By Shawn Atleo
I’m not sure how the weather was almost 100 years ago in Kamloops on August 25, 1910. Given the climate in that area, it was likely a searing summer day when chiefs of the Secwepemc (Shuswap), Nlaka’pamux (Couteau or Thompson), and Okanagan tribes met with Sir Wilfred Laurier, prime minister of Canada. They brought with them a letter: at once, a heartfelt appeal to the government to address the injustices thrust upon First Nations and, at the same time, a stark portrayal of how trusting First Nations befriended newcomers to the land and then were ultimately betrayed by their political leaders.
“We have no grudge against the white race as a whole, nor against the settlers, but we want to have an equal chance as them at making a living.”¦It is their government which is to blame by heaping up injustice on us. But it is also their duty to see their government does right by us and gives us a square deal,” they wrote.
The letter, entitled “Memorial to Sir Wilfred Laurier, Premier of the Dominion of Canada” asks Canada’s seventh prime minister to settle the land question, and make treaties between the government and each of their tribes. The chiefs said the treaties would allow them to have a “definite understanding with the government on all questions of moment between us and them”.
It was a vivid snapshot of the time, illustrating First Nations’ frustrations in the face of a colonialist onslaught and belief that, through peaceful negotiation, they would see justice once again. Today, much of what was written in the letter still holds true. The “land question” is still unanswered, we have very few treaties, and there are still too many “questions of moment” between us and them. Yet, on August 25, 2010, 100 years later, we could find ourselves in an era where the province recognizes our aboriginal title and rights and where those questions become certainty.
First Nations expect the government of B.C. to introduce the Recognition and Reconciliation Act in the legislature sometime after the provincial election. The act will recognize aboriginal title within our traditional territories and affirm our right to share the benefits and revenues from the resources in these territories. It will acknowledge that indigenous people have long lived throughout B.C. and that this fact does not require proof. It will mean our elders will not have to be dragged into courtrooms to prove our existence. Instead precious time and resources can be invested in our communities, our youth, and our future. It is a bold step in an area where, in the past, those we asked to walk with us refused.
It is, however, a step not lightly taken. Questions abound over the act’s possible effects on business and the rights of private citizens. Both First Nations and non-First Nations understandably have questions. Those we expect to try to answer in the coming weeks through dialogue. There is much to gain by having shared decision-making with First Nations. This is a far better solution than the current situation, where far too often decision-making becomes bogged down in litigation, consultation, and delay.
The legislation represents an achievement for all British Columbians. While First Nations peoples know that our rights, inherited from our ancestors, are indisputable, we also know that we are all here to stay. We have to create a new path to move forward together. We must act on the opportunities this legislation will provide. As First Nations, we seek support and are prepared to work and cooperate with all parties to bring about the Recognition and Reconciliation Act.
As those chiefs said 100 years ago, “These people wish to be partners with us in our country. We must therefore, be the same as brothers to them, and live as one family. We will share equally in everything half and half in land, water and timber etc. What is ours will be theirs, and what is theirs will be ours. We will help each other to be great and good.”
Shawn Atleo is the regional chief of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations.