The Hupacasath and Tseshaht First Nations flags were raised at Port Alberni City Hall on Monday, June 21, 2021. It’s an event that happens every year on National Indigenous Peoples Day. The difference this year, is the flags will not be taken down.
“Today, we’re very proud to be flying these flags permanently,” Mayor Sharie Minions said.
Flying both First Nations’ flags was one of 27 recommendations that came out of the city’s reconciliation committee, formed in late 2017 in response to a grassroots demand for change.
“These recommendations have been integral to putting us on a path of healing (and) respect,” she said, adding that she hopes it will be the first of many.
Hupacasath Chief Councillor Brandy Lauder said this is the first of many steps that will be taken toward reconciliation in Port Alberni. A next step will be to see Nuu-chah-nulth translations for street names added to existing street signs. A stop sign at Harbour Quay that includes the Nuu-chah-nulth word for “stop” has already been installed, she said.
“It’s a nice, slow, easing into it.”
Two new flag poles were installed in front of city hall two weeks ago in preparation for this event, which was always planned for National Indigenous Peoples Day, city CAO Tim Pley said.
A group of just under 50 people gathered in a cordoned-off area in front of city hall for the ceremony. Both nations had council members, elders and witnesses present; city councillors were on hand, as was Alberni-Pacific Rim MLA Josie Osborne, city staff and other invited guests.
Osborne said events in recent weeks show that a call to action is needed now, and for settlers “this is a time for us to learn and listen,” and to be in a state of discomfort while doing so.
A number of speakers talked about the importance of the new flags that will be flown at city hall.
Some also paused to remember the bittersweet moments that Indigenous Peoples are experiencing right now, from the recent death of a loved one from Hesquiaht First Nation to a coroner’s inquest taking place steps away from city hall at the Capitol Theatre, investigating the circumstances of the death of a First Nations teen and mother who died after being in police custody.
“We’re on a new journey together,” said Wahmeesh Ken Watts, chief elected councillor for Tseshaht First Nation.
“For me, first and foremost, we’re starting a new path of reconciliation.
“It’s also coming at a bittersweet time,” he added, taking a moment to recognize the Tk’emlups te Secwémpemc First Nation and the sadness they are experiencing after discovering the remains of 215 children in an unmarked burial site at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
“This is one small gesture and it’s a good start. We’re going to keep moving on.”
Jolleen Dick, an elected councillor with Hupacasath First Nation, called the flying of the nations’ flags “a blending of the colonial world and Indigenous world.”
Dick was one of the organizers of a walk for reconciliation in March 2017 that saw hundreds of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people walk together from Harbour Quay to Port Alberni City Hall.
The walk was the culmination of weeks of racial tension that began with requests to rename AW Neill School and Neill Street.
Both were named for Alan Webster Neill, an historical politician identified as a racist who was involved in operation of the Alberni Indian Residential School.
What resulted was a reconciliation committee struck between the three local governments, and resulting report and recommendations. The school was recently renamed Tsuma-as Elementary School.
“It is movement; we are getting there,” Dick said.
“It is special. But when we think of Indigenous Peoples Day we do need to go beyond just celebrating one day.”