The Wilfrid Laurier Memorial 100 years later

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Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Syilx, (left) and Chief Wayne Christian, Secwepemc, (right) with framed Memorial. Photo: Kerry Coast

The Wilfrid Laurier Memorial was a dictated letter addressed to Prime Minister Laurier in 1910 which outlined the grievances and history of the first century of contact with non-Aboriginal people from a First Nations perspective. Laurier read it, promised to meet the chiefs who created it, but lost the federal election a year later. His successor, Sir Robert Borden, never followed through with this promise. 

August 25th marked 100 years since the Wilfrid Laurier Memorial was signed by the Secwepemc, Syilx and Nlaka'pamux, at Spences Bridge, British Columbia. The anniversary was marked by an official gathering of today's leadership of those three countries, remembering and reaffirming the simple and irrefutable claims it laid out.

Neighbouring nations, and even far-off ones such as the Tahltan, also joined to observe this important marker of what is unfortunately a lack of progress on the part of Canada. Guests included non-native politicians, such as the Kamloops mayor, MLAs from neighbouring ridings, and federal opposition candidates. The Chiefs and councillors of the three host nations read out the memorial in turns.

Earlier in the week, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff visited Kamloops and was given a personal introduction to the memorial by former Skeetchestn Chief Dr. Ron Ignace.

The Kamloops mayor received a medicine bundle and a plaque engraved with details of the memorial, the latter of which he promised to place at the location in Kamloops where the 1910 document was signed. His references to "the First Nations of the area," were clearly uninformed and painfully inadequate.

Chief Wayne Christian of Splatsin, Chair of the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council, presented that plaque as well as gifts to his contemporaries, Grand Chief Stewart Philip of the Syilx (Okanagan), and Chief David Walkem of Cook's Ferry, Nlaka'pamux. All three national leaders gave their remarks.

Chief David Walkem stated to the 200 assembled that, "we do not want to be here 100 years later, still with the same grievances." The memorial is a good summation of the problems the three were facing as a result of settler pre-emptions on their land, the experience of insincerity on the part of the governments, and the needs of the people and their desire to live as brothers and sisters with the newcomers -- equally.

Chief Walkem reminded people that the memorial gathering at Spences Bridge this past June is to be an annual event, and presented the two other leaders with copies of the Chiefs' signature pages from that day, reaffirming the commitment to the claims in the memorial.

Grand Chief Stewart Philip referred to what the 1910 leaders had called "the true whites," who were the first Europeans to enter the territories in the 19th century -- people who relied on the nations for trade and support, and seemed to appreciate and respect the land and its people. These early traders were compared unfavourably to the later settlers and their penchant for resource extraction at any cost. "When I look back over the last 100 years and reflect on today, I think of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which was endorsed by most countries today. Sadly, Canada was not one of them, although our rights are enshrined in the Constitution and we have won some 40 Supreme Court cases. I see the next 100 years being a different time, of hope and progress." Philip referred to the economic success of the host community, Tkemlups Indian Band.

"Our future will depend on our ability to establish and maintain relationships, and to stand up in the face of injustice and do the right thing. I believe there is an awareness in this country that this is the right time to do that."

Chief Wayne Christian spoke last at the event, which was organized by the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council. "One hundred years ago, our leaders put down a path of words for us. Today, we need to think about what it means to put down a path for the next 100 years.

"At that time, the Canadian government responded to us with legislation to imprison our people if they went off the Reserve to gather food; they made it mandatory for our children to go off to residential school; they made it illegal for people to gather to meet about the land question; and they criminalized us for practicing our potlatch and singing our songs. The response today is no different.

"We need to go out and make a way for our people. We need to do to the government as they do to us and ignore their laws. Their laws and their customs don't apply here. We have our lands, our laws, our culture and our own people. And we will rely on those.

"We can no longer wait for them to respond to us. We will do what we need to do to protect our land, our children, and the fish and animals. Our children can't wait another 100 years with the atrocities foisted on us -- we can't wait any longer.

"The land their courts say is ours, let's go make it ours. It's time to take action, people."

Witnesses at the event were gifted with T-shirts, a copy of the memorial, and a glossy programme that summed up the spirit and intent of the day. Dr Ron Ignace and his wife Marianne were key contributors.

Kerry Coast is the publisher of The St'át'imc Runner newspaper.

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