The Williams Lake Indian Band (WLIB) is calling for the resignation of a city councillor and an apology from the City of Williams Lake.
The demand comes following comments made about the history of residential schools at a Williams Lake City Council meeting Tuesday, June 16 where Coun. Marnie Brenner, herself Indigenous, said there ‘are always two sides’ to reconciliation and that not everyone had a negative experience at residential school.
WLIB Chief Willie Sellars, who was still visibly upset Wednesday afternoon while he attended a First Nations Role Model event in the lakecity, said the statements were shocking, upsetting and offensive and has caused him to lose sleep.
He deferred further comment, however, to a news release issued by himself and the community.
“Can you imagine if a government official in the United States stood up and said that slavery wasn’t such a bad thing because black Americans were fed and had a roof over their heads? There would be incredible outrage, and rightfully so,” Sellars stated. “We are in an era where the vast majority of people, including elected officials, are working hard to acknowledge the problems of the past and to root out systemic discrimination. The fact that Coun. Brenner is herself a First Nations individual makes it even worse.”
The comments Brenner made were following council discussion on a resolution to hold a 30-day online public survey to solicit public feedback on plans by WLIB to build a farm-to-gate cannabis manufacturing facility on Indian Reserve #6 within city limits.
The facility is slated to be built on South MacKenzie Ave. beside the WLIB’s current Indigenous Bloom retail cannabis shop, near the entrance to the Scout Island Nature Centre.
Tensions have been mounting between the two governments in recent months over the facility, and also the City’s bid to move a Gold Rush-era heritage store onto city lands where First Nations artifacts have been identified. Development in that location, overlooking the Stampede Grounds, has been opposed by WLIB.
City leaders, in particular Mayor Walt Cobb and Coun. Scott Nelson, have in recent weeks questioned whether it is right for the WLIB to be able to develop their lands within the city without consultation with city residents.
The public survey which council is pushing ahead will not stop WLIB’s plans, Sellars recently confirmed.
WLIB Councillor Joanne Moiese noted Wednesday it is disturbing any elected official would try to downplay the importance of reconciliation, or a local government’s obligations in relation to reconciliation by suggesting that residential schools weren’t really such a bad thing.
“Our community, and First Nations communities across the country, are still struggling to overcome the impacts of residential schools,” Moiese noted. “Children were ripped from their homes, they were stripped of their culture and language and they were physically and sexually abused. The reality, though, is that there was only one residential school in this area — St. Joseph’s. Apparently Councillor Brenner isn’t aware of that.”
The St. Joseph’s Mission became a residential school for Indigenous children in 1886. Operating for 95 years, it did not close until June 30, 1981.
The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report released by the Government of Canada in 2015 condemned the residential school system in which children were sexually and physically abused. More 3,200 deaths of First Nation children in residential school were documented although TRC chair Justice Murray Sinclair has suggested the number of deaths is likely closer to 6,000, noted WLIB.
WLIB Councillor and elder Rick Gilbert said it’s upsetting anyone would attempt to diminish the impact that residential schools had on First Nations communities.
“We hear people say things like ‘just get over it, it wasn’t such a big deal’. Clearly those people are not understanding the gravity of the issue or the impacts it has had on Canadian society for generations now,” Gilbert said. “People need to educate themselves about the realities of this piece of Canadian history, and it’s very encouraging that there will finally be some curriculum content in the school system.”
Black Press Media has reached out to Coun. Brenner for comment.