Indigenous Day (Part 3): B.C. minister acknowledges province’s ‘very dark’ history

Glacier Media hears from Indigenous leader, police chief and government minister in three-part series in advance of National Indigenous Peoples Day

Scott Fraser, B.C. Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation | Screenshot

It was an introduction more than a decade ago that the B.C. government’s Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, Scott Fraser, recalls when asked about his government’s relationship with Indigenous peoples.

Fraser, who was mayor of Tofino at the time and served on the Clayoquot Sound central region board, met Earl Maquinna George, a hereditary chief of the Ahouhsat First Nation of Clayoquot Sound. 

George taught Fraser a term, which phonetically is pronounced ishu gish sow walk. It translates to “all things are connected, everything is one.”

“That’s wisdom that I’ve taken with me into government — that when we make decisions in government, there are side effects, there are ripples that happen,” Fraser told Glacier Media this week.

Fraser spoke to Glacier Media in advance of National Indigenous Peoples Day, which goes June 21. His interview was one of three conducted recently to gauge the state of Indigenous peoples’ lives and issues in British Columbia in 2020.

Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer and B.C. Regional Chief Terry Teegee of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations also participated in separate interviews, where policing and government affairs were discussed.

Fraser joined Glacier Media via a Zoom call from the B.C. legislature, where he was in between recording video messages to be circulated around the province to mark National Indigenous Peoples Day during the pandemic.

 

The following interview was condensed and edited for length and clarity. 

 

I want to start by asking you what National Indigenous Peoples Day means to you?

This is my 16th year as an MLA and my third year as Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation. So I’ve been attending events all over the province and in my constituency every year. This is the first year that we’re doing it in a different way, but it’s the same significance. We celebrate the significance of Indigenous peoples, First Nations, Metis and how that’s contributed to what we have in this province. 

We recognize that Indigenous people have lived here in this province and country for millennia, for a long, long time and we honour and respect rights that are inherit in that history. This year, I think, is a more compelling day because of world events. Even though we are dealing with a pandemic and we have to find creative ways to recognize this important day, the world has shown us some nasty things and has confirmed that inherent racism exists and that we all have to be part of fixing that. 

 

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that systemic racism exists in all Canadian institutions. Do you believe that to be true of the B.C. government?

 

I began this job in 2005. I got elected first then. I was the Opposition critic for Indigenous affairs. I remember reading over literature, including the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. It’s now 25 years old. That significant piece of work recognized that systemic racism existed within institutions, within governments, within policing throughout the country. 

Even if it’s not obvious, it is there. Sometimes it is more obvious. But I would reflect that governments didn’t generally do anything about that. So it’s been a long time. We have to address the issues of systemic racism, and it means we have to delve down now and get that work done.

 

How would you describe the B.C. government’s relationship with the province’s Indigenous community?

We’re just coming up to our third year in government. Our approach was to change the Crown-Indigenous relationship in fundamental ways. We’ve been working to do that across government. The premier put in our mandate letters to all ministers for the need for us to work towards recognizing the rights and title of Indigenous peoples. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action — they were all part of our mandate letters. 

Last fall, we were the first jurisdiction to bring in formal legislation recognizing the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples in law, in this province. We built that piece of legislation with Indigenous peoples — with First Nations — in this province. And that has never been done before. 

We’ve changed the way we do things in government and we’ve broken down barriers and silos within government. Minister Selina Robinson in housing has provided $550 million towards Indigenous housing off and on-reserve. That’s never been done before, on-reserve, from a provincial government, ever in this country. Attorney General David Eby has reformed parts of the justice system. All of this working in conjunction with First Nations and Indigenous peoples. Minister Shane Simpson on poverty reduction, Minister Judy Darcy on mental health and addictions — across the board, government is working cooperatively with First Nations, in partnership. We’re getting better results and I believe a much-improved relationship.

 

In talking with B.C. Regional Chief Terry Teegee of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, he said First Nations in this province are working towards asserting their own sovereignty and becoming self-sufficient. You’ve touched on some progress, but what is the B.C. government doing to make that happen?

Stable long-term funding is a piece of that. Under the Indian Act, First Nations communities don’t get stable long-term discretionary funding, at all. Every government needs that, including First Nations governments. So we began the largest revenue sharing in the history of this province with Indigenous peoples — $3 billion over 25 years through gaming. It’s about $100 million a year to every one of the 204 First Nations communities in the province. It’s a transaction to improve capacity and the ability of First Nations to work with us as government, to engage in partnerships, to have autonomy as governments. That helps. We also invested early on — in one of my first budgets that I was involved in as minister — $50 million towards revitalization of Indigenous languages. It’s not just languages for languages sake, it’s about identity, it’s about culture, it’s about history and strengthening all of that. 

 

I’m curious if your ministry’s focus has shifted in recent weeks in light of the demonstrations in B.C. and across the world calling for systemic change in institutions to wipe out racism?

The first part of wiping out racism is acknowledging that it exists, and we do. I think the changes we’ve made as government from the beginning three years ago recognized these challenges. That’s why we made those changes and continue to work on them. We’re looking at legislation across the board with First Nations, Indigenous peoples through the Act we brought in — Bill 41, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act — to change legislation that’s not reflective of the articles with the UN Declaration. The recent world events certainly [puts] a spotlight on policing in this country. I know Solicitor General Mike Farnworth has made commitments just in the last two weeks to do a formal review of the Police Act in this province. My understanding is it hasn’t been looked at for 45 years. Long overdue.

 

Why do Indigenous people continue to overrepresented in prisons, homeless counts and overdoses in British Columbia? And what is your government doing to address that?

I attended a number of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings when they were travelling around the country. They were full houses everywhere. The colonial history of this province is a very dark one. When I went to school, kindergarten to Grade 12, I was never taught the real history of this country. 

We’ve changed the curriculum, K to 12, to reflect the real history of this province, and that includes things like the residential school system, which did untold damage to generations of Indigenous peoples in this province. It was a horrific practice by the state for decades and generations. That caused huge damage that left huge scars to Indigenous people in this province. Credit to First Nations and Indigenous peoples to be here and fighting for their rights and titles in a respectful, strong way in the aftermath of that horrendous part of our history. It was a generational thing, taking away kids from their family by police and state, as part of practice sanctioned by the church and state and enforced by police. 

All of that part of history has brought us to where we are today. So recognizing the cause and causes is part of the solution, working in partnership with Indigenous peoples to change the trajectory of what happened. It takes time, but we’re committed to it.

 

What proof do you have that the B.C. government’s commitment to reconciliation is genuine?

As evidence, I would suggest that being the only jurisdiction in North America, possibly in the world, to bring in legislation recognizing the rights of Indigenous peoples through the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act is very compelling. It provides a path forward, in partnership with Indigenous peoples to address all the issues we talked about. So that’s the change in the Crown-Indigenous relationship. 

I heard in Opposition as critic for about 12 years things that were needed for government to do, and were not being done like revenue sharing through gaming. Other provinces had been doing this for many years, and this province had refused to do so. Providing needed housing on-reserve when there’s often deplorable housing situations. It’s not technically the province’s responsibility, but we decided that was a key issue we needed to address, one way or another, and that it shouldn’t be Indigenous people and Indigenous communities that pay the price for that. 

Investing in language, changing the K to 12 curriculum, changing attitudes by providing the facts about the history of this province and this country. All of that I think is evidence of a fundamental change in the relationship between the provincial government and Indigenous people in this province.

 

I wanted to get your assessment on how the B.C. government handled the Coastal GasLink pipeline project conflict with the Wet’suwet’en people.

I’m a firm believer in the right to peaceful demonstrations. So I very much supported the people in their right to protest. The Coastal GasLink project was approved many years ago. Permits were in place and it met or exceeded the requirements for consultation for all First Nations along the pipeline path, and the project is moving forward. That being said, it was about a year ago now that we began working with the hereditary chiefs. 

In 1997 in the Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa court case, the court said that rights and title existed. But the court didn’t go far enough. So we began work over a year ago with the hereditary chiefs to address that failure of governments to actually address the spirit and intent of that court case. I was somewhat frustrated with the protests when we were actually involved in some very significant work and continue to. We’ve signed a memorandum of understanding with hereditary chiefs as a path forward — a start of a process to actually recognize the rights and title of the Wet’suwet’en people. 

My hope is that it will lead to some reunification within Wet’suwet’en people and a stronger relationship between government and the Wet’suwet’en so that what happened — the unrest and the protest — if we deal with the systemic causes of that, the failure to recognize rights and title, that this will not happen again in the future.

 

You used the word ‘systemic.’ Just so I’m hearing you clearly on systemic racism. Do you believe that exists in the institution of the provincial government?

Yes. The evidence is there through, again, 25 years ago [with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples] and attitudes are slow to change. It requires leadership from all of us. We have to address racism by recognizing that it exists, that it is systemic within institutions, within governments, within policing. The solutions there are many, including a curriculum that appropriately addresses the history of this province and this country — and where we came from, and what really happened. 

That’s going to take a little while, but in the meantime, a full review of our Police Act and how we do things in this province is going to be underway. Racism and intolerance are usually based on ignorance, so I’m a firm believer that education is a big piece of changing that.

mhowell@vancourier.com

@Howellings