Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with Nuu-chah-nulth leaders in Tofino on Aug. 5 to discuss reconciliation and other concerns of the individual Nations. Pictured are Trudeau with Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council President Debra Foxcroft and Elmer Frank, Chief Councillor of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation. (Heather Thomson photo)
For the first time in history the chiefs of the Nuu-chah-nulth Nations met with a sitting Prime Minister of Canada on Saturday.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the meeting with the chiefs late last week, and all but two nations were able to attend. The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council president and vice-president, Deb Foxcroft and Ken Watts, were also invited to the meeting. The goal of the hour-long event was to meet face-to-face to discuss the nations’ top priorities.
It was also historic because the last time Trudeau was in Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations hahoulthee he was told he was not welcome back. In September 2016, Chief Councillor Elmer Frank sent a letter to the PMO stating that Trudeau was not welcome back “until his bureaucracy and government lawyers began reflecting the Prime Minister’s promise of reconciliation with the First Nations of this land.” Frank was referring to the ongoing battle over aboriginal commercial fishing rights. The T’aaq-qiihak Nations have been at the table with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) for almost eight years.
On Saturday, Tla-o-qui-aht offered a traditional welcoming to Trudeau, but it came with some advice. Frank said they welcomed him back because they believe they have seen reconciliation efforts from the Liberal government.
“Since the time that we made that statement, there’s been significant movement. Not significant enough yet for a fisher to go out and make a tangible living, but it was significant enough for us to be able to demonstrate that there is some reconciliation hope for Tla-o-qui-aht and for the Nuu-chah-nulth Nations that are involved,” Frank said. “We need to be mindful that we are in a day and age now where we need to work together - no one is going away.”
He said welcoming Trudeau back is about building relationships. What they have seen so far is that the tools are in place to build a foundation of reconciliation. But in order to continue to make progress “we must demonstrate our commitment to reconciliation by welcoming you back to our Hahoulthee.”
Trudeau said it was a “tremendous pleasure” to be welcomed back. He reassured the chiefs in the room that he is committed to sitting down with them to discuss reconciliation. But the Prime Minister cautioned that it is not going to happen overnight and asked for their patience.
“This process of reconciliation and building a future - it is going to take more than a few months to get right,” he said. “I understand your impatience, that you wanted to get done overnight what took generations and centuries to go terribly wrong.”
He expressed his appreciation to the Nuu-chah-nulth leaders gathered at the Best Western Tin Wis Resort.
“I look forward to continuing to work with you and making sure my government continues to work with you,” Trudeau said. “Recognizing, as well, that Nation-to-Nation relationship is not just about government to First Nations. It is also about non-Indigenous Canadians being an essential part of the reconciliation path.”
With that statement, the chiefs and NTC leaders entered the private portion of their meeting. When the meeting concluded, most in attendance agreed it was a great first step.
NTC President Debra Foxcroft said it was “a very historic day” in which the Nuu-chah-nulth leaders were able to raise a variety of issues with Trudeau. These concerns will now be sent to Ottawa for consideration.
“We now directly have the ear of the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister’s office, which is very, very significant,” Foxcroft said. “He verbally committed to responding directly to each of the [First Nations] issues and briefing notes, including NTC’s.”
“It’s unfortunate that we didn’t have a lot of time, but we made the most of the time we did have, and it was a good first step,” explained NTC vice-president Watts. “We now encourage nations to follow up in writing.”
Watts said the Tseshaht Chief Councillor did a great job highlighting the struggles many communities have with mental health and addictions, and Trudeau was very interested.
They also made sure the Prime Minister knows that Nuu-chah-nulth nations want to be included in the Oceans Protection Plan.
“We want to ensure that First Nations get their fair share of the funds dedicated to this plan,” Watts said. “I think he heard that loud and clear.”
Hesquiaht First Nation Chief Councillor Richard Lucas said the most important message he wants Trudeau to hear is the need for language revitalization.
“We have very few speakers left,” he said. “They need to quit nickel and diming us and let us build something in our communities that will truly help our people.”
He said residential schools stole the language from his people, and getting it back is a key step in the healing journey.
“I agree it will take some time to heal, but we can plan now for what can be done in the short term and long term,” he said.
Tseshaht Chief Councillor Cynthia Dick saw the meeting as a great opportunity to get the Nuu-chah-nulth Nations in the room with the Prime Minister to share some common concerns, as well as let him know that each nation has their individual concerns that they will be sharing as well.
She said one of the main points they wanted to make as Nuu-chah-nulth on Saturday is that the Nations are ready to start working on solutions. She mentioned a quote she thinks is important, “When you focus on the problem that is when you start drawing dividing lines. But when you start working on solutions that’s when you bring people together.”
“There’s a new emerging ‘us’ coming up, and it’s really up to us to be willing to start walking down that path together,” she said.
She pointed out that one of the biggest messages offered to the Prime Minister is that “our communities are in crisis.” She stressed the importance of focusing on language revitalization and mental health and addictions.
Dick said Trudeau promised to take direction from the community to his ministers and stress to them the importance of working with the communities for solutions.
Although the meeting came up suddenly, Watts said it has been in the works for a long time. He gave credit to Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns.
Johns met with the PM on many occasions to discuss the important issues and opportunities in his riding. He said Trudeau has made a lot of promises related to relationship building with Indigenous People, but so far he has not backed them up with action.
“I’m grateful he has taken the time to listen to the chiefs, and I hope he takes the necessary action when he returns to Ottawa,” he said. “We know that he cares, but it can’t just be words – we need action. People are struggling – it’s about justice.”
Each Nuu-chah-nulth nation will now create a briefing note that outlines their specific concerns and issues. These will be sent to Ottawa as a follow-up to the meeting help on Saturday.