First Nations chiefs from southern Vancouver Island gathered in the Songhees Wellness Centre gymnasium in Esquimalt Friday morning to sign a joint letter denouncing recent acts of vandalism and racism toward their communities and to call for peace and mutual respect.
Songhees Chief Ron Sam said community members from multiple First Nations have experienced escalating racist attacks, both online and in person, after a statue of British navigator James Cook was torn down near the Empress Hotel on July 1 and thrown into the harbour.
"It's happening here ... on Lekwungen territory. Whether it be at the grocery store, or ... out driving, or just walking in our neighbourhood," said Sam. "It's got to stop before something serious happens.... Right now a lot of people don't feel safe going out alone."
Sam clarified the Nation had no official ties to the statue's removal, and said it "just isn't fair… for our members to start taking the brunt of what has happened."
Since last Friday, a totem pole on the Malahat highway was burned, and Sam said the Songhees longhouse was publicly threatened online, in response to recent vandalism of an Anglican church in Esquimalt.
"As a collective, we feel the need to step in before things continue on a destructive path," the joint letter says. "These acts are not ours, we do not support them and we do not believe in dividing communities."
The letter was prepared by nine First Nations, which include the Songhees Nation, Esquimalt Nation, Beecher Bay First Nation, T'Sou-ke Nation, Malahat First Nation, Tsawout First Nation, Tsartlip First Nation, Pauquachin First Nation and the Tseycum First Nation.
Mayors, police, provincial, federal politicians attend gathering
Municipal leaders, Victoria police, provincial and federal politicians also attended the gathering, which opened with traditional dancing and singing, to voice their support.
Mitzi Dean, MLA for Esquimalt-Metchosin, presented a statement on behalf of Premier John Horgan, who sent his regrets for being unable to attend the ceremony along with a statement saying, "I support the call for healing and understanding."
"I want to acknowledge the profound leadership shown by the leaders of the nine nations who've lived on south Vancouver Island for time immemorial," the statement read.
Both Victoria's Police Chief Del Manak and Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps voiced their support for a call to end the violence.
"We want our communities to be places where your elders and where your young people feel safe, feel welcome, and feel loved," said Helps.
Sam said the Songhees Nation has had to "amp up security" on the reserve since last Friday, and now has around-the-clock security monitoring the longhouse, totem poles and other public art at a few different locations.
Sam said there have been 11 incidents since last Friday where security guards chased vandals away.