MLA Column: Reflecting on National Indigenous History Month



MLA, Saanich North and the Islands

June is National Indigenous History Month, and it is with a heavy heart that we acknowledge all the children who lost their lives in the residential schools that were a pivotal part of the federal government policy to assimilate Indigenous people starting in the late 19th century and running until the 1990s.

In May, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir announced the preliminary findings of the bodies of 215 children on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. There were 18 such schools in British Columbia and many of the survivors, who have courageously shared their experiences in those schools, warn us to expect more stories of unmarked graves.

The federal and provincial government policy can be summed up in the statements of Duncan Campbell Scott, who was the Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1913-1932. He said, “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department.”

As we unpack the colonial history of British Columbia, our eyes are opening to the deplorable treatment of Indigenous people by European settlers.

Those Europeans claimed the land in North America was empty, that there were no humans living here. This is called the doctrine of terra nullius, meaning “nobody’s land.” Paired with the Doctrine of Discovery, going back to the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, which resolved non-Christian lands could be colonized, it resulted in Europeans asserting sovereignty to the land.

We now see these doctrines as racist. However, what many British Columbians do not know is that they are the foundation of our province, and they are still at the heart of the laws, policies and practices of our government today.

On Oct. 7, 1763, King George issued the royal proclamation, which was the first legal recognition of aboriginal rights and title and is recognized in the Canadian Constitution. Now, 258 years later, the question about rights and title over the land remains at the centre of the protests and disputes that have occurred over the past decades.

To be clear, the conflict does not come from honouring human rights, it comes from denying and violating them.  

It is important to acknowledge positive change. In recent years there has been an important evolution in Canadian society, following Idle No More (2012), the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015) and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (2019).  

In November 2019, the provincial government unanimously passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act. This law ensures the entrenchment of the declaration, developed by the United Nations, over the next decade through a democratic process.

British Columbia was the first jurisdiction in North America to pass such a law and included the commitment of government to develop an action plan and annual report.

These are critical accountability measures that allow us to understand the objectives of government and track their achievements. On June 11 the consultation draft of the action plan was released. It is the result of a collaborative process with Indigenous leadership organizations and represents the bare minimum of what government commits to accomplishing over the next five years.

We all have an individual and collective responsibility to reconcile the horrific history of how our Crown governments treated and continue to treat Indigenous people and nations.

I am thankful for all the people in Saanich North and the Islands who have reached out with love and compassion. I encourage you to continue to learn about our history and to demand that all orders of government do everything possible in advancing our commitments to a more just society. 

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