British Columbia

Reconciliation minister under fire for proposing residential school funds as leverage in '90s treaty talks

Indigenous leaders are calling for an apology from B.C. Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Murray Rankin after learning of an internal memo that shows him advocating using money meant for residential school survivors as leverage in the 1998 treaty negotiations. 

Murray Rankin says he was acting on behalf of Indigenous people in 1998 negotiations

Murray Rankin during his time as a treaty negotiator for the B.C. government in 1998, advocated for the federal government to use residential school money as leverage in ongoing treaty negotiations. He told CBC he was acting on behalf of Indigenous people. (Mathieu Thériault/CBC)

Indigenous leaders are calling for an apology from B.C. Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Murray Rankin after learning of an internal memo that shows him advocating using money meant for residential school survivors as leverage in the 1998 treaty negotiations.

That year, the federal government had set aside $350 million to support community-based healing initiatives for residential school survivors in Inuit, First Nations and Métis communities.

Rankin was the province's lead treaty negotiator at the time, appointed by former premier Mike Harcourt.

He addressed the fund in a 1998 memo to what was then called the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs, a document obtained through a Freedom of Information request filed by a member of the public.

"Were the federal government to be strategic in how this money were spent in British Columbia, then they would prioritize those First Nations with which they are having treaty negotiations as the major beneficiaries of this program," Rankin wrote.

"In addition, the money could be made available as a 'down payment' on an eventual treaty and given credit accordingly."

The internal memo, also signed by then-assistant negotiator Heinz Dyck, reads: "This would serve to sweeten the deal when it comes to the cash component of treaties."

In an interview with CBC this week, Rankin said he was acting on behalf of Indigenous people. 

"That's what the Nuu-chah-nulth leaders at the time ... were asking for," he said, naming only one Nuu-chah-nulth leader who has now passed away. 

"I thought it was really critical that some of that [residential school] reality was reflected in the treaty we were trying to come up with." 

An internal memo from then-B.C. government treaty negotiator Murray Rankin reads "Were the federal government to be strategic in how this money were spent in British Columbia, then they would prioritize those First Nations with which they are having treaty negotiations as the major beneficiaries of this program." (Submitted by Shiri Pasternak)

'This is a very, very serious issue'

Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said he is asking for an apology on behalf of Indigenous people. 

"This is a very, very serious issue, given the context of Indian residential schools and the intergenerational trauma that is reverberating through our communities, particularly now," Phillip told CBC.

In a letter to Rankin, he wrote: "We fully expect an explicit apology from you for ever recommending that federal dollars for residential school survivors be withheld as a carrot for First Nations to enter the [B.C.Treaty Commission] process."

A number of people took to Twitter to express their concerns.

"How can Murray Rankin, B.C.'s Minister of Indigenous Relations, ever be trusted if this is what he did behind our backs?" said Ginger Gosnell-Myers, a Nisga'a-Kwakwaka'wakw Indigenous Fellow focused on decolonization at Simon Fraser University's Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue.

On a Facebook post, Rankin defended the memo and said at the time he said he was working with the Nuu-chah-nulth people to secure as much federal funding as possible.

"I have been and will always be a strong supporter for residential school survivors, their families and their Nations," he wrote. 

'It's just how government operates'

Current Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council President Judith Sayers, who was one of thirteen Nuu-chah-nulth chief negotiators in 1998, said Rankin's suggestion was never tabled nor part of the negotiation process.

She added that it was a very different time 23 years ago.

"We were early in negotiations, we weren't even close to a final agreement, and this is just a letter saying, hey, these are my ideas for how we could move this table on," Sayers said.

"We just don't know what happened after that."

CBC contacted the federal government for comments about the documents, but has not yet heard back.

It is not clear from the internal documents if Ottawa received or acted upon Rankin's idea.

Sayers said she was not surprised that a government representative would try to "sweeten the deal," even with money that was intended for Indigenous people's healing. 

"It's just how government operates," she said. "You know, they try it."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is a journalist from the Gitxsan Nation. Sterritt's news and current affairs pieces are featured on national and local CBC platforms. Her CBC column 'Reconcile This' tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in B.C. Have a story idea? angela.sterritt@cbc.ca

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