‘B.C.’ legislative assembly to issue formal apology to First Nations, build residential ‘school’ memorial

The “B.C.” legislative assembly has released an action plan aimed at reconciling pieces of its colonial legacy, which is set to include a formal apology to First Nations.

The Reconciliation Action Plan also commits to building a memorial garden on the legislature grounds honouring those who attended residential “schools” across the province and country.

The plan sets out five key commitments to be carried out over the next four years and seven initial actions. It was created in consultation with an Indigenous advisory committee that was created in 2023.

Speaker Raj Chouhan presented the document on Wednesday during an event held at the parliament buildings on ləkʷəŋən (Songhees and Esquimalt) territories, which began with drumming, singing, a prayer, and calling on witnesses.

At the podium, Cheryl Casimer, political executive for the First Nations Summit, asked non-Indigenous attendees if they would feel happy being treated the way First Nations are treated today. Nobody raised their hands.

“Reconciliation isn’t about making people feel good,” she said. “It’s about tough conversations, and truth, however hard it is to hear.”

An apology will be given by Chouhan on behalf of the legislative assembly to First Nations across “British Columbia” as a recognition that First Nations were “systemically and intentionally excluded from participating in provincial democratic processes for much of our early institutional history,” the plan states.

Chouhan has not said when, specifically, the official apology will take place. However the plan said, when it happens, the legislative assembly “will take the opportunity to publicly communicate the truth about past actions and to express its commitment to build a new relationship with Indigenous Peoples in British Columbia.”

Chief David Jimmie (Lenéx wí :ót) of Squiala First Nation, who consulted on the plan, said acknowledging the truth of what happened to First Nations across the province is a key step.

“Issuing an apology to First Nations across B.C. for the harms the legislative assembly of British Columbia enabled to become law is an important action listed in the legislative assembly’s Reconciliation Action Plan,” he said in a statement.

Other commitments include offering educational opportunities to Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) and other staff, incorporating Indigenous customs and cultures into the legislature, and ensuring Indigenous cultures are reflected across parliament buildings and grounds.

The action plan stems from the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (DRIPA), which was unanimously adopted by the Legislative Assembly in 2019, and enshrines the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as the government’s framework for reconciliation.

“This plan is not a static document to sit on a shelf, but a living document that will evolve with further input and dialogue,” the plan reads.

The role of the Speaker, who is elected in a secret ballot from the pool of MLAs, is to ensure that the assembly’s rules and procedures are followed, and to balance the right of the majority to conduct business, with the right of the minority to be heard.

“As an immigrant, I recognise what it means to see yourself represented in the institutions that surround you, and what it means when you don’t,” said Chouhan, who is the first person of South Asian heritage to serve as Speaker of any legislature in “Canada.”

“As Speaker, it is my priority to make the legislative assembly more reflective of all people in our province. Every person who visits this building should feel that they are welcome, and that they belong here. Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples is an essential part of this work.”

In May 2023, the assembly established the Speaker’s Indigenous Reconciliation Advisory Committee to receive guidance directly from Indigenous leaders. The committee included Chief Jimmie; Taylor Baker of Tsawwassen First Nation; Howard Grant (qiyəplenəxʷ) of Musqueam Indian Band; and Chief Willie Sellars of Williams Lake First Nation.

“I have been especially grateful to the members of my Indigenous Reconciliation Advisory Committee for their thoughtful guidance and support as we work to translate good intentions into tangible progress,” said Chouhan.

The plan states it will renew the committee’s membership throughout the four years, but doesn’t state how it will seek new membership, or from whom.

The plan also seeks to develop a framework for regular engagements with Indigenous leadership organizations, including the First Nations Leadership Council, Indigenous MLAs, and plans to tour the province to meet with and hear from Indigenous peoples and their communities.

According to committee member Howard Grant, Chouhan plans to visit each First Nation in the province, of which there are more than 200.

Grand Chief Phillip Stewart, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said he was “thrilled” to be part of “this special moment in British Columbia.”

“I’ve been in this room on many occasions and good things happen in this room. I’m very excited and that’s not me — I’m seldom excited,” he said.

“Now more than ever given the climate crisis, the opioid crisis, the pandemic, drought, crop failures — to come together like this in a very serious and genuine fashion — reconciliation must become a way of life for all of us. We don’t have time for petty squabbling, there is serious work to be done.”

Chouhan said he is “proud” that “British Columbia” is the first jurisdiction to release a plan of this nature, and hopes the initiative will inspire other legislatures to take similar steps.

Amy Romer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, IndigiNews