After an Aug. 5 meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Tofino, Nuu-chah-nulth leaders are hopeful the federal government will take a more active role in attending to their communities’ most pressing issues. (Heather Thomson photo)
Nuu-chah-nulth leaders are confident that an oh-so-brief Aug. 5 meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has set in motion a meaningful nation-to-nation dialogue that will result in positive changes for Canada’s Indigenous Peoples.
NTC vice-president Ken Watts credits Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns with making the meeting happen.
"Gord let me know about a week before that there was an opportunity for us to meet the Prime Minister," Watts said. "They [the PMO] were in contact with his office, and right away, he suggested [the PM] speak to the NTC. So it was only two or three days before that we had confirmation of the meeting."
Originally, the plan was for just Watts and NTC president Debra Foxcroft to attend. That quickly evolved to include the 14 chiefs. Despite the rush set-up, 12 chiefs were able to attend and present their ideas in one hour, Watts noted.
"We strategized for a few hours before the meeting. My struggle was: how do we get all 14 nations on the same page? How do we let them all speak in less than an hour – and follow our protocols? The PM had opening and closing comments..."
Tla-o-qui-aht Chief Elmer Frank played a critical role in bringing the meeting about. Last fall, Frank publicly told Trudeau not to come back to his territory if he was only interested in photo-ops. Watts said it was a sign of good faith that the leader permitted the conference to take place in Tla-o-qui-aht territory.
Watts said the nations came to a consensus that they would have to lay out a concise set of issues, some specific and some collective.
One of the critical issues identified during the strategy session was the ongoing opioid crisis. Tseshaht elected chief Cynthia Dick was delegated to present the issue to the PM, and in Watts' words, "Knocked it out of the park."
Speaking to Ha-Shilth-Sa, Dick said that, while opioid abuse has been a long-standing issue, the recent spike in overdose fatalities is shocking both nationally and at the community level.
"It's been an extremely difficult year for Tseshaht First Nation," Dick said. "The last I checked, we've had eight deaths in our community since January 1, 2017," Dick said. "The majority of those deaths were preventable, due to health-related or social issues.”
Dick said the opioid crisis has now been made a discussion item at the NTC AGM in September, and a working group will be formed with representatives from the nation and from the NTC to come up with a list of recommendations on how to address this issue.
At the Aug. 5 meeting, each nation was asked to provide an individual briefing note for the PM outlining specific issues. For the Nuu-chah-nulth leaders, one significant priority was to demand that the PM respond to each nation individually. Watts noted that Uchucklesaht Chief Charlie Cootes requested that the PM personally review the individual briefing papers and respond to each nation.
"He [Trudeau] committed to that," Watts said.
Those briefing letters have now been compiled and collected, he added.
Huu-ay-aht Elected Chief Robert Dennis said his nation was already putting together a package of demands for Ottawa when the notice of the meeting arrived via email.
Dennis said the first individual and specific priority for Huu-ay-aht is to apply for funding to chip-seal the Bamfield road through the Transport Canada National Trade Corridor Fund
While the funding submission is being put forward by Huu-ay-aht, the road improvement would provide a huge benefit for the entire Bamfield community.
"We will be sending a delegation to Ottawa to pursue that issue,” Dennis said.
Dick said fisheries continue to be an ongoing concern for Tseshaht First Nation, especially in a year that has seen a drastic decline in the sockeye food fishery. Negotiations are still ongoing to obtain compensation through alternative species or alternative suppliers. Another nuts-and-bolts demand for Tseshaht is to have a decision-making role with the Port Alberni Port Authority.
"There are currently no First Nations appointed directors," Dick said. "We want to be informed on everything. And currently, all we receive is updates, in the form of a one-line item. That is how we see their project lists. It's really hard to make informed decisions when all you receive is a project list with no information behind it of what that project actually looks like."
Dennis noted that fisheries rights are also part of Huu-ay-aht’s future dialogue with Canada. Huu-ay-aht is currently undertaking salmon habitat restoration in the Sarita River watershed, partly funded through the ongoing LNG proposal. The goal is to restore historic salmon runs that were destroyed by logging operations in the mid-20th century. Dennis said it would be necessary to ensure that those future benefits will devolve to Huu-ay-aht.
"This will enable our Huu-ay-aht people to go fishing again. That is all part of the reconciliation process," Dennis said. "We believe Canada worked very diligently to remove coastal communities from the fishing industry. There was no secret to that. We were severely impacted by that policy. Now we have a chance to reverse that.”
Dennis said it appears Trudeau is making a sincere attempt to address issues of reconciliation
"That's something that is really needed. That's something we haven't seen in Canada.
"I think it was a step forward," Dick said. "I know it's been a long time coming. I think we have to realize that, even the small steps forward are steps forward. And I really appreciate that they [Canada] acknowledge that the goal is to have First Nations/Indigenous Peoples work towards self-government and self-determination."
There is a general feeling that, since the U.S. election and the subsequent rise of white supremacist and anti-immigrant groups, Trudeau, along with other world leaders, has made a concerted effort to portray this country in a different, more tolerant light. Watts said the PR campaign presents an opportunity to move forward while the world is watching.
"What's great is that there are [non-aboriginal] Canadians across the country who are saying that we need to be looking in our own backyard first, about our relationship with First Nations people."
Watts stressed, however, that while governments pursue reconciliation, individuals have a critical role to play.
Dick said she maintains a "realistic" perspective on the ongoing PR campaign.
"In my opinion, actions speak louder than words," she said, noting that, regardless of where one lives and regardless of which leader is in place, the issues of racism and intolerance are never far below the surface.
"To me, reconciliation is not about being better than anyone. It's about recognizing that we are equal and that we want to move forward... it's about truly wanting the best for everyone going forward."
While events in the U.S. have been disturbing, Dick said the effect in Canada has been for people across society to re-open the discussion on how racism and intolerance continue to affect our own communities.
"Ultimately, it will attract more people to become part of the solution and not part of the problem."
"It's not just about educating people about who we are and where we come from and our history. It's about reconciling, actually," Watts said. "We can talk about this, but when our kids are dealing, day-to-day, with racism... it makes me realize that the task is a lot bigger than just the government realizing the need to reconcile.
"It's like my Dad [the late Wahmeesh George Watts] said, 'At the end of the day, all our people are looking for is their rightful place in this country.'”
That means becoming fully contributing members of the community, he explained.
Dennis said Huu-ay-aht's dealings with the Bamfield community illustrate that broader, day-to-day sense of reconciliation that comes with economic security.
He explained that Huu-ay-aht has assumed a greater (and more visible) share of the economic picture since the signing of the Maa-nulth Treaty in 2011.
"We're now taxpayers, we're now paying our share of taxes. We will be working with Canada to ensure the development of infrastructure to improve services down there – in particular with our sewer project – we hope to finish that within the next two years.”
Dick said that as Canada celebrates 150 years, changes are not going to happen overnight.
"It's a work in progress. As long as we have people who are willing to have these discussions, it's a great opportunity to keep moving in a good direction. That is one thing I took away from the meeting with the PM is that he is willing to have those discussions.”
Dick said the defining question is: "How do we start making those significant changes in our communities that will ultimately allow our membership to have that good quality of life that they deserve?"