British Columbia

How B.C. cities can advance reconciliation beyond studies and flags at half mast

While most of the larger debates surrounding reconciliation are questions of federal or provincial jurisdiction, Indigenous leaders in Metro Vancouver have suggested some next steps that can be taken at city halls.

Symbols matter — but so do representation and discussions on returning or selling land, Indigenous leaders say

The City of Vancouver says city hall will be lit up orange at night until further notice after the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced the remains of 215 children were found at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. (City of Vancouver)

Local and regional governments across B.C. are issuing statements of condolence and commitments to further reconciliation after the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced the remains of 215 children were found at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops — but Victoria's mayor has a piece of advice. 

"Reconciliation has to be more than symbolic gestures and lowering flags," Lisa Helps said.

Three years ago Victoria council made national headlines for voting to remove a statue of John A. MacDonald from outside city hall due his legacy on Indigenous issues. A decision on the statue's long-term fate has still not been made, but Helps said removing it "gave space" for the city to make more systemic changes to its internal operations. 

"Real change happens when you embed things into a city," she said, outlining some of the changes the city has made in its strategic plan regarding reconciliation. 

They include plans for mandatory staff training on local Indigenous history, opportunities for additional Indigenous contractors and employers in infrastructure projects (Helps didn't have the exact number of projects involved on hand), members of First Nations communities being included on the city's climate planning committee with appropriate compensation and dual Indigenous and English names on signs for new parks.

While most of the larger debates surrounding reconciliation are questions of federal or provincial jurisdiction, here's what some Indigenous leaders in Metro Vancouver have suggested should be next steps at city halls.

Returning land and a seat at the table

"I think a lot of frustration is that so many responses have ended with either thoughts and prayers or 'we're going to undertake another study or additional analysis,' and that is not what we need," said Ginger Gosnell-Myers, an Indigenous Fellow with SFU's Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue and Vancouver's first ever Indigenous relations manager.

"We know what the solutions are on many fronts."

Gosnell-Myers said one of those solutions is to work with local First Nations to determine what opportunities are available to give land back.

"We don't have to look at land back as if 'here, we're giving it to you.' I think in some instances giving land back can be done, but in other instances, the First Nation might feel they have options to purchase. We're not even discussing what those considerations or options look like, though. I think that's an important step."

Wade Grant, an intergovernmental officer with the Musqueam and former special adviser to Christy Clark, said some municipalities have made big steps forward since he was first elected to Musqueam council in 2004. 

But he pointed out places where First Nations generally lack representation, including the powerful TransLink Mayors' Council and Metro Vancouver boards, where only the Tsawwassen First Nation has a representative. 

"We sit here and see so much development, so much growth in this region, and local First Nations would like to have a little more input on it," said Grant. 

"If there's true reconciliation and there's true wanting to be partners, there needs to be voices around those tables."

The Squamish language is featured prominently on highway signs on the Sea to Sky Highway. (University of British Columbia)

Symbols still matter

But Grant and Gosnell-Myers also said symbols are still important: both mentioned land acknowledgements and increasing Indigenous place names as an important way to educate people about the land they were on. 

And both also cited the continued existence of Vancouver's Trutch Street, named for a lieutenant governor who drastically reduced the size of reserves and called First Nations "savages," as a particularly egregious piece of symbolism they would like to see rectified. 

"Trutch has been a notorious anti-Indigenous rights architect in our history and yet he is still acknowledged and honoured with a street name," said Gosnell-Myers.

The biggest symbols of British Columbia itself — its name and flag — were debated by Lower Mainland mayors and councillors just a month ago.

"It seems like a good time for an update and a good way to move forward," said Pemberton Coun. Leah Noble.

She put forward a resolution at the Lower Mainland Local Government Association to push the Union of B.C. Municipalities to lobby the province to explore a change to its flag and name. It failed, with approximately 60 per cent of delegates opposed, but she hopes other politicians will want to have the debate in future years. 

"Obviously, it's disappointing that it didn't pass to the next level, but it was good to see there were that many open-minded people willing to move forward and consider other things," Noble said.