Relationship between local First Nations and city of Port Alberni not ‘great’, not even close

Hupacasath Councillor Jolleen Dick addresses Port Alberni City Council on March 27.

Photos by Shayne Morrow

Port Alberni — 

After a well-attended and enthusiastic Walk for Reconciliation, followed by a forceful presentation by representatives of Hupacasath and Tseshaht First Nations, the city of Port Alberni has committed to forge a meaningful consultation process with the two Nations.

In her opening remarks to council, Hupacasath councillor Jolleen Dick said it would take some background work to establish a meaningful consultation between governments.

In part that is because there continues to be a lack of understanding of First Nations government and how it works, which includes the policies imposed upon it by Ottawa, she said.

“We hear comments from our [non-Indigenous] leaders saying the relationship is perfect ­– our relationship has always been great with the First Nations,” Dick said.

“We feel differently on these statements when people say that it’s ‘great.’ I can comfortably acknowledge that, as individual politicians, we get along great. We see each other and respect each other and give each other hugs. That’s all good.

“When it comes to government-to-government, it is a different story. Meeting three times in the two years I have been on [Hupacasath] council does not constitute a relationship. We are neighbors that barely know each other.”

Dick said the toxic debate over the recent request to rename [A.W.] Neill Street, and the failure of the city to take action, has brought the issue of historic racism to the forefront, and threatens the community’s ability to move forward in the spirit of reconciliation. She said by joining the Walk for Reconciliation, members of council and of the non-Indigenous community had demonstrated they were willing to do what was necessary to fight racism.

Taking over the podium, Tseshaht Chief Councillor Cynthia Dick said it was important to acknowledge the current atmosphere of racism.

“Currently, we live in a town where racism and negative attitudes have gone ignored. And it’s not acceptable,” she said. “I think it’s important to acknowledge where things stand. I think it’s important to acknowledge that, although it may not be your reality as you sit up there, it is the reality for many people in Port Alberni.

“It is the reality for Tseshaht members, for the Hupacasath members, for a lot of the Nuu-chah-nulth who currently reside in Port Alberni… And until we’re willing to address it, we’re never going to be able to move forward.”

Chief Councillor Dick said the process would have to start with respect, with recognition, and, as previously noted by her Hupacasath counterpart, by building a working government-to-government relationship.

To that end, Mayor Mike Ruttan proposed the creation of a select committee to establish a working relationship. That committee should be composed of experts in their field, and not necessarily elected officials, he said.

At that point, Jolleen Dick intervened to observe that, once again, the city was proposing to set up a process without meaningful consultation with Tseshaht and Hupacasath.

In response, Ruttan replied that the terms of reference would be put together after consultation with both Nations.

Dick reminded the Mayor that a few informal meetings do not connote “meaningful consultation.”

“We’ve had a lot of casual coffees and lunches. That’s not consultation,” she said.

Dick said both Nations agree that regular council-to-council meetings are necessary. They also agree that the city should adopt the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“And we would love to see council change the opening statement of meetings to ‘we are on the uncededterritories of the Hupacasath and Tseshaht First Nations,’ rather than just ‘the traditional territories.’”

Councillor Jack McLeman noted that he has printed himself a copy of the UN Declaration and supports its aims.

“What I would like to see is that, whatever conversations we are having, that they result in something,” he said.

McLeman said he was disturbed by a recent report citing continued discrimination that puts Aboriginal people “at a disadvantage in areas of health, education and employment.”

“I think that’s fairly obvious. And I hope that what we do brings us as a city ­ – and your governments – to a point where we can make things improve, particularly in the area of health, education and employment,” he said, adding, “I don’t want to be involved in just talking.”

Councillor Ron Paulson thanked the two leaders for “the history lesson” he and his colleagues have absorbed since the 2014 election. Paulson suggested that the council-to-council meetings be conducted as workshops.

“And out of those workshops should come ‘Action Items’ that come out of the minutes,” he said. Paulson proposed such a “working session” on the third Thursday of every third month.

Ruttan noted that, as part of the process, whatever recommendations come out of the select committee would be submitted to Tseshaht and Hupacasath before being passed on to City Council.

Related: NTC delivers message on consultation with Nuu-chah-nulth Nations ~ 




More photos:

Singers outside Port Alberni City Hall Mayor Mike Ruttan MP Gord Johns

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