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‘These are our lands’: B.C. First Nation chief on Truth & Reconciliation Day

Semiahmoo First Nation chief says unceded lands the ‘undiscussed discussion’

Before reconciliation can happen in a meaningful way, Canadians must first acknowledge the truth about Indigenous peoples’ history, says Semiahmoo First Nation Chief Harley Chappell.

One of the truths that he feels has not been accepted not only by the government, but also settlers, is that the majority of land that people live and work on is unceded.

“When we speak of unceded, these are our lands and they’re occupied. The Canadian and provincial governments have been able to build land tenures that we don’t really agree with,” said Chappell, speaking ahead of Canada’s third annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

What is now called British Columbia is actually 95 per cent unceded land of Métis, Inuit and First Nations people.

“It’s an undiscussed discussion on title and ownership of land. Who is the rightful owner? And there’s going to be lots of different opinions on it. This is a very contentious subject because Canadians have purchased that land from the government when, truly, if it’s unceded lands, how is the Canadian government able to sell those lands?” he asked.

“For us as Semiahmoo, there’s little to no Crown land within our traditional territory. We’re working hard to access what little Crown lands there are and bring those back to reserve and back to Indigenous communities.”

Chappell said that the topic of land ownership is one he has not officially had with the federal government, but it will be coming soon.

The chief also shared his memories of past years’ events for Truth and Reconciliation Day, also known colloquially as Orange Shirt Day.

“That event was hard, it was challenging. A lot of the public really had a real will and want to come together and mourn and acknowledge some of the wrongs that have been done in the past,” Chappell said, recalling the first event held in 2021.

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Thousands of residents and visitors took to the traditional, unceded territories of the Semiahmoo First Nation and the broader territory of the Coast Salish People that Sept. 30.

On the heels of the discovery of unmarked graves of children who were taken to residential schools in Kamloops, the first year was emotional for many. Since then, investigations have led to the uncovering of thousands of unmarked graves, with searches still ongoing throughout Canada.

READ MORE: Stó:lō Nation residential school probe finds 158 child deaths, potential unmarked graves

“Last year, I asked people to walk with the intent of healing. Let’s walk together, let’s support one another, let’s acknowledge where we were the year before and see if we can walk together to begin our healing process,” Chappell recalled.

He said this year is about spotlighting those who will take over the work in the future, with his daughter set to share a presentation on Saturday.

“True reconciliation, true relationships and building relationships with government and citizens, it’ll take a long time. Our children and grandchildren will take over this work, as well as non-Indigenous children and grandchildren.”

Although there are multiple days throughout the year to honour Indigenous history and for the public to educate themselves as settlers, Chappell said that hate and ignorance is “alive and well.”

“One of the falsities I hear is that (residential school) is an old problem, it’s an old issue. And in my daughter’s presentation, she says ‘My grandma attended St. Mary’s residential school’. I’m talking of my nine-year-old daughter and her 60-something-year-old grandmother.

“This is not something so far away that I can’t feel it. I need our communities and our public to know that.”

In the system, which was funded through the government and administered by Christian churches for more than 150 years, Indigenous children were removed from their families and forced to attend schools, where many were abused, in order to assimilate them into Canadian society.

“There are some really challenging and difficult truths that we all need to acknowledge. Once we acknowledge those atrocities and those truths, then we’re able to move towards healing,” Chappell said.

“Indigenous people aren’t meant to be here anymore. We’re not supposed to be here, we’re not supposed to do the things that we do. Through the perseverance and strength of our ancestors and elders, we’re able to continue on. That to me, is a fantastic message.”

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