The City of Victoria declared 2017 a year of reconciliation with First Nations at its traditional New Year’s Day levée this year.
Mayor Lisa Helps read a proclamation to open the event with a several hundred people in attendance, which stated: “For thousands of years the Lekwungen people have lived, loved, raised families, fished, hunted and traded on these [territories]... reconciliation begins with listening, with truth-telling and with acknowledging past wrongs,” she said.
Helps asked each person to contemplate what reconciliation means to them and to take “meaningful action.” She put on a beaver shawl created by a First Nations artist and said she would wear it to every public event to symbolize her commitment.
Songhees Chief Ron Sam addressed the crowd with support for the city’s initiative and said he has never interacted with municipal politicians as much as Victoria city council.
“This is a driver to show other people and municipalities that when you sit down and have truthful discussions you can move forward in a good way,” he said. “It’s a step toward where we want to be as a community, as a people and as a country.”
Sam said local First Nations youth are particularly enthusiastic, especially after the Lekwungen dancers and Esquimalt singers and dancers were asked to open the New Year’s Eve celebrations for Canada’s 150th party at the Inner Harbour.
“Our young people are moving forward and in a good way, but we can’t forget our elders and ancestors who bore the brunt of the past,” he said.
Sam, Helps and council unveiled two Coast Salish carvings by Tsawout artist Tom LaFortune, also in attendance, in council chambers at the event.
This year’s levée theme brought out some community members who might not have attended otherwise, including a First Nations mother and daughter.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been to one of these but I wanted to come today because of the reconciliation declaration,” said Yvette Ringham-Cowan, who works in indigenous cultural safety and health programs. “For me, it is a meaningful action. There is so much that needs to be understood.”
Ringham-Cowan said that as a person of mixed ancestry with Kwakwaka'wakw roots on her mother’s side, she has spent much of her life thinking about indigenous identity and rights.
“My entire education and life has been around this conversation,” she said. Her mother, Bernice Kamano, is a lifelong activist in indigenous rights and works with aboriginal homeless people on the streets of Victoria.
“First and foremost, you need to learn about the land you’re actually standing on, Ringham-Cowan said. “Learn the history but also about the relationships [with First Nations]. Figuring out what this means is important, so you can take meaningful action.”
The City of Victoria has put a call out for a paid indigenous artist-in-residence and is working with the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations to build a longhouse in Beacon Hill Park, where the Checkers pavilion was recently torn down. The mayor said other actions will be forthcoming throughout the year.