A negotiation by any other name…

For Thom Barker, the difficult reconcilation conversation begins with calling things what they are

Truth is not always easy, but it is definitely the easier half of truth and reconciliation.

I got into a little bit of an uncomfortable spot with one of my uncles at a family gathering in Saskatchewan some years ago.

I wore a t-shirt with an old photograph of several First Nations warriors holding guns and a caption that read: “Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.” I thought it was clever and demonstrated my sympathy for past and present injustices inflicted upon our fellow human beings.

“So, what, we’re the terrorists?” my uncle asked.

The short answer is, well, yes.

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The long answer is a little more complicated. Our ancestors—meaning European settlers of North America—were an occupying force. Truth.

We established the villages, towns, cities, territories, provinces and countries we now know by various means, frequently by violence and oppression. Truth.

Even when we, or if it makes you more comfortable, they, did not use force, we often treated the existing inhabitants badly, unfairly or with injustice. Truth.

We can make excuses that our forebears were products of a different era, but the legacy remains in the form of socioeconomic disadvantages, addictions, over-representation in the justice system and a host of other unpalatable issues.

There are still those among us who take the attitude ‘you lost, get over it,’ but most of us feel at least a modicum of inherited guilt and acknowledge these historical facts and current legacy.

Locally, municipal councils and various other organizations start their meetings and/or events with a declaration they are conducting their business on the traditional territory of this First Nation or that clan or this house. Some take it a step further and add the word “unceded” in place of traditional.

Provincially, we have begun a process, which truth be told, has been going on for decades.

Federally, some people view our current prime minister’s tenure as an “apology tour.” He’s not the first to say we’re sorry.

At a March smoke feast in Witset, Chief Na’Moks (John Ridsdale) made it clear to me the Wet’suwet’en are not negotiating or listening, they are telling the Province, and Canada, how it is going to be.

Premier John Horgan was also careful not to characterize the process as a negotiation when I talked to him.

Most recently, at a social event in Smithers, Murray Rankin, the Province’s designated envoy (not negotiator) told The Interior News, “I want to talk about what they want to talk about.”

These all appear to be sincere men. I have also met and interviewed Justin Trudeau on more than one occasion and do not doubt his sincerity in wanting to engage in meaningful dialogue with First Nations.

But reconciliation is hard.


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Tyler McCreary—who was recently short-listed for a historical writing award for his book Shared Histories about Wet’suwet’en-settler relations in Smithers—told me he hopes his book provides a framework for beginning some very difficult conversations.

For me, that starts with calling things what they are. In this case, a negotiation.

In most negotiations, the parties tend to start with pretty extreme positions.

The hereditary chiefs have made it pretty clear anything short of full jurisdiction is unacceptable.

The B.C. government has basically taken no position. While that may seem like middle ground, it is pretty extreme because when was the last time you saw a party enter a negotiation with no position?

Without casting doubt on any party’s sincerity, and even if we accept Na’Moks’ assertion that B.C. and Canada only have “assumed and presumed authority” over what the Wet’suwet’en claim as their traditional territory, our current premier and prime minister, nor premiers and prime ministers to come, are going to turn over jurisdiction, assumed or otherwise, for some 222,000 square kilometres of northwest B.C. to anybody.


The question that remains is: what is the negotiated reconciliation actually going to look like if we ever get there?


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