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INDIGENOUS RIGHTS

Photos: As crises persist, 'we need a foundational shift' for reconciliation

Colonial injustice not just in past, say reconciliation marchers—look at 171 First Nations without drinking water, 20 in B.C., high child poverty and inadequate housing

Tens of thousands of Vancouverites, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, take part in the annual Walk for Reconciliation in Vancouver, on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017.

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Tens of thousands of Vancouverites, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, take part in the annual Walk for Reconciliation in Vancouver, on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017.

Tens of thousands of Vancouverites walked Sunday for reconcilation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

But while the atmosphere was triumphant and hopeful, many marchers asked why Indigenous rights are taking governments so long to actually respect.

"We are at a pivotal moment in our collective history, one where we have a unique opportunity to mature as a society," Squamish Nation Chief Ian Campbell told the massive crowd at the walk's end. "We are now entering a post-colonial era.

"This country is founded and built on a very solid foundation of Indigenous people. We will no longer be invisible in our own land."

One crisis affecting many First Nations across the country, including British Columbia, is a long-running lack of clean drinking water; 171 reserves, including 20 in B.C., remain under do-not-drink or boil water advisories, according to authorities. That amounts to 27 per cent of First Nations in Canada, and 12 per cent of those in B.C.

"It's outrageous that's stlll the case," Elizabeth May, federal Green Party leader and Saanich-Gulf Islands MP, told Metro in an interview. "It has to be clear from the top down that it's simply unacceptable that we have poisoned water in communities."

David P. Ball/Metro

She said contaminated water, inadequate housing and high child poverty endemic on First Nations are clear examples of how "the injustice didn't end" with the last residential school closure in 1996.

"You can't write a cheque and say, 'We're sorry we ruined your grandmother's life and your life,'" May cautioned. "It's not over.

"We're talking about the impact on Indigenous families of a century of the residential school system that broke people's lives, spirits and minds. Reconciliation has to start with a lot more Canadians understanding why this challenge is going to stay with us."

Federal justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, the first Indigenous Attorney General in Canadian history, said that the Liberals remain committed to their five-year promise to end all First Nations boil-water advisories.

"It's unacceptable in the country such as Canada that there are communities with no potable water," she told Metro in an interview after the walk. "We've made some substantive in-roads on the long-term boil water advisories."

But asked about criticisms that her government has made little progress on its Indigenous promises, she insisted that Ottawa's "made strides" towards what she said is required for reconciliation to turn from "words to action": a "foundational shift from the denial of rights to the recognition of rights," she said.

"Outsiders to the federal government might ask why it's taking so long, or why nothing's being done … We have a lot of work to do to get our house in order — but we're doing that work. It's important work, it's hard work, because decolonization is not easy. I want to assure people we're making progress."

At the front of the march, walking alongside Premier John Horgan and Mayor Gregor Robertson, was The Revenant actor Duane Howard.

"It's not just about our people anymore," the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation actor told Metro. "It's about coming together. We need to stop racism and come together as one. "

Duane Howard, a Nuu-chah-nulth nation actor who starred in Leonardo DiCaprio's Oscar-winning film The Revenant.

David P. Ball/Metro

Duane Howard, a Nuu-chah-nulth nation actor who starred in Leonardo DiCaprio's Oscar-winning film The Revenant.

Advanced education minister Melanie Mark — who is of Nisga'a, Gitxsan, Cree and Anishinabe descent — marched with her daughter and mother, wearing her grandmother's red-and-black buttoned regalia cloak.

"This is to honour her life and the hell she went through at residential school," the Vancouver-Mount Pleasant MLA told Metro. "The darkest parts of her life she never told us about, it was that painful.

"It's important that we see all nations here, we're not walking alone, we're not standing alone, we're not paddling alone. There's thousands of people here in solidarity."

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