Raising awareness of the atrocities of colonialism and the legacy of residential schools in Canada were at the heart of a number of initiatives in New Westminster in 2017.
Panel discussions, coffee shop gatherings, city reports, forums at Douglas College and assorted community and art projects are just some of the ways folks in New Westminster are tackling the topic of truth and reconciliation. The Recordhas selected “truth and reconciliation” as our 2017 Newsmaker of the Year.
The Witness Blanket, which was created by Kwagiulth artist and master carver Carey Newman and featured hundreds of items reclaimed from residential schools, churches, traditional cultural structures and other buildings, was displayed at the New Westminster Museum from December 2016 to April 2017. For a group of local residents, the blanket’s visit to New West seemed like a fitting time to open up a dialogue on truth and reconciliation.
“Reconciliation is an opportunity, a hope and a way forward with so many of the challenges that we face. It is a way of understanding and reaching new solutions, and it is a way of saying that we each matter and that we each care,” New West resident Babs Kelly said earlier this year. “It is what the elders of this land, this land that blesses us with life, called upon us to do.”
Kelly’s grandfather was taken away to a residential school when he was just a young boy. Her family’s truth includes a legacy of violence, addiction, survival sex work, institutionalization, self-harm, incarceration, sexual abuse and the fear of having children seized, but she said the legacy also includes the possibility of healing, not just through the individual efforts and the support of their loved ones, but with the support and acceptance of the truth in the communities where they live.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, established in 2008, heard from more than 6,000 people – including Kelly – about residential schools and their impacts. It included 94 recommendations in its December 2015 report.
Kelly, along with Nadine Nakagawa, Hailey Sinclair and Dave Seaweed, organized a Community Stories of Truth and Reconciliation panel discussion in January, which was followed up by a series of kitchen table dialogues where people discussed how to move forward in New Westminster. The City of New Westminster, the New Westminster Museum and Archives, the Arts Council of New Westminster, New Westminster libraries, QMUNITY, Northern Engagement, Truth and Reconciliation Canada and Community Volunteer Connections were partners in the project.
“We laughed, we cried, we talked about topics that are often felt to be too taboo to even acknowledge,” Nakagawa later said.
In the spring, the group presented the City of New Westminster with recommendations regarding a number of paths toward reconciliation.
In response, council asked city staff to explore several recommendations, including: making a concrete commitment to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, particularly those applying to municipal government responsibilities; finding ways to name and rename civic assets that would reflect reconciliation, acknowledge the unceded territory of the Qayqayt First Nations and Coast Salish people and demonstrate diversity and inclusivity; and supporting a community-led process of reconciliation that would include forums and dialogue, Indigenous-led events and actions.
“New Westminster, as the oldest city in Western Canada, does need to be part of this discussion and does have a role to play,” said Mayor Jonathan Cote.
One of the suggestions that emerged during the community conversations was that the statue of Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie be removed from in front of the New Westminster courthouse. In 1864, Begbie sentenced six Tsilhqot’in chiefs to hang.
The presence of Begbie’s statue, as well as having a street and square named after him in New West, could be issues as the city moves forward with a plan to develop a sister-city relationship with the Tsilhqot’in First Nation.
Coun. Chuck Puchmayr, who brought that idea to council in March and received approval to pursue preliminary talks, sees the potential for both cultural and economic exchange – and a path toward reconciliation between two communities tied by an injustice committed a century-and-a-half ago, when the last of the six Tsilhqot’in war chiefs, Ahan, was brought to New Westminster, sentenced by Begbie to hang and buried in a criminal’s grave. The B.C. government cleared all six chiefs of wrongdoing in 2014 during an official apology given by Premier Christy Clark, who described them as warriors and leaders “engaged in a territorial dispute to defend their lands and their peoples.”
As 2017 came to a close, no decision had been made about the fate of the statue outside New Westminster’s law courts.
Some want it removed, but others believe it could become part of a public art and history installation telling the story of the 1864 trial and hanging of the Tsilhqot’in chiefs from an Indigenous perspective.
Whatever the outcome, Qayqayt Chief Rhonda Larrabee said the efforts of local residents to consult with First Nations are part of a positive change she’s seen since she first started battling to resurrect her New Westminster First Nation.
In late 2017, council directed a staff working group to seek an external consultation organization that has experience in reconciliation dialogues to advise the city on the next steps in the process – to make sure it’s done right.
“I think doing it for the sake of doing it is maybe worse than not doing it at all,” Nakagawa said. “We have to make sure we are doing this right and doing it in an intentional way.”
Outside of city hall, others were also recognizing the need to tell the stories of the First Peoples of Canada during Canada’s 150th birthday year.
David Brett, the Hyack Festival Association’s 2017 president selected “First Nations. First Cities. Telling Our Story. Together” as the organization’s 2017 theme.
The association also recruited New Westminster’s David Lyle, who was part of the Sixties Scoop when Indigenous children were taken from their parents or adopted out, to serve as its 2017 artistic director and create a float and logo that ensured the city’s pre-colonial history wasn’t forgotten.
When Hyack displayed its 2017 float featuring a First Nations theme, Larrabee was right there alongside Lyle and Hyack officials for the unveiling.
Massey Theatre also announced plans to put reconciliation into action through a new program that will showcase Aboriginal performance, visual and media arts and the city will lay out plans for its truth and reconciliation process.
“Reconciliation is a journey,” Kelly told the Record in 2017. “The temptation to frame it as an act or an end result should be resisted. Nonetheless, as with all journeys, there needs to be a roadmap, resources and support.”