08/02/2012 12:01 EDT | Updated 10/02/2012 05:12 EDT

It May be Victoria B.C.'s Anniversary, but the Focus Should be on First Nations


As Victoria B.C. commences celebrations for its 150th anniversary on August 2, something is oddly amiss: reflection. The city has a relatively strong presence of First Nations inhabitants, particularly the Coast Salish groups, who have occupied the lands many -- many -- years before colonial settlement. Victoria has an opportunity to reflect on how to best move forward with the strained relationship they have with First Nations peoples, an opportunity which they sadly don't seem eager to take advantage of.

It is important to remember that August 2, 1862 is a date that marks endings as well as beginnings. The incorporation of Fort Victoria also subsequently meant the cessation of Coast Salish lands to the Crown, as many land treaties negotiated with First Nations groups around this time were wrongly conveyed to them as merely peace treaties. More importantly, present-day poverty and violence that plague First Nations communities across British Columbia continue at staggering levels.

Surely, I suppose it's to be expected that a provincial capital in Canada today celebrating its sesquicentennial will have its usual fare of politically-neutral block parties, family festivals, concerts, and the like. Victoria's planned week-long celebration will even feature historical and interactive fairs with a nod to Coast Salish families and traditions--again, that it is a "nod" is probably and unfortunately to be expected. Perhaps debates will develop about whether such a festivity is appropriate, or if it trivializes or objectifies First Nations peoples.

I'm not interested in starting such a debate, but no doubt this situation is problematic. However, what is the solution? Could the festivity organizers augment the presence of First Nations tributes and events? Probably, but I'm not sure if it would solve anything. Possible alternatives from the opposite perspective are protests--which would likely fall on deaf ears.

The fact is, debates will continue to swirl long after the dust has settled: to assimilate or to resist? But such a preoccupation with identity politics -- and I use the term identity politics very loosely -- distracts us from more relevant, systemic problems.

Such a debate bears resemblance to colonization versus decolonization, a fight between competing processes that continues to trouble many First Nations, Inuit, and Métis groups, particularly in British Columbia, often leading to violent outcomes. A recent article in the Vancouver-based Georgia Straight magazine cited experts from both Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria about the issue, with one predicting an upcoming resurgence of indigenous warrior societies. Clearly tensions are reaching a breaking point. For such warrior societies, the pressing issue that faces them is formalized Canadian politics that challenge indigenous nationhood. This, then, is the fight for today's young indigenous people.

Now, these issues are of the utmost importance, and of course my main point is that an anniversary celebration that symbolically also marks the loss of such nationhood is an ideal opportunity for reflection. But this reflection should be used to generate dialogue, not necessarily urgent action. On Canada Day, the Globe and Mail published a sarcastic editorial mocking Canada's culpability in colonization. Victoria's own Monday Magazine, in light of the anniversary, recently wrote a somewhat shocking exposé of the city's "lesser-known secrets" from its 150-year history, including events that shame Victoria with its treatment of First Nations peoples.

Such dialogue and knowledge create an opportunity for a shift in perspective. Forums and community discussions that can arise from such an anniversary celebration, to create and foster dialogue and awareness, are equally advantageous opportunities for everyone involved to understand the stakes -- and one's own role -- in the challenges ahead.

Should Victoria's anniversary celebrations do more or less, and how should First Nations groups respond? These I feel are questions that blur the issue. We should resist the urge to get caught up in identity politics. Instead, let's take a step back and use this opportunity to reflect on the situation at hand.