowledged the City’s commitment to an ongoing course of truth-telling, reconciliation and action, and the City’s willingness to embrace a different way of working together. “Esquimalt Nation expresses their openness to continue working with the City on a meaningful reconciliation process,” said Chief Andy Thomas.

The Indigenous Witnesses will be the Chief and Councillors of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations, who have been chosen by their people as leaders. The Witnesses will provide guidance and oversight for the Program, coming together two to three times a year in a traditional Witness Ceremony to hear, reflect, comment and advise, witnessing and guiding how the Program moves forward.

WC7

The City Family will meet regularly to collaboratively generate ideas that lead to a program of actions. This program will be presented to the Witnesses through a Witness Ceremony. The City Family will initially be comprised of Songhees representative Brianna Dick, Esquimalt representative Katie Hooper, noted artist Carey Newman, Camosun College Indigenous Studies Chair Janice Simcoe, Mayor Lisa Helps, Councillor Charlayne Thornton-Joe and Councillor Marianne Alto. Staff support will vary as needed, starting initially with Director of Parks, Recreation and Facilities Thomas Soulliere and Manager of Executive Operations Colleen Mycroft.

After the advice of Witnesses is heard at each Witness Ceremony, the City Family will facilitate actions to realize the ideas endorsed by the Witnesses. Subsequent Witness Ceremonies will provide an opportunity for reflection and to look forward to future actions.

“As a corporation, we have not done this kind of work before,” said City of Victoria Councillor Marianne Alto. “The work is new to us and so will be the way we do the work.”

The first Witness Ceremony took place this morning at the Royal BC Museum, timed with the start of the Aboriginal Cultural Festival that runs until Sunday.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC’s) Calls to Action, findings and materials will provide context and a framework for the City of Victoria’s Witness Reconciliation Program, its participants and its work. The Program will consider how the City might respond to the five recommendations highlighted by the TRC for municipalities, and will also work to realize, on a local scale, the TRC’s mandate to tell Canadians what happened in the Indian Residential Schools, create a permanent record of what happened in the Indian Residential Schools, and foster healing and reconciliation.

Photo credit: Heather Follis

Year of Reconciliation Proclamation

reconciliation

Whereas for thousands of years the Lekwungen people have lived, loved, raised families, fished, hunted and traded on these their traditional territories, and;

Whereas much more recently the City of Victoria was founded upon these territories, and;

Whereas the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report set out 94 Calls to Action, many of which can be actioned by municipalities, and;

Whereas the City of Victoria has adopted some of these Actions to begin a journey of reconciliation between settlers and the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations, and;

Whereas reconciliation begins with listening, with truth telling, and with acknowledging past wrongs, and;

Whereas reconciliation can be painful, uncomfortable and re-traumatizing, and;

Whereas reconciliation means honouring the truth, reconciling the future, and taking meaningful action for change, together, on shared terms, to create a bright future;

Now Therefore I do hereby proclaim 2017 as the Year of Reconciliation, on the Traditional Territories of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations, in the City of Victoria, the Capital City of the province of British Columbia.

CHEK News and the Times Colonist both provided great coverage of the Proclamation at City Hall today. Thank you.

 

New Year’s Message 2017, Year of Reconciliation

new-years-fire-works-2016

I’ve just returned home from the First Night celebrations downtown. It was so wonderful to see Victorians together, at the inner harbour, marking the turning of the year to Canada’s 150th birthday.

As I was reflecting in advance of this evening, I thought about other places in the world where gatherings in the streets are broken up by gunfire, where girls still don’t have a right to education, where the air quality is so bad it’s difficult to breath sometimes. And then, I thought about Canada.

Canada’s not perfect. We need to close the gap between rich and poor, reconcile with  First Nations, and grow our economy in a truly sustainable and inclusive way. But in Canada, we’ve had 150 years of relative peace, prosperity and acceptance of diversity. Tonight as I gathered with Victorians, and as other Canadians gathered in cities across the country, I realized, once again both my blessing and my luck in being born Canadian.

But we’ve still got lots of work to do. To mark Canada’s 150th in a meaningful way, tomorrow morning at City Hall, the City of Victoria will officially proclaim 2017 as the Year of Reconciliation. We will begin a journey of truth telling, deepening understanding, healing, and moving forward together with the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations on whose homelands the City of Victoria was founded.

lekwungen-dancers

For Canada’s 150th the City of Victoria will also be participating in 3 Things for Canada, inspired by my colleague Mayor Nenshi in Calgary. We’ll launch this early in the new year and hope you will join us.

In closing, my wish for Victorians in 2017 – and the very best birthday present we can give to Canada for her 150th birthday – is that we treat each other with kindness, and love each other well. Happy New Year!