British Columbia

'The big challenge': Victoria Indigenous advocate wants to get reconciliation message to everyone

Ron Rice of the Victoria Native Friendship Centre says there is still a disconnect between positive progress on reconciliation made by public bodies in Victoria compared to what he says is apathy or hostility to those efforts from some in the community.

'How do we talk to people who aren't inspired ... or who don't place any value in this?'

Ron Rice and the Victoria Native Friendship Centre are seeking ways to translate the success of reconciliation with organizations in Victoria to people's everyday lives. (Liam Britten/CBC)

In many ways, Ron Rice says, Greater Victoria is leading the way when it comes to driving for reconciliation.

But Rice, executive director of the Victoria Native Friendship Centre, says there is still a disconnect between positive steps taken by institutions — cities, schools and even police forces — and what he says is apathy or hostility to those efforts from some in the community.

"That's the big challenge," Rice said. "How do we talk to people who aren't inspired, who aren't connected or who don't place any value in this?

"We're not sure how that happens yet."

Jessica Sault of the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation, centre, speaks during a blessing lunch at the friendship centre Monday. About 80 people from organizations in Victoria attended the event to discuss what progress they've made on reconciliation and what stumbling blocks they've encountered. (Greg Forsberg)

Rice and the friendship centre have spent the past year in conversations with public bodies in the region to find what they are doing to advance reconciliation in their domains.

Since the fall, the centre has hosted two dialogue meetings with those organizations, including one Monday and is now working on a bigger event — one more open to the general public this time — to foster dialogue and relationship-building in order to advance reconciliation.

It is launching an online survey this week to find ideas on how to bring everyday people into that conversation.

'A bit of harsh reality'

While many public bodies have made strides in inclusion of Indigenous people, Rice explained, some in the public are, at best, still skeptical  about reconciliation.

An example of this disconnect, Rice said, was last summer's removal of the John A. MacDonald statue from Victoria City Hall.

Ron Rice holds infant Wiqsii Forsberg at Monday's reconciliation dialogue. Rice said reconciliation is a big topic that can include, engagement with Indigenous peoples and looking at how government programs impact Indigenous children throughout the course of their lives — and even across generations. (Greg Forsberg)

He had no input on that decision, he said, and did not know about it until after it had happened but when asked to comment on it by a local TV station, he did, after some research.

"I was very conscious and very careful about the words that I said," he recalled. "You couldn't be flippant about things like this, because people were very passionate about it."

Victoria's statue of John A. Macdonald, wrapped in foam and strapped to a flatbed truck in August on its way to be placed in storage. City council voted during the summer to remove the statue as a gesture of reconciliation. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

He called the removal of the statue "a nice gesture" but voicing that opinion led to hateful electronic messages and voicemails, he said.

"It was a bit of harsh reality for people who thought that we lived in this happy place where everybody loved each other," he said. "The removal ... generated some very racist comments about Indigenous people."

Centre's 50th year

This year marks the Victoria Native Friendship Centre's 50th in the city.

It has always provided social services and cultural programs to Victoria's urban Indigenous population but this year Rice said it will focus on taking the message of reconciliation from the corridors of power and onto the streets.

"We wanted people to feel engaged at all levels," he said. "One thing that we've learned over the course of this year is that it is going to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people."

The issue of the contentious statue could develop further this year as well. In Thursday's budget, one item council will vote on is allocating up to $10,000 to "determine appropriate context" for it.

But Rice says he's optimistic about the appetite for reconciliation in the region, which he calls "ahead of the curve" compared to some parts of the country. Still, he acknowledges reconciliation is a work in progress.

"There's a lot of pain that's coming out of this process for people on both sides of the equation," he said. "How do we get through that in one piece?"