Jack Knox: Indigenous issues key in Cowichan-Malahat-Langford

Jack Knox is dropping in on Vancouver Island’s seven federal ridings, looking at them through the lens of issues readers say are important in this election.

Richard Daniels is waiting for the tide to rise, bringing chinook up to this stretch of the ­Cowichan estuary.

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He’s one of half a dozen Indigenous men lining the bridges over Tzouhalem Road, peering into the water through Polaroid sunglasses, looking for salmon to spear. Just around the corner, kids are smacking balls on one of the world’s oldest lawn-tennis courts: It dates to 1887, but that might as well be yesterday as far as the Cowichan people are concerned. They’ve been fishing here much longer than that.

The salmon feed Daniels’ family. His grandmother loves fish-head soup, he says. Except the fishing isn’t great. The river is super-low. “There’s less fish now,” the 37-year-old says. Nothing like the numbers he saw when he began spearing salmon as a boy.

The fragile state of the salmon is one of the problems on William (Chip) Seymour’s mind this day, too. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to get our fish back,” says the Cowichan Tribes chief.

And if the lack of fish is worrying, so is the lack of housing. “We have 1,000 people on the waiting list,” says Seymour, whose 5,000-member First Nation is B.C.’s largest. The housing shortage led to the overcrowding that — as Seymour feared it would — made residents vulnerable when COVID hit.

The federal parties all have plenty to say about such things right now, but you can forgive Seymour if he doesn’t get too excited about that.

“Promises made during an election campaign don’t mean nothing to us,” he says. “We’ve heard it all before.”

But could change finally come? Note that the Cowichan Nation, comprising the Cowichan Tribes, Stz’uminus First Nation, Penelakut Tribe, Halalt First Nation and Lyackson First Nation, signed a landmark agreement with the provincial government Tuesday to advance reconciliation, work together on key goals and support self-determination. Seymour was one of the signatories.

The federal parties do, in fact, have plenty in their platforms about Indigenous issues. Those issues matter more in Cowichan-Malahat-Langford than elsewhere. Not only is 11 per cent of the population Indigenous — twice the national average — but this is also the riding in which the Fairy Creek protests continue despite the objections of Pacheedaht leadership, and in which the Penelakut Tribe revealed in July that there were more than 160 unmarked graves at the site of the residential school on what used to be known as Kuper Island.

Discoveries like the latter, and further stories of residential school misery, rocked Canadians this year. Typical was Chemainus’s Ron Neubauer, who manages the Salish Sea Market, right where the ferry from Penelakut docks. He has been around since 1979, and knows the people who ride the boat. “I’ve watched a lot of these families grow up.” Still, he says, he had little idea of what was going on, just out of sight.

He says it was an impressive sight on Aug. 2 when a sea of orange, maybe 1,000 people or more, packed the road outside the store in a demonstration. “That was outstanding.”

The question now, though, is what will come next. The Liberals, Conservatives and NDP all have promises related to investigations at residential schools, and all vow to complete the Liberals’ partially fulfilled goal of ending long-term drinking-water advisories on reserve.

But what about other, deeply entrenched inequities? In an impassioned speech following May’s discovery of graves in Kamloops, MLA Adam Olsen, who belongs to the Tsartlip First Nation, spoke of the over-­representation of Indigenous people in statistics related to the criminal-justice system, homelessness, suicide, addiction and drug poisonings, “all statistics you don’t want to be over-represented in.”

Half of the children in government care are Indigenous. Seymour noted that in 2013, a high number of suicides and suicide attempts led Cowichan Tribes to declare a state of emergency.

The Liberal and Conservative platforms each devote six pages to Indigenous matters. The Liberals say they would spend more on mental-health services and housing, confront systemic racism in health and justice systems, and implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Conservative measures include $1 billion over five years for mental health and drug treatment, and the promotion of “mutually beneficial conversations” between Indigenous communities and resource-project proponents.

The NDP use the strongest language, asserting that what happened in residential schools was not the just the “cultural genocide” described by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but actual genocide. The New Democrats make promises related to housing, education and systemic racism in the health and justice systems. They vow to implement UNDRIP and have committed to respecting the Indigenous right to self-­determination.

That last bit highlights how gooey things can get, though, when Indigenous self-determination clashes with the interests or perspectives of others. Seymour laments the times when First Nations have had to go to court to enforce fishing rights.

At Fairy Creek, activists want old-growth protected, but the Pacheedaht don’t want outsiders telling them how to manage the forests in their traditional territory. Politicians have generally avoided wading, or even tiptoeing, into that one (though the federal Liberals did recently dangle what they think could lead to a solution: a $50-million fund to protect intact old-growth eco-systems within B.C.).

There’s more going on in this riding than Indigenous and environmental issues, of course. This is a diverse riding that stretches from the southern end of the West Coast Trail wilderness to Langford, where the boom-boom-boom growth that has characterized the municipality for the past generation was punctuated last week when ground was broken on a $44-million office tower to accommodate software-development company Plexxis’s shift from Ontario to the West Shore.

Housing costs, transportation issues, the labour shortage, climate and COVID matter as much here as anywhere.

Vying to deal with it all are five candidates. Cowichan-Malahat-Langford has been held since 2015 by New Democrat MP Alistair MacGregor. He’ll face two of the same opponents as he did in 2019, realtor Blair Herbert for the Liberals and Alana DeLong for the Conservatives.

DeLong, a former Alberta MLA, also ran in the 2017 provincial election as a B.C. Liberal. Green Party candidate Lia Versaevel ran twice for the B.C. Greens. Mark Hecht represents the People’s Party. (More on the candidates can be found here.)

jknox@timescolonist.com

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THE RIDING

This is only the third time voters have lined up in the riding of Cowichan Malahat-Langford since it was created with a rejigging of old boundaries. The riding is diverse. It spans urban locations such as Langford, smaller cities such as Duncan, rural areas of the Cowichan Valley and smaller islands such as Thetis.

• Size: 4,749 square kilometres

• Population: 108,052

• Registered voters: 97,614

• In the past: New Democrat incumbent Alistair MacGregor won with 36 per cent of the vote in 2019, beating two of the candidates he’ll face again this year. Conservative Alana DeLong polled 26 per cent while Liberal Blair Herbert got 16. The Green candidate had 20.

THE CANDIDATES

• Alistair MacGregor, NDP

The incumbent since 2015, MacGregor worked for Jean Crowder when she was MP.

Website: alistairmacgregor.ndp.ca

Facebook: facebook.com/alistair4ndp

Twitter: twitter.com/AMacGregor4CML

Instagram: instagram.com/amacgregor4cml

• Blair Herbert, Liberal

A realtor who also ran in 2019

Website: blairherbert.liberal.ca

Facebook: facebook.com/voteblairliberalmp

• Alana DeLong, Conservative

A Thetis Island resident who served for 14 years as an MLA in Alberta

Website: alanadelong.ca

Facebook: facebook.com/Alana.DeLong

Twitter: twitter.com/alanadelong

• Mark Hecht, People’s Party

Writer and former university instructor

Website: markhechtppc.com

Facebook: facebook.com/markhechtppc

Twitter: twitter.com/MarkHechtPPCma1

Instagram: instagram.com/markhechtppc

• Lia Versaevel, Green

Chemainus resident and poverty law advocate also ran twice for the B.C. Greens

Website: lia.versaevel.wixsite.com/mysite

Facebook: facebook.com/Green-Candidate-Lia-Versaevel-for-Cowichan-Malahat-Langford-100661325678195

Twitter: twitter.com/IslandSalishSea

Instagram: instagram.com/gmalia_green

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