THE DILEMMA OF RECONCILIATION, THE DANGER OF DECOLONIZATION
A response paper for a real conversation
On October 22, 2022, with little debate, less media coverage and almost no public awareness, the previous Vancouver City Council endorsed the report of the UNDRIP Task Force it had appointed in 2021.
- The City’s UNDRIP Task Force met regularly from July 2021 to October 2022 to develop recommendations for Mayor and Council on how the City of Vancouver can implement UNDRIP as the framework for Indigenous relations and Reconciliation.
- UNDRIP is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the UN General Assembly on September 13, 2007.
- The acronym MST stands for the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) peoples and their leaders. There is also the “MST Development Corporation” – the real estate and development partnership of the three Nations. When referenced, it’s specified.
In May of 2021, the trauma of residential schools became more fully apparent to the people of this country. For Indigenous peoples, it was a tragedy that had been generationally experienced.
With that heightened awareness also came a new urgency for Reconciliation. Calls were made for acknowledgement and systemic change. Hence the reason for the UNDRIP Task Force: to craft recommendations to define an overall strategy and to turn intentions into actions.
There’s a larger and more important context to acknowledge – of progress, passion and protest with respect to Indigenous peoples and their history that requires more discussion. But its absence should not be taken as a lack of respect for the legitimate issues that must be addressed through the process of Reconciliation.
The task force report offers an opportunity to help build on the next stage of Reconciliation. But that requires an understanding of the assumptions in its more dangerous offspring termed ‘Decolonization’.
I support Reconciliation as originally intended – “a mutually respectful framework for living together” – and want to help avoid Decolonization turning into a divisive strategy. Hence my comments – and the questions at the end that help the reader add their own.
This response paper calls for clarity in the meaning of the words in the task force’s report, to better define the assumptions that underly its calls for action and to question the implications of its recommendations.
Words of caution are invariably seen to be more negative than the passion for change. So these words from author Octavia Butler, when she was considering the challenge of criticism, apply here:
“The very act of trying to look ahead to discern possibilities and offer warnings is in itself an act of hope.”
The City’s UNDRIP Task Force report, termed a strategy, was endorsed with near-unanimity by City Council last October and sent to staff for reports back on implementation. It came with good intentions, aspirational goals, and, presumably, nothing that couldn’t be reconsidered after the upcoming election.
Now that time has come – the opportunity to define what the words in the recommendations mean and what consequences could follow, intended and otherwise.
Here is one extreme but possible way to interpret the report’s recommendations if enacted together: they could undermine the powers of local government and its legal authority, put at risk the City’s tax base, and deprive its citizens of democratic accountability in their institutions, and ultimately in how they are governed.
Few governments would survive such disruptive consequences.
In that case, the report’s recommendations might not be taken as seriously. But, remember, the current Council will have to contend with the implementation reports the previous Council called for. Actions arising from its initial endorsement could surprise an unprepared public.
Here’s an example:
Rec 3.8 – identify priority parcels of land which are culturally, economically, and socially significant to be repatriated with the end goal of having those lands given back.
Given that Vancouver, as recognized in repeated land acknowledgements, is largely on unceded territory, “significant” parcels could arguably include almost everything. And argument would be one sure consequence.
Accumulatively, the task force has taken Reconciliation well beyond its original intention as ”an ongoing process through which Indigenous peoples and the Crown work cooperatively to establish and maintain a mutually respectful framework for living together.”
Another framework that seems to have shaped the work of the task force is Decolonization, “the removal or undoing of colonial elements”.
The two frameworks are often incompatible and create a dilemma for the Indigenous communities in the City of Vancouver. Should they accept a specified form of Reconciliation that is realistically achievable while still transformative, yet doesn’t so disrupt the status quo so as to engender a backlash that would make it politically impossible to achieve? Or should they risk a possible confrontation inherent in Decolonization when it has yet to be understood? If the latter, the conversation turns darker and the political stakes get higher.
All that will become evident in Council Chambers when these recommendations come forward with explicit intentions and proposed actions. Council will have little choice but to clarify the direction they intend to take the City with respect to Reconciliation.
POWER: Who governs and how?
The endorsed strategy of the report deals with but does not discuss how we govern ourselves. Some of the recommended actions move power away from civic institutions with elected leaders; others recommend sharing of power with the three Indigenous communities of MST that are accountable to their nations.
Here’s an example of the power shift.
Rec 3.10 – Identify ways for MST to assert greater influence on City strategies, plans and projects based on genuine free, prior and informed consent rather than mere consultation.
With “informed consent” comes the need for approval over the City’s strategies, plans and projects by those who do not have accountability to any elected body in the City. Similar models of governance, where tribal leaders who are neither elected by nor accountable to almost all the citizenry, are more like a United Arab Emirates form of governance. Pre-colonial certainly. But ‘rule by minority’ adopted by an elected civic government can hardly square with any accepted idea of democracy.
The political consequences would be quickly apparent when taxation is involved. The relationship between City Hall and its citizens becomes ambiguous – who pays who for what – even as more land is taken from the property tax base and in-camera management agreements become the norm.
Would an elected city body accede to such a way of governing? There are indications with respect to the Senakw development precedent that it has already assumed so.
C0-MANAGEMENT: Governing or Ruling?
Conflict over governance comes to a head when proposals for ‘co-management’ are put forward, as happened with the previous Park Board.
Should representatives of MST sit as members or delegates on governing institutions in Vancouver, making decisions of legal consequence unless, as with Metro, they constitute a municipal equivalent? The task force seems to say yes.
Rec 3.13 – … have representation on Vancouver Park Board, Metro Vancouver Board and other regional boards (e.g. Board of Trade), tables, and bodies, with compensation for their participation.
Will those making decisions on the use and value of land, its acquisition or transfer, also be directly benefiting from the wealth such decisions enable? Without sufficient transparency, are they able to make decisions that will be acceptable to the community which will be taxed accordingly?
The Squamish did not want the management agreement for Senakw which City Council discussed and approved in camera to be released to the public. Nor the traffic management plan developed by consultants to Senakw. And definitely not public hearings.
Will this be the standard for transparency? Is there also a new standard being established for public amenities and services, a lowering of the bar of obligation and requirement that was developed for the megaprojects of the 1980s and 90s?
If MST Development Corporation representatives are in partnerships with developers, can an Indigenous nation or an entity of its creation be used as an instrument for maximizing returns or bypassing constraints, particularly for city development requirements and codes?
The City Planning department has affirmed that any place with an indigenous overlay supersedes the policies that might constrain other developers. It’s a message reinforced by Indigenous leaders themselves – here, for instance, in a public statement by Bernd Christmas, the former CEO of the Squamish Nation’s economic development arm, Nch’ḵay:
“… we’ve just learned the secret of making (development projects) go quicker, by about five to 10 years,” Christmas told … some of the biggest names in B.C.’S development industry. “If you have developments that are facing six-year, 10-year delays, come see us. Let’s move.”
What are we to make of “come see us”?
First Nations would not only be governing without accountability to the non-Indigenous citizenry affected by their decisions but also end up in instances where conflicts of interest are obvious – making decisions that directly benefit them on the value and use of land, without recourse by those who pay taxes on it as, even as more and more such land is withdrawn from the City tax base.
Without democratic and legal review, without transparency, without democratic accountability, the danger of corruption increases. When those making the decisions that affect the public interest are not ultimately accountable to a publicly elected body, that is not governing; that is ruling.
History is clear that people, whether Indigenous or colonial, respond defensively and often aggressively when their lands, laws and identities are threatened, especially when they are taxed without accountable representation. Without the mutual relationship all of us have through our governing institutions, we are more easily divided into racial and ethnic boxes, breaking the respectful connections to this land and to each other.
LAND BACK: What lands are returnable?
“Land Back” – often seen in graffiti and now in government documents – are two words that seem to mean : ‘Give unceded lands back to the owners from which it was taken. (Some say stolen.) They should then have the right to do with it as they wish.’
There are already examples, notably Tsawwassen Mills, of what First Nations are legitimately entitled to do in order to achieve an economic prosperity long denied. But this is not a promising choice by those who, as land protectors, had a chance to express an Indigenous way of knowing and instead approved a single-use car-dependent megamall, distant from customers, on delta land completely paved over, in an agricultural reserve, on the Pacific Flyway.
So long as Land Back remains hypothetical, so does the debate. The task force report takes it from the theoretical to the actionable. But when parks, school properties and civic spaces are to be the among the lands to be seriously considered for return, especially those with explicit colonial heritage like Stanley Park, contentious questions come to the fore, notably who will have access and use, and whose consent is required to do so?
Land Back is directly recommended in areas of culture:
Rec 1.6 e – Expand lands for Cultural Practice: … Look into options for returning lands across their territories, including in Vancouver.
Then “parks and protected areas.”
Rec .7 b. – Co-develop mechanisms and agreements for co-management and transfer of title of parks and protected areas with Musqueam, Squamish, and TsleilWaututh to ensure their rights, title and interests, and cultural heritage are addressed.
Then land termed “economically and socially significant.”
Rec 3.8 – … identify priority parcels of land which are culturally, economically, and socially significant to be repatriated with the end goal of having those lands given back.
Ensure that this process connects and aligns with Park Board land back work.
The Park Board staff have already has incorporated such alignment in their reports, most recently in a September 5, 2023 recommendation to demolish the Jericho Pier.
Staff recommend the Board consider the following factors when deciding on the next steps for Jericho Pier:
1. Decolonization and Reconciliation: Jericho Beach Park and the surrounding areas are particularly sensitive areas for local First Nations communities. Opportunities for collaborative restoration of naturalized areas need to be considered.
Many questions then follow: Can non-Indigenous citizens have governance over public lands such as streets and parks? This is not a theoretical question now that First Nations have taken action on the presumption that they can prohibit access to provincial parks.
Two First Nations say they’re “shutting down” public access to B.C.’s Joffre Lakes Park for more than a month to allow for harvest celebrations.
The Lil’wat and N’Quatqua First Nations say they’re asserting their title and rights to shared unceded territory to take time to harvest and gather resources.
The implication of such assertion was amplified by UBC professor Dr Jennifer Grenz.
Grenz, a Nlaka’pamux scholar whose family comes from the Lytton First Nation, called the situation “reconciliation in action.” … Grenz said the park closure was an opportunity for the public to “really recognize that settlers are guests on the land in so-called Canada. Period.”
Are non-indigenous people who dwell in the City of Vancouver, including recent immigrants, truly “uninvited guests,” as one City staffer identified themselves? Should they and their land be assessed as such?
What does that mean for private ownership? If there’s vociferous debate on what lands are eligible, doubt and dispute can turn into risk, reflected in the instruments of ownership.
And is every land acknowledgement of unceded territory reinforcing that expectation?
LAW: Would unwritten indigenous law override common law?
The report recommends Indigenous legal reviews.
Rec 4.4 – Identify ways to support MST to restore their Indigenous laws within their own communities and across the city, and weave them more fully into local decision-making processes, including each Nation’s own legal review of the City’s projects and plans.
In this way the City’s legal institutions and structures are being contested, with the implicit expectation of addition or substitution by Indigenous law.
All three nations of MST were oral societies, with no written laws. How much then should we weave oral stories of indigenous law into legal decision-making and statute?
With “each nation’s own legal review”, it’s more than likely that there will be different interpretations among them, some claiming superior jurisdiction over that rooted in early colonial legislation. Again, a dilemma: would Indigenous leaders undermine the very system of law that is basic to broad public acceptance of their legitimacy?
Without that legitimacy, things get ugly. How would law be enforced, without power evaporating? To whom would agents of enforcement be accountable? Who pays for enforcement? And ultimately, how can a system based on colonial laws and constitutions be used to overturn the legal and constitutional system itself?
Recommendations of the task force report would not survive the political process of a liberal democracy. No government would enter an election if Decolonization was seen to delegitimize its own citizens, especially those who have only recently gained that citizenship and come from places where decolonization has been more tragically contested.
But the assumption might remain that Indigenous legal review and alteration is legitimate. If there is not clarity on the extent and boundaries of such power, then risk is being introduced into society in an unknown way by people not accountable to its institutions, putting more assumptions into doubt and the legitimacy of those institutions more into question.
An example: Surveys and Land Registration – about as colonial as it gets.
Risk in the form of doubt about the legitimacy of surveys and ownership would eventually have to be acknowledged (and then monetized) in titles and, in many cases, mortgages. This would come as a shock to most British Columbians whose sense of ownership, economic security and even identity would be threatened. If the amount owing on their mortgages was both ambiguous and variable, it brings home the cost of Decolonization in a way that no government could defend.
Again, the dilemma for Indigenous leadership: How to defend and expand their historic rights without unleashing a backlash that would threaten Reconciliation itself.
FUNDING: Who benefits, who pays?
Even as land would be removed from the tax base, the report nonetheless has many recommendations that would expand access to revenues from the City budget or directly from participation in economic development that would then flow to Indigenous institutions.
Rec 1.13 – Identify ways to amplify and solidify meaningful Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh participation in building and sharing Vancouver’s economic prosperity.
There are many streams of revenue and provision of resources being recommended, with priority access for MST.
Rights to resources:
Rec 1.1 – Embed and enhance rights to water for Nation reserve lands …
Rec 1.6 B – … ensure access to clean marine and freshwater sites for cultural purposes.
Provision of services:
Provide sustainable resource, waste management, and other sanitation services for Nation reserve lands …
Grants and contracts:
Early Action 3: Build upon the City’s social procurement framework and expand the procurement policy to prioritize Indigenous participation for all projects (including large and small infrastructure, art and culture, environmental resource management, etc.)
Rec 1.17 – … ensure contract opportunities are reserved for businesses owned by or partnered with MST or local Indigenous professionals, including through the co-development of an Indigenous procurement policy …
Rec 1.18 – … prioritize access to economic spaces and opportunities for MST and urban Indigenous-owned or led enterprises in areas such as commercial leasing, City-owned properties, and parks …
Funding for projects:
… provide resources, funds and/or lands to Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh for the redevelopment of cultural institutions.
Rec 1.8 c – Employment Opportunities: Ensure Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh are supported to tell their own stories including through developing training and new job opportunities for their communities in public education work and tourism.
Rec 4.9 – Develop policies and practices which look at a range of spaces such as community centres, parks, recreation centres, art institutions, etc. and prioritize providing governance, affordable access and space for Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh and Urban Indigenous spaces for cultural practice and culturally safe community programming.
Rec 1.1 – Ensure access to culturally safe, affordable housing …
… support Nation-led affordable housing developments … in the form of funding, resources, or lands.
The task force report is recommending that the City (and other levels of government) fund housing for Indigenous peoples at the same time as MST Development Corporation will be one of the largest developers of housing and real estate in the city.
Visible on the skyline of Vancouver will be Indigenous megaprojects housing tens of thousands, like Senakw and Jericho. Will MST be asking for City dollars to provide supportive housing they are not sufficiently providing in their projects, and looking to the City and senior governments to also provide schools, libraries, infrastructure and amenities typically required in the rezoning of other megaprojects?
Calling on taxpayers to fund subsidized housing specifically for MST and other Indigenous peoples when their wealth is conspicuous, with revenues in the millions and assets in the billions, is not likely a politically defensible proposition.
“DIVERSE INDIGENOUS POPULATIONS”: An Open-Ended Commitment
“Diverse Indigenous Populations” is a phrase repeated throughout the report.
Rec 4.13 – In consultation with Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh, create processes for the diverse Indigenous populations living in the city to be represented in decisions which impact their lives, including access to services, quality of life, and reflection in community.
The three Nations of the MST number fewer than 7,000. Fewer than 2 percent live in Vancouver.
Presumably Indigenous peoples from within and outside Metro could look to the City in order to access the funding, resources and priorities recommended for MST – in numbers that would make budgeting increasingly speculative and taxes increasingly punitive, at a time when the tax-base would be eroding.
CULTURE: Who controls the narrative?
MST would not only be a conduit for Indigenous cultural funding from government but more broadly an adjudicator of cultural product generally.
Rec 1.4 – Develop and formalize agreements and protocols between the City and Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh concerning major events to be hosted in Vancouver …
Rec 1.9 – … meaningful involvement of Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh within major arts and culture organizations/institutions …
Rec 4.10 – Expand supports to return the original languages to the land, through naming, grants for cultural programming, and public education on hən̓ q̓ əmin̓ əm̓ and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh.
Rec 4.11 – Prioritize Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh public art and other cultural programming within cultural recognition, in ways that allow for self-determination over cultural expression on the land and in the public realm.
Setting curriculum and writing texts also shapes the narrative at the historic level.
Recommendations allow the narrative to be shaped, with underlying assumptions passed on institutionally and generationally. Hence the insistence by the task force that it control the ongoing shaping.
Early Action 6: Provide a spectrum of mandatory anti-racism and Indigenous cultural safety training for employees (including temporary and auxiliary) of the City of Vancouver to build foundational understanding of the rights of Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous history, Indigenous-specific racism, and the dynamics of proper respectful relations. Training should be adapted for, and relevant to, the nuances of different roles and their levels of responsibility.
For senior leaders, curriculum should also include the UN Declaration, the Declaration Act, treaties, and meaningful Reconciliation. Training will be developed and/or led by knowledge holders approved by the Nations. For vendors/suppliers, relevant training opportunities will be recommended as appropriate
Rec 1.6 – … develop and fund sustained public education about their history, culture, laws, contributions, etc. for visitors and residents.
Rec 4.10 – Expand supports to return the original languages to the land, through naming, grants for cultural programming, and public education on hən̓ q̓ əmin̓ əm̓ and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh.
As debate over programming for the Royal British Columbia Museum has illustrated, discussion over how history is presented can turn to cultural controversy when a people’s sense of identity is at stake. This could lead to a contentious debate over identity and the politics that follow, so prevalent and polarizing in our neighbour to the south.
Will young British Columbians of all ethnicities and backgrounds, after an informed awareness of grievous acts and omissions, be able to say that they are proud to be citizens of this land, their home? Or will those who feel a sense of grievance or defensiveness turn to those who will fill a hole with other ideologies that their sense of pride once occupied?
PERPETUAL PROCESS: Will Reconciliation and Decolonization ever reach resolution?
The UNDRIP Task Force is only the beginning of a process which could transform Vancouver and the status of its citizens. Its report is only the first.
Create an UNDRIP intergovernmental body co-governed by Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh and the City to facilitate the action items in this Strategy and report back on progress. a) Hold quarterly meetings with Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh to report back on progress and receive feedback.
5.2 Create a City committee, board, or commission dedicated to delivering the needed work in key areas such as housing, culture, environment, and economy.
In particular, colonialism, whether apparent or concealed, would be continually searched for.
4 Establish a process for the City to look for embedded colonialism within its systems …
“Embedded colonialism” is undefined, but those searching would no doubt find it, especially in the collective history created by settlers and adopted by immigrants who continue to arrive.
With a fluid definition of Colonialism, and a readjudication of past actions and policy making – even words previously spoken or written – the fear generated throughout the organization could be palpable and debilitating.
History has frequent examples when those in disagreement with prevailing beliefs are seen as heretics whose opposing views are considered hateful – and are treated accordingly.
If that is what is meant by Decolonization, there will never be Reconciliation.
That is the saddest part, and the greatest danger.
SO, WHAT TO DO NOW?
Given the scope and existential implications of the report, the recommendations as written are too much, too soon. Certainly not without provoking a reaction of unknown dimensions. And that’s not a smart or helpful move.
Decolonization is a word referenced though not used extensively in the report. It is more discussed as a process than an outcome – outcomes that might unsettle average citizens, especially if doubt was cast on whether they really owned their lands, individually and collectively, and who decides what could be done on them and with them without democratic accountability.
Since many people are fearful of speaking out in the current climate, how much political capital will our elected leaders risk? How much of our social and political structures will be negotiable?
Are they willing to defend the institutions and policies proposed for Decolonization – even the concept of Canada itself? Or as one speaker ended a land acknowledgement: “… in the country currently called Canada.” Will the City currently called Vancouver continue to exist as its citizens assume?
The City’s UNDRIP Task Force has done its job. Now we need to have the conversation that is always being called for when disruptive change is proposed. That conversation didn’t happen when the report from the UNDRIP Task Force was endorsed by the previous council last October.
The task force started with the UNDRIP Declaration of 2007 – and much of the original wording in it was officially adopted by provincial and federal governments in an endeavour to produce a strong framework for Reconciliation. But the task force in pursuing the next step of actionable items has gone beyond what many believe to be the intent and terms of the declaration, but which when more carefully considered might still be the basis for agreement.
For that, we need clarity on what these recommendations mean. Specifically, Council must clarify what is meant by Reconciliation and Decolonization. What assumptions are being made? What actions are implied? What unexpected consequences should we realistically expect? And importantly, what further public communication and involvement is required?
The hope to achieve “a mutually respectful framework for living together” remains strong. The desire for justice, no matter how challenging, has been heard. But until leaders, Indigenous and elected, recognize the dangers embedded in the strategic plan and clarify the questions, address the doubts, and mutually agree on the direction we are being taken, the most appropriate action at this time is not to take any until they have done so.
What are your thoughts on the UNDRIP Task Force report?
Last fall before the new City of Vancouver Council was sworn in, the previous Vancouver City Council endorsed the report of the UNDRIP Task Force. Implementation reports are yet to come.
This response paper is still a draft and open to insights. Is there one issue in particular that has grabbed your attention? Write down your thoughts and send them to me: email@example.com
Those who see hope in Reconciliation with constructive recommendations are especially welcome.
Here are some subject areas in the preceding paper, with questions to consider.
Give Land Back
What lands do you consider “culturally, economically, and socially significant”?
Shift the Power
Should MST have the power to approve the City’s strategies, plans and projects?
Should MST members sit on governing institutions?
Weave Indigenous Law into Decision-Making
Can unwritten indigenous law supersede common law?
Fund MST’s Economic Development
Should the City of Vancouver fund infrastructure, notably for water and various services, and provide spaces and build housing for MST?
Prioritize Indigenous Culture
How will fairness be perceived?
Please add and comment on other issues that may arise from the report.