Stephanie Gilpin, whose parents, aunts and uncles were sent to residential schools, looks at the shoes, flowers and stuffed annimals placed at the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in memory of the 215 children whose remains were found at the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School at Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops on Sunday. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang)

SIMPSON: Surrey’s refusal to acknowledge First Nations land was terrible look – now it’s even worse

Discovery of 215 buried children makes Surrey's Indigenous snub that much more shameful


“The City of Surrey would like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is the treaty territory of the Tsawwassen First Nations and the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Coast Salish people, specifically the Kwantlen, Katzie, and Semiahmoo First Nations.”


Seventeen seconds.

According to my stopwatch, that’s how long it would have taken for Surrey council to do the right thing.

A land acknowledgement before a civic meeting is not the be-all, end-all solution for reconciliation, but it’s an important step. It’s a tradition that has been adopted as a common practice in civic and community spaces across Canada, most recently in Delta.

For Indigenous people, land acknowledgements show their respect for the land, a tradition that dates back centuries. For non-Indigenous Canadians, land acknowledgements are an opportunity to reflect on the impacts of colonialism and how to engage more meaningfully in reconciliation.

Just think. All that can be accomplished in 17 seconds.

But alas, in all its wisdom, Surrey city council recently rejected a motion to give a respectful nod to Surrey’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis (myself included) communities.

SEE MORE: McCallum says First Nations are treated ‘better in Surrey literally than anywhere’

They had a chance to do right by Surrey’s Indigenous residents – who, by the way, form the largest population of urban Indigenous Peoples in B.C. – and they blew it.

In a 5-4 vote on Jan. 11, Mayor Doug McCallum and his Safe Surrey Coalition shot down Jack Hundial’s motion calling for every council and committee meeting to be prefaced with the acknowledgment they are being held on First Nations territory.

The rejection shocked Hundial, and disappointed many Surrey residents and Indigenous leaders across B.C.

“If the city cannot acknowledge whose lands they work, how can Surrey be trusted to advance reconciliation and First Nations issues?” B.C. Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Terry Teegee said in a statement.

It was a terrible look for Surrey back in January but last week’s discovery of the remains of 215 children at the site of a former Kamloops residential school makes it a much more bitter pill to swallow.

SEE MORE: Time to account for all child deaths at Canada’s residential schools: Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc

It’s especially distasteful when you hear council’s rationale.

McCallum, for his part, said there was no need to make such a formal move to make land acknowledgements because Indigenous people already like him.

“I think we’re doing an excellent job currently and the First Nations are happy with what we’re doing,” he said in January, adding “we treat them better in Surrey literally than anywhere.”

Councillor Laurie Guerra said she doesn’t think council should be “forced” to acknowledge anything.

“Let me be clear, I have no problem with the content of the notice of motion in terms of the public acknowledgement portion, however, I do have concerns when it comes to legislating speech and making it that it’s a must,” she said.

As Tom Zytaruk reported, Allison Patton said she voted against it because she doesn’t like the person who presented the idea.

Referring to Hundial not by name but as “that person” and the “originator” of the motion, Patton said she thinks that “when the comment says develop a meaningful, respectful acknowledgement I do think authenticity is critical here, and I’m a bit concerned when it comes to the word authenticity and the initiator of this notice and some of the things I’ve read and seen.”

SEE MORE: First Nation MLA says B.C. must do more for Indigenous reconciliation after residential school deaths

It’s clear that our elected officials are making decisions based on petty political feuds.

Think about it. Our council can’t take 17 seconds out of their hours-long meetings (Monday’s was nearly six) that have become infamous for awkward diatribes that can only be described as spectacular exercises in childishness.

And remember this.

In January 2020, McCallum raised eyebrows when he began a council meeting by calling for reflection on the passing of basketball star Kobe Bryant, who died in a California helicopter crash.

But at Monday’s meeting, the first after the terrible discovery of the 215 buried children?

Nothing. Nada. Zip.

Surrey lowered the flags to half-mast this week and the mayor issued a press release about “the heartbreaking legacy of the residential school system.”

Fantastic. But so much more could have been accomplished before all the flags were lowered.

And it only would have taken 17 seconds.

Beau Simpson is editor of the Now-Leader. Email him at


The Indian Residential School Survivors Society is offering toll-free 24-hour telephone support for survivors and their families at 1 (866) 925-4419. The KUU-US Crisis Line Society’s 24-hour line is available at 1-800-588-8717.

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