The province has signed a landmark agreement with the Tsilhqot’in First Nation, aimed at returning the right of self-governance to these aboriginal peoples. (The Tsilhqot’in Nation is actually a community of six separate bands.) The territory involved stretches (roughly) from Lillooet in the south to Quesnel in the north, and from Anahim Lake in the west to Williams lake in the east. That’s an area about twice the size of New Brunswick.
On behalf of the 3,500 members of these bands, six chiefs signed the document — in itself an act of justice long overdue. That’s the same number of chiefs who entered a colonial government encampment under a flag of truce in 1864 and were hanged for their trouble. Premier Christy Clark issued a formal apology for this shameful event in 2014.
The agreement provides a five-year framework for resolving a multitude of issues. Several joint tables have been set up, covering everything from lands and resources to economic development.
But the aspects of this concord that seem most heartwarming are those aimed at reconciliation. This is not just an arrangement to transfer power. It is also an attempt to restore, so far as can be done, an ancient culture.
Thus, the province has agreed to rename local landmarks in their original native language. Highway signs will be rendered in both English and Tsilhqot’in. Roadside kiosks will display cultural artifacts and accounts of historical events in the region.
Efforts will be made to revive the Tsilhqot’in language — at once a hopeful project and a massive challenge. Along with Nisga’a, this is the most widely spoken of the 34 aboriginal tongues that survive in B.C. On the other hand, there are fewer than 1,000 fluent speakers still alive, and many of those are approaching old age.
More ambitious yet, the agreement undertakes to raise the well-being of aboriginal children in the region to a level comparable with provincewide standards. That sounds like a health-care project, but providing better medical services is only one aspect.
The real need is to improve the health of the surrounding community. Several measures laid out in the document undertake initial steps in that direction.
There is a promise to revamp the justice system by incorporating elements of traditional indigenous law.
More is to be done toward keeping children with their families, instead of allowing them to default into government care. Better housing is promised.
And there are provisions for restoring moose populations — a longstanding source of meat for First Nations peoples in the region.
Yet the obstacles are daunting. This area of the B.C. Interior is one of the most isolated and economically disadvantaged in the province.
And isolation is a killer, as the recent suicide attempts at the Attawapiskat reserve in Northern Ontario prove.
Eleven young people tried to kill themselves at this remote settlement in just one evening. Despair and hopelessness appear to have overwhelmed them.
The restoration of native cultures is, by far, the most formidable challenge our province and country face. The quest of First Nations to retain their land and heritage, amidst endless adversities, knows no easy path.
Indigenous peoples the world over are slowly being absorbed into the foreign cultures that surround them. It will take almost superhuman wisdom and patience to turn back the tide.
Nevertheless, the aboriginal leaders who signed this agreement firmly reject those doubts. They have hope for the future and they trust in the goodwill of non-aboriginal people.
For that, they are surely due our gratitude, and our best wishes.
I believe the Tsilhqot’in word for thank you is sechanalyagh. So to the six chiefs — Joe Alphonse, Roger William, Francis Laceese, Ervin Charleyboy, Bernie Mack and Russell Myers Ross, along with their provincial counterparts: Sechanalyagh!
I am indebted to Prof. Marianne Ignace at Simon Fraser University for her generous and uncomplaining help.