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Kirk LaPointe: West Van council's slight over land acknowledgments speaks volumes

Somehow Mayor Mark Sager and his council cannot fathom, cannot savour or cannot accept the direction of history.
ambleside beach
A welcome figure at Ambleside Beach stands with its arms outstretched, a gift from the Squamish Nation that marks K’aya’chtn (gathering of ocean canoes).

For its first public meeting following the election, West Vancouver council made news not for what it did but for what it didn’t do – a land acknowledgment.

What it did in not doing something has done us a disservice as a community.

Indigenous land acknowledgments are de rigueur today, a statement of the obvious, a meagre recognition of our far-from-meagre history of disrespect and fraud upon the original people of this land.

With no notice, the incoming mayor and council have determined the verbal declaration is a distraction from the swift business of the evening meetings.

Under newly returned Mayor Mark Sager, the commonplace few seconds all North Shore councils express in appreciating the opportunity to use unceded – the diplomatic term for stolen – land from First Nations was scrubbed from the agenda he sets.

It hints of the headstrong qualities his detractors predicted and feared.

The acknowledgment remains in the printed agenda but not the verbally delivered proceedings. That is less than half a loaf; it is a crumb.

It drew immediate criticism of the council from Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh counterparts.

As a country we are emerging from a self-styled cocoon of ignorance and increasingly recognizing our colonialist history. Our school curriculum is gradually furnishing students with an awareness largely kept from older Canadians as students as we collectively but quite cautiously traipse the path of reconciliation. We are only in the early stages, and a verbal salutation is a modest gesture among what will be more challenging ones.

Somehow Sager and his council cannot fathom, cannot savour or cannot accept the direction of history. Regardless, the slight speaks volumes.

Now it could just be me with these views, so I reached out to Khelsilem, the council chair of the Squamish Nation, expecting outrage. Instead, I heard patience and a reasoned disquiet.

“To make that unilateral change, without diligence, raises a lot of concerns,” he said. “It has the risk of signalling we are going to go backwards in the relationship.”

But those lines were the most pointed in a calm conversation about what he deems much more important than the “moral argument” associated with the verbal, as opposed to printed, respect for the tradition of oral Indigenous culture.

“For me, more compelling is that there’s a lot of things First Nations and communities can work together on sharing … a win-win,” he said.

Municipalities have often abdicated their place in the national conversation on reconciliation, given that the larger obligations to share power and resources involve the so-called Crown lands administered by federal and provincial governments.

Some, like Vancouver, engaged early and systematically. A good example of this win-win is the Squamish Sen̓áḵw development near the Burrard bridge. Rather than squeeze First Nations in providing city services to their land, as some municipalities are wont to do, they reached an arrangement consistent with and in some cases exceeding city standards on common environmental and developmental goals.

The relationship in West Vancouver has several complexities that require delicacy to create a positive climate for development, among them consent agreements with third parties and questions about duties to consult on Crown lands and through official community plans.

True, council meetings under Mary-Ann Booth developed a reputation as a marathon that ought to have been a 10K, but that had much to do with the council’s inherent divisiveness. The seven seemingly couldn’t agree on whether the sun rose in the east or west.

Sager correctly set out to change that pokey pace, and it’s clear he can do so through a more extensive use of a consent agenda to group agreed-upon, non-controversial items for rapid resolution with a single motion.

But there is vastly more meaning in aurally saving less than 30 seconds of official recognition than in saving more than 30 minutes of official business. The mayor has said he didn’t mean to insult Indigenous people, but didn’t pledge to reverse course.

There is talk of a meeting between Khelsilem and Sager before long. Much has changed since the mayor last led the district a quarter-century ago. He has the opportunity when he and council appear again to demonstrate the district has been paying attention and will pay appropriate respect.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV as well as vice-president, editorial, Glacier Media Group, the North Shore News’ parent company. He is also a West Vancouverite.