A unique made-in-the-Tsilhqot’in agreement with the provincial and federal governments was unveiled in Williams Lake Wednesday, Aug. 28.
Under sunny skies the six Tsilhqot’in Chiefs, Honourable Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Jessica Wood, Acting Deputy B.C. Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation celebrated the signing with Tsilhqot’in community members at the TNG negotiations office on South Lakeside Drive.
Yunesit’in Chief Russell Myers Ross described it as a “big day.”
“It started five years ago with our rights and title win and has taken us a few years to get to this point,” Myers Ross said. “The exoneration of our six war chiefs last year in Ottawa and on title lands in November really started this. It represents the start of negotiations and the first time bringing the federal and provincial government together.”
It will be a long rebuilding process because the Tsilhqot’in have been under the Indian Act, he added.
“We have to find ways to do things differently and unravel the colonial path that we’ve started with.”
Tl’esqox Chief Francis Laceese said the agreement was designed by the Tsilhqot’in people for the Tsilhqot’in people and thanked both levels of government for their support.
“We are working toward 100 per cent recognition of our title and jurisdiction,” Laceese said. “We are also fighting for our human rights under international law.”
Laceese said the agreement recognizes and respects Tsilhqot’in self-determination and the right to shape the future for its people.
Chief Roy Stump, ?Esdilagh First Nation, said the agreement is based on eight pillars of change and sets a pathway for making progress.
“We always need to put our people and our communities first and that’s what I like to see. With this agreement I believe we can bring real change in partnership with B.C. and Canada.”
Xeni Gwet’in Chief Jimmy Lulua credited the Tsilhqot’in war chiefs who were hanged in 1864 with setting the stage for the Tsilhqot’in people by fighting for what they knew was right.
“This agreement is about hope with B.C. and Canada showing up today and giving us that commitment,” Lulua said. “We are an example for Indigenous people right across the globe.”
Lulua credited the other chiefs for teaching him during his first year as a chief.
“I’ve been listening and learning and growing super fast,” he added. “This agreement is a game-changer. Former Xeni Gwet’in leadership started the rights and title case.”
Indigenous people are finally being seen, Lulua said, adding he’s been honoured to be a part of the team work.
Tsi Del Del Chief Otis Guichon thanked the elders and community members for attending the celebration, adding the chiefs would not be there if it was not for them.
“It was a good time to become a chief. I was on the job for two months and we were in Ottawa for the exoneration,” Guichon said. “It was a great experience for all of us and it was the first time that chiefs were sitting on the floor at the parliament. History was made.”
He thanked both levels of government for signing the agreement and vowed the chiefs will always work together.
Acting deputy minister Wood praised the decades of work that have led to the agreement.
“It’s been quite the journey since the Supreme Court decision in 2014,” Wood said. “We’ve been trying to figure out how to move from a legal decision to concrete actions on the ground.”
Many of her colleagues, she added, have been working with the Tsilhqot’in at different tables on topics such as transition of lands in the title area, child welfare and education.
“There has been a lot accomplished through this partnership such as the moose co-management agreement,” Wood said. “But it is also important to acknowledge there has been significant challenges and that it is complicated. There is some truth telling to do in our relationship as we redefine it and the wonderful thing is, we get to do that.”
Minister Bennett said the leadership provided by the Tsilhqot’in to right the wrongs and have children not grow up under the Indian Act is a positive change.
She thanked the negotiation team for all their work.
“This agreement bonds us together in a new partnership that will accelerate progress, but as you’ve heard, this is a made in Tsilhqot’in agreement, this is what they need in order to move forward on self-determination,” Bennett said. “It is unique and means we are learning all the time.”
Responding, TNG Tribal Chair and Tl’etniqox Chief Joe Alphonse thanked Bennett and Wood.
“It has been a long process for our people,” he said. “When our six war chiefs were hanged that started our journey. At the time they wanted to crush the spirit of the Tsilhqot’in people but instead they gave us our identity.”
Alphonse said the Tsilhqot’in have not followed the example of other First Nations but have carved their own way.
“We took off on our own and many years later and all those nations are using our case to build a case for themselves. The turtle sometimes wins the race.”
The Gwets’en Nilt’i Pathway Agreement comes with funding for the Tsilhqot’in to build a governance system, based on traditional laws and values, create economic opportunities, renovate and build homes in the communities, invest in language and culture and support the health and well-being of the nations’ families and communities.
Tl’esqox elder Joan Gentles opened the ceremony with a prayer in Tsilhqot’in, followed by cultural ambassador Peyal Laceese who did a drum song and then introduced the fact the speakers would all being marking a rock with red paint.
“Our ancestors before us used petroglyph paint to mark significance in our history so today our leaders sit behind me,” Peyal explained. “They have signed a piece of paper in agreement and working together between governments we integrate our modern way of doing things with pen and paper and our Tsilhqot’in way with rock and paint.”
The rock, he added, will become a stepping stone on the pathway of all three levels of government working together in the ‘most positive way possible.’