The discovery of unmarked grave sites at three former residential school sites has changed the tenor of discussion about Canada’s relationships with Indigenous people. Local governments have an important role to play in the process of meaningful reconciliation.
Delta council has gone a fair ways down that path, largely due to a treaty with the Tsawwassen First Nation, and White Rock’s relationship with the Semiahmoo First Nation is improving. Surrey still has a long way to go.
Although he did so at the June 28 and July 12 council meetings, Mayor Doug McCallum and his Safe Surrey Coalition had up until then refused to officially acknowledge at the start of meetings that council meets on unceded lands which were used by many First Nations, including the Semiahmoo, Tsawwassen, Kwantlen and Katzie. When Coun. Jack Hundial tried to get council’s approval for such an acknowledgment in January, the motion was shot down by McCallum and his four allies on council.
Unfortunately, this is just the latest in a long series of missteps by Surrey council. Surrey’s Indigenous roots are rarely acknowledged by the city, and the lands local First Nations occupy or have occupied are consistently considered more suitable for other uses.
The city even treated a First Nations graveyard in a local park with extreme disrespect. Semiahmoo Park, which occupied land leased from the First Nation for more than 50 years, contained a graveyard for members of the Semiahmoo First Nation.
In 1980, then-Coun. Garry Watkins told council that people were regularly traipsing over the headstones and seemed unaware of its existence. He asked that a fence be built around it – which was finally done.
Surrey has very few street and park names of Indigenous origin. The school district has done a better job in the naming department – Semiahmoo Secondary first opened in 1939, and there are several schools with indigenous names, including Tamanawis Secondary, Salish Secondary and Katzie Elementary.
Kwantlen Polytechnic University became a standalone college in 1981 when Douglas College was split into two. Other than Semiahmoo high school, this was the first major civic institution in Surrey to use an Indigenous name – and the college sought the blessing of the Kwantlen leadership for use of the name.
Most local history accounts either completely ignore the role of Indigenous people or simply relate a few legends. One book is an exception – Years of Promise, White Rock 1858-1958, by Lorraine Ellenwood, goes into extensive detail on just how difficult it was for the Semiahmoo First Nation to obtain a reserve in the first place. It then outlines a long litany of land being taken away from the reserve, including for construction of Highway 99. As recently as the 1960s, there were active efforts to take away the remaining land for a variety of developments, including one proposal for a regional park.
Most recently, as more people were becoming aware of the lack of clean water on Semiahmoo land, the former White Rock city council gave notice that the Semiahmoo would lose access to the city’s water supply. In this instance, Surrey did the right thing and stepped in to offer a replacement supply. A new water system there has finally laid to rest a longstanding boil-water advisory.
The Katzie people have been almost completely ignored in Surrey, even though a substantial number live on Barnston Island, part of School District 36. Officially part of a Metro Vancouver electoral area, the island’s only transportation is the small ferry that runs to 104 Avenue in Surrey.
Surrey is home to the largest urban Indigenous population in B.C., yet its own deep Indigenous roots are barely visible. Reconciliation here could start with a more intensive effort to recognize and honour the people whose ancestors occupied this area for millennia.
Frank Bucholtz writes twice a month for Peace Arch News and at frankbucholtz.blogspot.ca