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Reconciliation Minister Apologizes for Telling First Nation to ‘Group Up’ with Nearby Communities

The comments were insensitive to the effects of colonialism, says Kwikwasut'inuxw Haxwa'mis First Nation.

Andrea Smith 28 Apr

Andrea D. Smith is a regular Tyee contributor. Email her here.

For at least one local First Nation, Murray Rankin, B.C.’s minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation, is in the hot seat.

The Kwikwasut'inuxw Haxwa'mis First Nation hosted a meeting with Rankin on Feb. 10, at which they allege the minister insulted them by telling them to “group up” with nearby communities if they wanted the concerns they raised there to be taken more seriously.

Their community is distinct and the province needs to respect that if they want real reconciliation to happen, the nation has maintained.

“That was so regretful, the comment that the Chiefs present, and the band members who were present, heard from Mr. Rankin. It just wasn’t in keeping with the spirit of Reconciliation,” said Hereditary Chief Dr. Robert Joseph, ambassador for Reconciliation Canada.

Chief Joseph is a member of the Gwawaenuk Tribe, one of the four tribes under the management of the joint Musgamagw Dzawada'enuxw Tribal Council, which KHFN is also a part of.

Gwawaenuk is one of the communities with which Minister Rankin thought the KHFN should “group up.”

“I think it was most unfortunate, and most probably a reflection of a real need for more sensitivity training among other things," said Joseph.

KHFN’s main village site is Gwayasdums, on Gilford Island, which is located near the mouth of Knight Inlet midway up B.C.’s coast. While about 30 KHFN community members reside in the village, many of the other 300 or so KHFN members who live in surrounding towns and cities visit the village frequently for gatherings and ceremonies, said Joseph.

The Feb. 10 meeting was called to discuss ongoing matters, including a forestry agenda KHFN has put forward, and a reconciliation agreement they’ve been working with the province on for the past two years, added Eric Joseph, whose traditional name is Siwidi. Joseph is a designated member of the Musgamagw Dzawada'enuxw Hereditary Chiefs Legal Advisory Committee.

After the meeting, Hereditary and Elected Chief of KHFN, Rick Johnson, wrote a letter to the minister. Chief Johnson said Rankin had used their small population against them by telling that with “‘only 30 people in [their] village’ KHFN could not reasonably expect the Province to meet [their] efforts in reconciliation.”

A black-and-white photo shows about nine wooden buildings in Gwayasdums Village, close to a rocky shoreline. The face of one building is taken up with a stunning Kwikwasut’inuxw artwork that depicts the face of a sea monster. The style of this design is very similar to the design in the current-day photo used as the lead photo for this piece.
Gwayasdums Village in 1900. Photo by C.F. Newcombe, RBCM E5 X/5, courtesy of the Bill Reid Centre at Simon Fraser University.

The minister’s view is insensitive to the effects of colonialism that are the root cause of so few members being able to live in their home village, the letter says. Chief Joseph agrees.

A number of issues have plagued the community over the years, including lack of infrastructure like clean water and adequate housing, and forced attendance at residential schools.

Chief Joseph, who lived in the community until he was five, remembers children being taken away by the RCMP to attend residential schools.

“The authorities used to come and pick up the children they considered residential school-aged,” he said. “We could hear the authorities coming and see them coming a fairly long way, and all those little kids who were able would rush back into the forest behind the village and hide.”

“The problem was they always came back later anyway.”

Most of the children born on Gilford Island were sent to St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Alert Bay, he added.

In addition to pointing to colonialism as a key factor that has impacted KHFN members being able to inhabit their home village, the letter from Chief Johnson also notes the futility of trying to “group up” with neighbouring communities, citing the example of the Dzawada'enuxw First Nation taking legal actions against the province for “infringement of their Aboriginal title.” This is contrary to KHFN’s own efforts at relationship-building and reconciliation with the province, says the letter.

The minister accused the community of failing to identify clear priorities, Chief Johnson continues. But the community had provided him a list of their priorities, which sat in front of him as he made the accusations.

Chief Johnson wrote that the community would not invest in a relationship with the province that was not respectful to them, and they requested a response from the minister about his intentions for reconcilation going forward.

This isn’t the first time Rankin has found himself in hot water. Last year, he was outed for using residential school payments as “leverage” in treaty negotiations in the 1990s.

When the KHFN didn’t receive a response from Rankin, the nation’s leadership, including over 20 Hereditary Chiefs and traditional leaders, then gathered and deliberated for two days, March 15 and 16. By the end of the two days, they determined they would call for the minister to resign, given their experience and Rankin’s actions in the 1990s, according to Eric Joseph.

They forwarded a letter to Premier John Horgan on March 17 outlining their concerns. They stated they would withdraw from all reconciliation talks until Minister Rankin was held accountable.

Horgan did not respond, but Minister Rankin sent the community an apology letter on April 5, which Eric Joseph says leadership will discuss at greater length in May. While the community is accepting the apology for now, he says they’re waiting for more concrete action to follow.

The Tyee reached out to Minister Rankin and the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation for comment. The ministry confirmed Rankin sent an apology letter to the community April 5.

“We take the concerns raised by the Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis First Nation very seriously,” the ministry responded in an emailed statement to The Tyee.

“The Minister recognizes that members of the village of Gwayasdums are central to KHFN rebuilding efforts. We remain committed to advancing reconciliation on the basis of the KHFN’s interests that builds on successes and builds on our partnerships with each other.”

The government further cited the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act and the recently released DRIPA action plan as tools that would help guide their advances in reconciliation in B.C.

The Tyee reached out to Premier Horgan but did not receive a response.

“If Minister Rankin or Premier Horgan were to go to the territories, that would be an immense step forward,” Chief Joseph said. “If they went to make the apology in person.”  [Tyee]

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