‘Racism is like a sleeping bear: You poke it and if it wakes up, it’s angry.’
Cole Sayers, member of the Hupacasath First Nation
Port Alberni is a 70-minute drive west of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.
The hardscrabble logging and mill town has a population of more than 20,000 people, and roughly 18 per cent of them are Indigenous. The town is cloaked by mountain ranges and the deep blue tidal water of the Somass River runs through the middle.
Local city councillor Chris Alemany knows the drive well. He commutes to and from his job as a computer technician at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo five days a week. In 2016, Alemany did a lot of thinking during those commutes. He was concerned after a friend and former classmate told him that his research for a school project into a former Alberni MP and city councillor revealed a dark past.
Alan Webster Neill’s career as an Alberni city councillor and member of Parliament spanned the two World Wars. He helped champion old age pension and establish Nov. 11 as Remembrance Day. But he also supported the Indian Residential School system as an Indian Agent, was pro-Japanese internment and opposed Asian immigration.
The more Alemany learned about Neill, the more unsettled he said he felt about Port Alberni’s Neill Street — named after him. Alemany said the next move was obvious: change the street name.
“If we were serious about the reconciliation process, [then] we were honouring someone that I strongly believed did not deserve that honour anymore,” Alemany said.
The idea didn’t go over well. When news of Alemany’s plan was leaked for a local radio station story, on social media people said things like, “these people need to get a life, and talk about real issues,” and “waste of time [and] taxpayers money! Move on to something more constructive!”
When the plan went to a vote, at council’s Jan. 23 meeting, Port Alberni resident Cameron Stefiuk argued against both renaming Neill Street and reconciliation. In a video recording of his council presentation, the gist of his argument is that bad history is still history.
“I agree that it’s a dark part of our Canadian history and it will never be forgotten. However, nothing can be done to change our past,” said Stefiuk, who declined to be interviewed for this story.
“I don’t feel that I was personally responsible and have to reconcile for things that I have nothing to do with.”
Councillors subsequently voted 5-2 against renaming Neill Street.
“The clear, clear opposition came towards the issue of renaming and reconciliation specifically,” Alemany said.
“There’s a lot of history in town. People are really keen on historical objects and people, and they don’t want to see it wiped away or dishonoured. If they’re not sure that’s not going to happen, then they’ll resist it.”
Renaming Neill Street was defeated but reconciliation wasn’t, says Port Alberni Mayor Mike Ruttan, who voted against the plan to consider renaming Neill Street.
“What I was really concerned about was starting the process the way it was proposed — starting to address the need for reconciliation by proposing the solution before involving the entire community in a way that was consultative.”
The issue revealed an undercurrent of racism, Ruttan said.
“It opened the lid to some of the most incredibly racist response that is latent to most communities in Canada,” he said.
“I didn’t believe, and I still don’t believe that this is remotely helpful or healthy for any community, particularly not this one.”
The renaming issue in Port Alberni is part of a trend of contentious attempts to rename civic properties across Canada in the spirit of reconciliation.
According to University of Sudbury Indigenous Studies assistant professor Brock Pitawanakwat, people such as Alan Webster Neill might be heroes in settler history but they are often villains in First Nations history.
Demographics in small towns also factors into renaming resistance, Pitawanakwat said.
“Younger people in these places often move away and they’re not connected to settler history,” he said.
“Older people often make up the largest demographic in these rural areas, and it’s often older people who cling to that settler history.”
For local Indigenous people, the clash between settler and Indigenous histories is at the epicentre of tension about reconciliation in small towns. Port Alberni is home to the Hupacasath and Tseshaht First Nations. It was also home to the Alberni Indian Residential School.
Cole Sayers, a member of the Hupacasath First Nation and a UVic political science grad, says settler history paved over top of Indigenous history after colonization. Today, he says Indigenous history is challenging settler heritage and heroes — with consequences.
“They want to maintain this heritage — the very little heritage that they have. You’re challenging that and sometimes that’s bad because racism comes out,“ Sayers said.
“Racism is like a sleeping bear: you poke it and if it wakes up, it’s angry.”
Union of BC Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillip says that the undercurrent of racism in small towns is going to make reconciliation difficult to navigate.
“In small towns, the attitude is: we live here, they live there. That’s the way it’s always been and that’s the way it is,” Phillip said.
Unlike Toronto and Vancouver, you don’t often see small towns naming themselves cities of reconciliation, Phillip said. As well, Philip said that in small towns, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people often don’t mingle.
“Racism is more deeply entrenched in small towns. It’s more pronounced and our people experience it more personally,” he said.
Every weekday morning, Kelly Foxcroft-Poirier leaves her home on the Tseshaht First Nation in Port Alberni, crosses a bridge, and drives four kilometres east toward the small town’s city centre to do business and run errands.
“I feel like there might be a bridge that goes across [the river], but it’s like there are two worlds here,” Foxcroft-Poirier said.
The bridge between the reserve and the city marks the division.
“There’s two worlds in Port Alberni,” she said. “I’ve always felt it.”
Growing up, Foxcroft-Poirier attended A.W. Neill Junior Secondary School, now operating as A.W. Neill Elementary School; it’s also at the centre of the renaming debate. The school is about a 10-minute drive from the former Alberni Indian Residential School, which operated off and on in various capacities from 1893 to 1973.
The Alberni Indian Residential School was closed by the time Kelly Foxcroft-Poirier was born, but the Tseshaht First Nations member is intimately connected to it. Her late grandfather James Gallic was forced to attend there, and she knows of his experience and that of his siblings.
“I knew about the abuse and the depravity in that place, and I knew that he was starved while he was there,” she said.
Foxcroft-Poirier also listened to former residential school students testify about their experiences when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission stopped in Alberni at the site of the former school in 2012.
For School District 70 trustee Rosemarie Buchanan, reconciliation is at the heart of changing the name of A.W. Neill Elementary.
“I decided that I didn’t want to see a building in School District 70 that had his name on it because he hadn’t earned that kind of honour,” Buchanan said.
The school board announced in the fall of 2017 that they are moving ahead with the renaming policy, and that the issue would go to public consultation. As of January 2018, the process is ongoing, and trustees continue discussing it in-camera, Buchanan said.
For Mayor Ruttan, using an inclusive solutions-oriented approach is the best chance for fostering reconciliation within small towns.
In response to the street name change defeat, in March 2017 hundreds of Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents held a Walk for Reconciliation to City Hall. That night, city councillors passed a motion to create a committee to helm the city’s reconciliation efforts.
The eight members who volunteer their time were drawn from city council, the local Tseshaht and Hupacasath First Nations and city residents.
In March 2017 hundreds of Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents held a Walk for Reconciliation to City Hall. (Submitted by Jolleen Dick)
It was a crisp 5 C and damp around Port Alberni City Hall from intermittent rain on the evening of Nov. 30. Dusk settled in, and from the outside, the windows of the building were dark, except for offices where some staff were still working.
Inside the fluorescent-lit committee room of city hall, the reconciliation committee held its first meeting.
The prevailing sentiment: forging a better future for Indigenous and non-Indigenous children, where they are aware of local Indigenous history and culture, and aren’t still at odds about reconciliation after they are grown up.
Over the next several months, the committee wants to develop a plan to enhance the awareness of local First Nations histories, and drive municipal reconciliation efforts.
Ahousaht First Nation member Wally Samuel is a committee member. Samuel, 70, has lived in Port Alberni since leaving the Alberni Indian Residential School in the 1960s. His motivations to be on the committee are both historical and contemporary.
“We’re the ones who experienced and suffered all the racism in the 1950s and 1960s when First Nations started migrating to the cities,” Samuel said.
“We had to fight our way through society a lot of the time.”
Samuel said reconciliation must consider urban Indigenous people.
“The majority of us live away from home in cities, and we need to bring reconciliation to people where they are,” Samuel said.
“Government has to realize that to really reconcile they have to go where our people live.”
A memorial commemorating those who went to the Alberni Indian Residential School. (Wawmeesh Hamilton/Discourse Media)
After the November reconciliation committee meeting, Tseshaht First Nations elected chief councillor Cynthia Dick, who co-chairs the committee with city councillor Sharie Minions, said she wants to help create a Port Alberni that’s different than the one marked by racism she saw during last year’s attempt to rename a city street.
“I want my daughter to grow up in a place where she is proud of who she is, she knows who she is and she has a rightful place just like everybody else,” she said.
Dick said that she’s prepared to deal with community pushback against the committee’s plans if it comes to that, but added things may be different this time around.
“I think it’s really important to note that those people who are very vocal, [who] may want to focus on the negative light, they’re not the majority,” she said.
“There’s a majority of people who… want to see everybody be successful.”
Not every committee member was hopeful, though. Hupacasath First Nation representative Jim Tatoosh said “tons” of negative comments about Indigenous people on social media and local news sites cast doubt on the efficacy of the committee’s recommendations.
“I gotta say it: I will work positive with everybody here. But, to me, I don’t think reconciliation will ever work because we’ve got an Archie Bunker attitude from people.”
Some local First Nations aren’t waiting for reconciliation to be defined for them. They’re defining it for themselves.
The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council delivers programs, services and political advocacy for 14 First Nations in the Alberni region. Newly-elected president Judith Sayers (who is also Cole Sayers mother) said while the TRC has its definition of reconciliation, each First Nation has its own nuances and therefore must redefine it for themselves.
“I don’t think it should be up to government to define what reconciliation is,” said Sayers.
“It’s up to our tribal council and each of our individual First Nations to define what we need reconciled.”
Reconciliation is also about people and relationships, and people have control over what form it takes, she said.
“There has to be good relationships, though. You have to live side-by-side,” Sayers said.
“How do you live with your neighbours? How do you work together?”
Sayers said the Nuu-chah-nulth tribes plan to meet soon to define reconciliation and pursue it.
Back at Port Alberni City Hall, reconciliation committee facilitator John Rampanen pondered what lay ahead, not just for the committee, but for the future of reconciliation in their small town.
“I think there’s more stigma now already in our First Nations communities across the country when it comes to reconciliation. Sometimes words like that can become almost like a profanity,” Rampanen said.
But work done now may help future generations, so “hopefully they’re not having to sit around in a committee trying to determine how can we best work effectively together across cultures,” he said.
“Instead, they’ll just be doing it.”