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Near and Far: Let’s do the right thing

As the issue of renaming Powell River has circulated throughout the community, a range of views have been expressed. ~ John Young
John Young has been an advisor to political leaders in Ottawa and Victoria. He was the founding executive director of ACORN Canada, a national advocacy organization working with and for low and moderate income Canadians. He has been a Buddhist monk in France and an organic farmer in Powell River.

Near and Far is a column about public issues and cultural affairs.

For more than 100 years, the people of Tla’amin Nation have lived with the daily insult and cruel, living legacy of Israel Powell. Having endured their children being abducted by the government, as all Indigenous Peoples have in every part of Canada, they have further endured their traditional lands being renamed after one of the champions of the hell benignly called residential schools.

As Superintendent of Indian Affairs in British Columbia, Powell oversaw the residential school system in the province. He believed the policy of destroying every aspect of “Indian” culture and severing ties with family was the appropriate response to the “Indian problem” in Canada. Assimilationist is the bureaucratic word used to describe people with the views and work history of Powell. Senior manager of state sponsored cultural genocide is a far more accurate term.

At a May 12 meeting between Tla’amin, City of Powell River and qathet Regional district, Tla’amin requested the city change Powell River’s name. That request was later publicly articulated by Tla’amin hegus John Hackett in a Peak viewpoint article on May 24.

Three days later, news of the discovery of 215 Indigenous children’s bodies in unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School shocked the world and broke the hearts of decent people everywhere. As I write these words, news of 751 unmarked graves at the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan breaks our hearts again. As public resources are finally devoted to documenting the scope and scale of these crimes against humanity, we will almost certainly learn of thousands more unmarked graves; the unmarked graves of children abducted by the government.

As the issue of renaming Powell River has circulated throughout the community, a range of views have been expressed. Many people recently wrote to the mayor and council in support of the Tla’amin request. Some wrote in opposition. On social media, many views have also been shared. Some have been compassionate and deeply human. Others have been ignorant, callous and racist. Some people have focused on the cost that would be associated with changing Powell River’s name.

Like many people, I believe in tying action to consequences. In this case, RCMP were too often the enforcers of government abductions of Indigenous children. It would, therefore, be entirely appropriate to look at the city’s police budget to meet some or all of the costs that might be associated with a name change.

In order to be sure public safety is not compromised in any way, the city could work with senior levels of government to meet any gaps in the RCMP budget as a result of devoting resources to renaming the town.

It is a strange and truly diabolical fact that residential schools were run by churches, in partnership with the federal government. The majority of residential schools were run by the Catholic Church. Others were run by the Anglican Church and the United Church.

Again, with the principle of action, responsibility and consequences in mind, it would make sense that all churches historically associated with running residential schools be called upon to pay some or all of the cost of renaming Powell River. A simple way to do this would be for our city council to remove tax exemptions granted to relevant local churches and use all revenue collected to pay for the cost of a name change. Once those costs have been paid, remaining revenue could be provided to Tla’amin in perpetuity, for healing and nation building work.

While some have noted cost issues, others have focused on the process when it comes to Tla’amin’s clear request for a name change. Some have suggested a referendum as the way forward. That is frankly a terrible idea. As my recent discussion with a senior official from the BC Human Rights Commission on this issue affirmed, majoritarian direct democracy exercises (think referendum and name change, for example) are harmful to minority interests, rights and profound concerns.

Moreover, inviting Powell River voters to cast a ballot on whether or not to grant the clear request made by the Tla’amin people would be a grotesque manifestation of colonial treatment of Indigenous Peoples. A referendum on renaming the town would badly damage the reconciliation process. It would also bring widespread notoriety to Powell River.

With the possible exception of small-town municipal governments, every government and every large institution employs people whose job it is to know everything.

In this case, I am thinking of the federal government and its residential school church partners. It is the job of such people to know everything about the institution; everything and anything that might make the institution vulnerable. I know this not just because of my academic background and longstanding interest in studying these things. I know it from firsthand experience.

In the mid-1990’s, I worked for the wing of the BC premier’s office charged with knowing everything. One of my office mates at the time was a bright, affable fellow named John Horgan.

I mention that experience by way of knowing that hundreds (thousands?) of people, elected and unelected, have long been aware of everything that is now coming to light at former residential schools across the country. And, most importantly, residential school survivors and intergenerational survivors have always known every awful thing that happened to them and their families for many decades. But they have never been heard, respected and believed as they deserve. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission process was a critical step on the path of honouring, respecting, valuing and believing those who have been so brutally mistreated. But it is only one step.

What to do with those hundreds and, more likely, thousands who know and have always known about the pedophiles, sadists and psychopaths who brutalized thousands of innocent children at residential schools?

In a recent request to the International Criminal Court (ICC), a group of Canadian lawyers asked the Court to launch a formal investigation of the Catholic Church and Government of Canada. In its June 7 response to the request, ICC indicated it is considering the request. In the event ICC decides to proceed with an investigation and in the further event of prosecutions, a particular kind of justice may finally be brought to bear on those who have caused horrific harm to so many.

In light of all I have written here and in light of all I have neither the knowledge nor the right to address, let’s do the right thing and rename Powell River as we have been asked to do by Tla’amin Nation.

John Young lives in Powell River's Wildwood neighbourhood.