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'Getting Back Our Dignity'

BC's new lieutenant-governor on what Aboriginals want.

By Steven L. Point 2 Oct 2007 | TheTyee.ca

The Honourable Judge Steven L. Point has been appointed British Columbia’s new lieutenant-governor. Point, whose Stó:lō name is Xwelixweltel, served as an elected chief of Skowkale First Nation, and as chief commissioner of the British Columbia Treaty Commission.

This piece is drawn from a forward written by Xwelixweltel (Hon. Steven Point) for A Stó:lō-Coast Salish Historical Atlas, published by Douglas and McIntyre and Stó:lō Heritage Trust.

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Steven Point at Coast Salish gathering last January.

[Editor's note: The Honourable Judge Steven L. Point has been appointed British Columbia's new lieutenant-governor. Point, whose Stó:lō name is Xwelixweltel, served as an elected chief of Skowkale First Nation, and as chief commissioner of the British Columbia Treaty Commission.

This piece is drawn from a forward written by Xwelixweltel (Hon. Steven Point) for A Stó:lō-Coast Salish Historical Atlas, published by Douglas and McIntyre and Stó:lō Heritage Trust.]

Just a few years ago I went to meet with the mayor of Chilliwack, because city workmen had come onto our reserve at Skowkale to build a flood control device and widen the interception ditch. Our reserve is only 66 hectares, and it has one of Chilliwack's main roads running through it. The city wanted to dig a drainage ditch for the people who were living in a housing subdivision opposite our reserve. The city sent big trucks and heavy equipment to haul dirt off of our reserve and dump it on an adjacent farmer's land.

I was the chief at the time, and I went up and put my arms out and stopped the trucks and asked, "What are you guys doing?" To which they replied, "Well, we are moving dirt because we have to build this ditch." And I said, "Who said you could do that?" The driver answered, "Well, the City." I said, "You can't do that." He responded, "We take our orders from the city engineer, so you'll have to talk to him." So I went to speak with the city engineer and he said, "I can't help you. We take our instructions from the mayor. You'll have to talk to him." So I asked, "Where the heck is the mayor?" He said, "He's over there having a meeting." They were having their council meeting that night and they were all sitting around.

Mayor Simpson was a rather stout guy with not much hair. He was a nice enough fellow and he let me come into the meeting. I said, "Mr. Mayor, I have a question for you. Why are you hauling dirt off of Skowkale Indian Reserve? Don't you know that it's federal Crown land held in trust for Indian people and it's not within the District of Chilliwack's jurisdiction? It's not even within provincial jurisdiction. You have no authority coming onto our reserve. Don't you know that we have a band office with a telephone? You can call me or write me a letter -- I'm the chief. Why didn't you ask? I wouldn't do that to your city. What are you doing?"

He looked at me and then asked, "What do you want?" I thought, What do I want? How about a little respect?! You can't come onto your neighbour's property and begin hauling our dirt without some sort of authority. Then, as though we Aboriginals were invisible, he asked, "Well, how many Indians do we have around here anyway? Who are they?" In his mind, we didn't even exist; that's how far we had been marginalized.

'A collar on my whole life'

Do you know what it is like to be an Indian? I saw a film in a psychology course while I was at university. It was about racism. Half a class of students wore collars, and the other half did not. The kids with collars were designated the bad kids -- no good, not worth anything, lazy, stupid, in every way different from the kids without collars. The film documents the behavioural changes of the kids with collars. They start hanging their heads down. They start acting up and being bad. They do not want the collar on any more. The kids without collars snicker: "Ha, ha, look at you kids! You are bad, you have a collar on!" They point fingers at them, they throw things at them, and they laugh.

As an Aboriginal person, I have had a collar on my whole life. There were times when I prayed to have it taken off. It kills me when my kids come home and tell me that they do not want to be Native. This is what we have to live with in our own country. We have not only been marginalized physically, but also psychologically and emotionally. A great man from the United States once said, "You can't break a man's leg one day and blame him for limping the next." Is it our fault that we drink too much, our fault that we are poor, our fault that we are in jail more than anyone else? People come to me and say: "Why are we giving all of these Indians all of these services? Why don't they pay taxes like everyone else? There should be one law for all. Let's have some equality around here. This isn't right!" When I hear these things, I think, My God, if we had only had equality since the time Aboriginal people met Europeans, then maybe we would still be people in our own eyes and not "Indians."

'If we set up roadblocks'

When I look at young Aboriginal people in the street today and talk to them, I find they don't even know what is wrong with them. All they know is that they do not like who they are, they are angry, they are poor, and they are a minority in a country that treats them as though they get privileges that others do not. Well, I'm tired of apologizing for being Aboriginal.

As someone who has been placed in a leadership role, I think to myself, If we set up roadblocks and start pounding on people, is that going to resolve things? Is that what will bring a better way of life? Look at other parts of the world -- Northern Ireland, Liberia, Bosnia and other areas where there is violence. There isn't a country in the world that does not have a litany of violence in its history. The Scots, for one, have never forgotten what the English did to them. Violence begets violence.

'What do you want?'

Do you know what they are trying to do to us Natives in court? As Aboriginal people, first we have to prove that we are the descendants of the "real" Aboriginal people. Then we have to prove that we were here first -- that we were even here.

Many of our Aboriginal people do not want to use the system, but what can you do if you cannot fight and you want justice? The answer -- you negotiate.

When two people are fighting after a marriage has broken down and they are arguing over the Mercedes, the savings bonds, the kids...they always know what the fight is about. They always have a clear understanding of the battleground and what is being fought over. When I sat across a table from federal negotiators, they didn't admit that we have Aboriginal title to the land, that we are here and we own the country. They were not coming to the table to negotiate that. No, instead they simply asked, "What do you want?" It's the same question that Mayor Simpson asked. "What do you want?" You know that the same answer is applicable. The same answer that every nation in this world has given. The same answer the Scots gave, the same answer the Irish gave, the same answer that is given by every group of people with legitimate claims to a territory. We want our ownership respected. We want it to be recognized and understood that we are here and the country was ours. That is where the negotiations begin.

It is not surprising that the Stó:lō were not interested in negotiating on the premise of their title being extinguished. It has only been in the past five years that the provincial government has come to Native people and agreed to negotiate Aboriginal rights, but they still will not admit that title exists. It's been an interesting history that we have lived, and we are only beginning to understand one another.

We know there are no boats waiting in the harbour to take all of the non-Natives back someplace. We know people are not going to get on planes and say, "Oh well, we didn't get this country so we will go somewhere else." The non-Natives are all going to be here after negotiations. And so are we. What I want to leave behind is the injustice. I wish that we could start again. When two people start dancing, they step on each other's toes. Well, my feet are getting very sore, and I am sure that yours are, too. I would like for us to start again. That is what the negotiations are about.

'A simple recognition'

Recently, an unfortunate article appeared in a local newspaper discussing treaty money received by Stó:lō Nation. That same day, someone spray-painted "tax burden" on the Stó:lō Nation sign outside the office. The next day, our kids were being suspended from school because they were fighting for their right to be respected. Other kids were calling them "welfare people."

How do I get back my dignity? Non-Natives arrived here with their dignity; we would like our dignity back. That does not cost any money and does not take any land. It takes a simple recognition that Aboriginal people were here in their territories when Europeans arrived and they continue to have an unextinguished interest through the treaty process.

I love this country, Canada. A few years ago, I accompanied a Stó:lō dance group representing Canada to France, and the French came up to me and asked if we would mind carrying the Canadian flag. "All right," I answered. "I'll carry the Canadian flag." My uncle died for this country in the Second World War. Our people fought for this country. This country has a tremendous history. But it did not start in 1871 and it did not start in 1867. It started thousands and thousands of years ago when the Creator put us in our own homeland. The governments know we are still here. We have changed a little bit -- we eat pizza on Friday night, we rent videos, we play country music, and I go to church on Sunday and to the longhouse on Saturday -- but we are still here. We are not invisible.

We have a wealth of knowledge passed down to us that we would love to share with non-Natives. About 10 years ago, I put on a four-day course at a high school for the Grade 10 and 11 students. I told the stories about the local mountains, the history of Mt Cheam and the meaning of "Chilliwack." We discussed how the Stó:lō once lived in longhouses and sqémél (pit houses). For four days those students sat listening. The teacher stood at the back of the room shaking her head the whole time and afterward remarked, "I have never heard these kids so quiet for four days in my life." They were learning history that was relevant to them. Three years later, when I myself had gone back to school, I ran into a young university student who said, "Mr. Point, you were one of my teachers. I looked, thinking. "Who the heck are you?" He said, "You taught me history when I was in Grade 11."

'Differences'

The Stó:lō are developing government structures and negotiating them into a treaty. An Elders council has been formed. People say to me, "What's an Elder?" I tell them if you wake up in the morning and your teeth are in a glass, you are an Elder. I am only teasing, of course. It has to do with knowledge, respect, wisdom and love -- that is an Elder. There is also a council of Stó:lō chiefs. In the old days leaders were referred to as siyá:m. The term is seeing a revival. It takes a lifetime to earn that title but only a minute to lose it. There is a Stó:lō Council of Youth as well. These things are together called the Stó:lō Government House. Some of the Elders and some of the chiefs are also part of a Council of Justice and are developing a Stó:lō police force and a justice program. This is necessary because we know that the justice system does not work for Aboriginal people. There must be other ways of dealing with deviant behaviour. The deputy chief commissioner of the RCMP in the province of British Columbia is very interested in supporting the development of an Aboriginal police force. We call it a "peacekeeping force," though -- people who can help solve community problems.

Our Stó:lō Government House is built on Aboriginal values. One of the strongest values we have is humility. When a siyá:m walks into a gathering, he automatically sits in the back: if the others invite him to sit in front, then he moves. That is humility. I watch Canadian politicians and I wonder if they have ever heard of that principle. Our leaders are expected to serve the people and be there for them. Our values and our systems are not European. However, the more I study Europeans and the more I learn about my own history, the more I find that in fact we are the same. You love your Elders, you love your God, you cherish your young people, and you have a strong sense of justice, just as we do. In fact, if you look long and hard enough, you will find that there are probably more similarities than there are differences.

I remember the year before I entered high school -- Grade 7. In Grade 7 you have a lot of friends and a lot of people are good to you. You play Lone Ranger: one day you are Tonto and the next you play the masked man. In Grade 7, though, kids become aware of differences. I can remember one of my friends coming up to me and saying, "I can't play with you any more." I asked, "Why?" He said, "Because my mom said I can't play with you any more." And he never did. He never sat with me on the bus, he never walked home with me any more, we never played marbles again. That is where it begins -- this wall that is built up between people.

We have both paid too much attention to the differences between us, and I want to see that change. I hope that you do, too.

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