Turnout for Walk for Reconciliation sparks hope for change

By Shayne Morrow, March 29, 2017

A Walk for Reconciliation went up Argyle St. to City Hall in Port Alberni.

Photos by Shayne Morrow

Port Alberni — 

A Walk for Reconciliation on Monday evening, prior to a presentation to city council by representatives of Tseshaht and Hupacasath First Nations, started with a rally at Harbour Quay, organized by Tseshaht Chief Councillor Cynthia Dick and Hupacasath Councillor Jolleen Dick, and many were surprised by the turnout.

“When I came, I expected to see just Tseshaht and Hupacasath here,” Haahuupayak instructor and Tseshaht member Trevor Little observed in his presentation.

“When I look at this, I feel proud that my sons are going to grow up here in Port Alberni.”

Little said there is a growing sense of commonality between communities, and “it creates a courage inside us that says, ‘I’m ready to talk. I’m ready to listen. I’m ready for change.’ Because that’s what we’re here for.”

Participants had the opportunity to purchase T-shirts created for the event by White Raven Consulting and bearing the message: Unity, Justice, Truth, Equity and Iisaak (respect).

Prior to the opening introductions, Cynthia Dick said recent events have highlighted some of the underlying racism within the community.

“At our Tseshaht annual general meeting, our community passed a motion to support council in an effort to work with School District 70 and rename A.W. Neill School,” Dick said.

“There was a lot of awareness brought about on racism and divisiveness in the community that came about over changing the name of Neill Street and Indian Avenue.

“I think the racism already existed. But these events bring it out into the open, and it is up to us as leaders and as a community to say that, rather than pretending it does not exist, we are going to address it and find meaningful solutions to move forward together.”

Jolleen Dick said it was gratifying to have such widespread support for the event, which included Mayor Mike Ruttan and a number of city councillors, as well as Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns.

“It’s nice to have their support here to walk with us, because that was the intention,” she said. “We just hope they listen with open hearts and open minds at city council tonight.”

Dick said recent events south of the border have served to normalize the expression of racist ideals and doctrines.

Trevor Little was joined by singers from both Tseshaht and Hupacasath to open with the Heartbeat Song.

“It is a prayer song that was gifted to me when my son was born,” he explained. “That’s the kind of energy we need when we do something like this.”

Over the course of the walk, the singers would perform both at Harbour Quay and in front of City Hall.

Mayor Ruttan said the turnout for the event indicated a recognition that there is a need for change in how our various communities interact.

“This is exactly what we need. Every single person who’s here today is a leader,” Ruttan said. “Every single person here today is showing that they want to see things different than they have been in the past.

“We don’t condone racism. We do not want to see it in our community; that is not the message that we want to send out. We are so much stronger as a community when we all work together. And that is the way we have to move forward.”

In his impassioned address, Little reminded participants of the “powerhouse” Nuu-chah-nulth leaders of the 1970s and ‘80s, who were the first to speak out publicly about the abuses their people had suffered.

“We have been growing strong ever since then. But now that you understand our history, you understand how big that hill was that we had to climb.

“That’s why we can stand here today. The elders of the past – the courageous ones – the courageous elders who are now willing to tell their stories.”

Little admitted that in high school, he had engaged in racist behaviour against his own people – even his own family members.

“I didn’t understand my own history. And I didn’t understand the shame that was here – that was alive in me,” he said. “When more people know, it empowers us.”

Renowned Hupacasath artist Ron Hamilton said it is important that the Canadian people find some common ground to stand on.

“I tell people I went as a teenager to the Southern United States to see what was going on with the black people, and all of the good white people that supported them. Many times, I have said, ‘Where are the good white people in this country, and why aren’t they supporting us?’ Well, I see lots of good white people here today. And I want to thank you all.”

Hamilton added his thanks to Jolleen and Cynthia Dick, ending with thanks to “All of you. Brown skin, white skin, fair skin, dark skin… skin. Thank you all.”

Tseshaht elder Anne Robinson added her thanks.

“We are all ready to take this next step. That’s why we’re all here. We are ready to face what is standing in front of us and look it in the eye and find a way to deal with it. That is going to help us grow and become a stronger nation of people.

“Thank you for standing with us. Thank you for taking the time to come, to show us who you are, and who you want to be. We’re all in this together.”

In his introduction, John Jack pointed out that change has already begun.

“I am an elected councillor for Huu-ay-aht First Nation. I am also the elected chair of the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District,” he said, triggering cheers from the audience. Before continuing, he introduced Huu-ay-aht Ha’wiith Jeff Cook.

“When I think of ‘reconciliation,’ I think of the things that need to be redressed, and the justices that need to be found,” Cook said. “But when I look in the eyes of my daughter, and in the eyes of the young people around us today, I also think about how it is we can all live together in a way that fits with all our values, so that we can move ahead into the future together.”

Hupacasath Chief Steven Tatoosh said his community is committed to work towards reconciliation, “100 per cent, on a government-to-government basis” with the City of Port Alberni and [Tseshaht].

Tatoosh said Trevor Little’s admission of racist behavior against his own people had stirred some uncomfortable memories.

“I just want to remind people that racism is not just a native/white issue. It comes in all forms,” Tatoosh said. “Once you can admit there is racism on both sides, then you’re admitting there is a problem on both sides.”

Courtenay-Alberni Member of Parliament Gord Johns said he was “blown away” by how many people had come out to attend the walk.

“This is an incredibly historic moment. All across Canada, communities are gathering together to reconcile the wrongs – the wrongs that too many generations of Indigenous people have suffered as the result of misguided government policies. We need to recognize that today,” he said. Johns thanked the organizers and the Ha’wiih for allowing him to take “our next steps.”

“Hopefully, they will be steps of action. Kleco.”

Mayor Mike Ruttan echoed his thoughts from earlier on Harbour Quay, noting, “This is a different choice that we are making in terms of how we want to live together. We’ve said ‘Enough.’ We’ve said we do not wish to continue to do things the way they have occurred in the past.”

On Monday, MLA Scott Fraser, Opposition Spokesperson on Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, was speaking to the B.C. Assembly of First Nations in Kamloops. He passed along a message through constituency assistant Patty Edwards:

“I would like to share a quote from Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs President Stuart Phillip: ‘Reconciliation is not for wimps.’

“Stuart is so right. Fighting stereotypes and fighting racism is not easy. It is through events like this, and through people like Cynthia Dick and Jolleen Dick, who helped to organize this march, with all of you here today, responding to the call for justice, that we make a difference.”

Prior to speaking to council, Cynthia Dick acknowledged that there were people in Port Alberni who felt uncomfortable “crossing that bridge” into Tseshaht territory.

“That’s what we’re bringing here tonight. We want our people – all the people of Port Alberni – to feel comfortable in our community of Port Alberni. And that’s what we’re doing here tonight: bringing people together and bringing awareness of what the issues are. This is only the beginning.”

Jolleen Dick noted that she had previously spoken at City Council on Jan 23rd on the issue of renaming Neill Street and Indian Avenue.

“It was very emotional, but there were also very targeted questions on ‘What would reconciliation look like in Port Alberni?’ I have to say, this is what reconciliation looks like,” Dick said, to a round of cheers.

“We asked, how can we combat racism? Well, this is how we can do it: walking together, educating ourselves and having difficult, difficult conversations. Now we are starting that dialogue. There is a lot of healing that has to happen, but I know we are well enough to go on this journey together.”