National Indigenous Peoples Day a time for reflection, not celebration, this year

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Indigenous Peoples are mourning the children found in 215 unmarked graves in Kamloops and will spend the day in contemplation.

The lively and joyous celebrations that usually mark National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada have given way to a handful of online activities and quiet contemplation this year.

The regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, Terry Teegee, said that’s because First Nations are in mourning.

“It’s been a very important time in the past few weeks with the finding of 215 unmarked graves of children in Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation and other unmarked grave sites being searched around residential schools. So really, it’s reflecting on our current state of affairs and our relations with federal and provincial governments that have always been difficult,” he said.

Over the weekend, Teegee participated in a “Wiping Away Tears” ceremony at the site of the former Lejac Indian Residential School, 160 kilometres west of Prince George. Teegee’s brother and sisters attended that school. Stories about children dying while trying to escape and about the murders of babies fathered by priests continue to haunt survivors of the school.

Despite the horrors, Teegee has hope that positive change is possible.

“June 21 is the summer solstice, which is a time of change. And right now, the current state of affairs calls for a state of change for Indigenous people,” said Teegee.

The provincial government has pledged to share power and decision-making with Indigenous Peoples in British Columbia, most notably by passing the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, which seeks to realign provincial law and policy with First Nations’ rights and title.

B.C.’s minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation, Murray Rankin, said his job is to make sure the act is implemented.

“And to implement it, you need an action plan. We have just put out a draft action plan with 69 concrete, tangible actions. These are not aspirational ideas and we will have annual reports that will tell British Columbians whether we’re on track. You need measurable metrics to tell people we’ve succeed and made a measurable difference in people’s lives or we didn’t. That’s what’s important with this action plan,” said Rankin.

The province is seeking feedback from First Nations, Métis and Inuit in B.C. until the end of July, which will be followed by a final plan this fall.

Métis in British Columbia are contemplating what the plan will do for them.

“The government of British Columbia has unfairly excluded the Métis Nation in their reconciliation efforts,” said the deputy minister of Métis Nation B.C., Daniel Fontaine. “We will be reflecting on that today.”

The Métis say they have 90,000 members in this province, more than one third of B.C.’s Indigenous population. But Fontaine said they are not eligible for the millions of dollars in gambling funds doled out to First Nations in British Columbia. Nor were they consulted before the province’s release of its draft plan.

“We have very good relations with the Ministry of Education for example, but we receive $200,000 a year for health programs compared to $60 million in funding for the First Nations Health Authority,” said Fontaine. “We want our own health care system, our own child welfare system, we want our hunting rights recognized, for example, and that hasn’t happened.”

The minister admits the province will not be negotiating land claims or resource rights with the Métis.

“The Metis do not have the same land based rights in B.C. that other Indigenous nations have in this province. They have land based rights in the Prairies,” said Rankin.

However, the province has signed a so-called “Relationship Accord” with Métis Nation B.C.

“They have other rights, for example in education, or in other types of social programs,” said Ranking. “There’s a lot of cultural and educational and social programs to which the Metis are fully able to apply. They have said they think they should have their own health authority and access to gaming grants and those are the kinds of things we will have to negotiate with the Métis nation.

“We have a different relationship with them but that does not mean we are not engaging with them.”

All parties have agreed the road to reconciliation will not be straightforward, easy nor necessarily go according to plan.

Rankin and Premier John Horgan were supposed to spend National Indigenous Peoples Day in the community of Lower Post on the B.C.-Yukon border, to take part in a ceremony marking the demolition of the residential school there. But the Daylu Dena Council postponed the ceremony on Friday after bones, later determined to be animal, were discovered nearby.

In a written statement, the council said it took the action “In order to prepare for the worst and best protect the well-being of our members.” RCMP confirmed the remains were not human, but the council said the discovery had conjured up visions of the Kamloops residential school discovery and that is why they said “the administration and community now intend to take some time to recover from this recent scare.”