First Nations have hopes for B.C. New Democrats

B.C. government’s pledges are more than ‘hollow words’

For Musqueam Indian Band Coun. Wendy Grant-John, talk of reconciliation by the new British Columbia government brings to mind the memory of her relatives being expelled from their traditional territory to make way for what is now Stanley Park in Vancouver.

“My great-grandmother, along with the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh (nations), had houses there, had houses that were moved off to ensure that the newcomers had a park that they could relish in for the rest of their lives, to the detriment of our people,” Grant-John said Wednesday, gesturing from the convention centre on Vancouver’s waterfront towards the park.

“Those struggles are the ones that we continue today.”

As members of the province’s cabinet and First Nations communities meet ahead of the new legislative session this Friday, many Aboriginal leaders say the new government’s commitment to work with Indigenous Peoples feels different than the “hollow words” that have preceded past disappointments.

Ed John, grand chief of the First Nations Summit, said he is encouraged by Premier John Horgan’s pledge to govern based on the principles set out in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and to incorporate the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action.

“The province has been in dark places for far too long,” John said, addressing the fourth-annual leaders gathering. “We’ve waited a long time for the stars to align federally and provincially. And we are there.”

“But, we’ve been at moments like this in the past only to be denied,” he said, before adding that this time feels different.

READ MORE: First Nations, school district sign Aboriginal education agreement

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The province’s willingness to acknowledge the underlying legal right to land and title held by First Nations, as laid out in the landmark Tsilhqot’in decision and other court rulings, gives him hope that the government’s promises are more than just empty words, John added.

Horgan said true reconciliation starts with genuine respect and that all of B.C. stands to benefit by listening to the “knowledge of millennia” held by Indigenous Peoples.

“For too long the words that have come from governments have been hollow to First Nations people,” he said, adding that he wants to deliver substance and action on the issues that matter to Aboriginal Peoples across the province.

“That’s my commitment to you today as we start this gathering, and I want you to hold me accountable,” he said, addressing the more than 560 people who had registered for the two-day event.

Dan Ashton, Indigenous relations critic for the Opposition Liberals, said he recognizes there was “the odd stumbling block” in the relationship between government and First Nations under the previous administration, but the overall trend was a positive one.

“I think our government took a lot of good steps in the right direction,” Ashton said.

“We all wish things would happen a lot quicker,” he added, lamenting the fact the courts had to be involved in resolving some disputes.

Chief Judy Wilson of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said while she is hopeful the province is on board, she will remain unconvinced until she sees First Nations people at the table with government leaders for matters that go beyond program and service issues.

Recognition of aboriginal land and title rights is essential to that progress, she said.

“Get rid of the consultation. It’s consent time now,” she said. ”That’s what we need to see on the ground.”

The B.C. Cabinet and First Nations Leaders’ Gathering is taking place before the speech from the throne on Friday, launching the New Democrats’ first legislative session as government in more than 16 years.

Geordon Omand, The Canadian Press

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