A ceremonial rock exchange symbolizes the growing relationship between the City of New Westminster and the Tŝilhqot'in National Government.
The City of New Westminster and the Tŝilhqot'in Nation, which is made up of the six communities of Tl'etinqox, ʔEsdilagh, Yuneŝit'in, Tŝideldel, Tl'esqox and Xeni Gwet'in, became “sister communities” with the virtual signing of a sister community agreement on Oct. 15. The signing of a sister community memorandum of agreement, written both in English and in the Tŝilhqot'in language, reflects the commitment of New Westminster and the Tŝilhqot'in Nation to work together and to support one another for the enrichment of both communities.
“We have done something here that is very unique in Canada. I am told we will be the first in Canada,” Coun. Chuck Puchmayr said of the agreement. “I hope it builds, and I hope the community embraces it and starts being part of that building process and reaching out and sharing with that community. My dream is that it will be stronger than ever 10 years from now.”
During Thursday’s virtual ceremony, representatives from both communities simultaneously carried out a ceremonial rock signing. Puchmayr and Mayor Jonathan Cote signed a rock that had been sent to New Westminster from the Tŝilhqot'interritory, and Tŝilhqot'in officials signed a rockNew West had sent from the Fraser River.
“They wanted us to find a rock from the Fraser River, close to the Fraser River. The Fraser River runs right through their communities,” Puchmayr said. “It’s completely linked to us. Their food passes our back yards, our front yards, on the way to migration.”
The City of New Westminster has other sister city relationships – Lijiang, China; Quezon City, Philippines; and Moriguichi, Japan – but considers this agreement historic as it’s the city’s first official sister relationship with an Indigenous nation.
The sister community agreement is the culmination of several years of relationship building and a shared commitment to advance understanding and reconciliation, states a press release from the City of New Westminster.
Last summer, the City of New Westminster and the Tŝilhqot'in Nation co-hosted a ceremony to commemorate the wrongful trial and hanging of Tŝilhqot’in War Chief Ahan.
“In October 1864, Justice Matthew Begbie tried and ordered the execution of five Tŝilhqot'in chiefs,” states a press release from the city. “The following summer, on July 18, 1865, a sixth, Chief Ahan, was tried and executed in New Westminster after being arrested while attempting to negotiate peace in the aftermath of the Chilcotin War. It is believed that Chief Ahan is most likely buried in New Westminster.”
A few weeks before the July 18, 2019 ceremony, a Tŝilhqot’in delegation joined city representatives to witness the removal of the Judge Begbie statue from outside the provincial courthouse in Begbie Square – at a location not far from where Ahan was hanged in 1865.
“By becoming sister communities with the Tŝilhqot'in Nation, we are formalizing an important relationship that we have been building over the past three years and more,” Mayor Jonathan Cote said in a news release. “There are many past wounds that have been inflicted on this land, by ours and other governments. We acknowledge these wounds and our role in them, and we are committed to taking concrete steps to address the legacy of colonialism in New Westminster.”
Chief Jimmy Lulua, interim vice-chair for the Tŝilhqot’in National Government, said the City of New Westminster has stood by the Tŝilhqot'in Nation to right the wrongs of the past.
“Together we have demonstrated that government and First Nations can form mutually respectful and progressive relationships that advance the goals of both parties and work to achieve reconciliation for Indigenous peoples,” he said. “The signing of this sister community agreement makes it official, but the principles of this sister community agreement and the Tŝilhqot’in relationship with the City of New Westminster have been strong for years now.”
Lulua acknowledged Puchmayr’s efforts to lead the work of reconciliation with action, not just words and empty promises.
“Coun. Chuck Puchmayr has been an ally to our nation and stood with us to honour our fallen Tŝilhqot’in war chiefs,” he said in a news release. “Together we pushed for the removal of the Justice Matthew Begbie statue to reconcile a painful legacy of colonization.”
Puchmayr, who served as New Westminster’s MLA from 2005 to 2009, first connected with the six Tŝilhqot’in chiefs in 2007.
“They asked for help to find their missing chief, Chief Ahan,” he recalled. “They had never gone to the legislature in over a hundred years because their six chiefs were invited for peace talks and were ambushed, tried and executed. They had refused to engage with the elected provincial governments. This was the first time they had attended the legislature, and (Cariboo South) MLA Charley Wyse introduced me to them. It’s been a relationship that we have been building with them since about 2007.”
In addition to removing the Judge Begbie statue and co-hosting the ceremony to honour Chief Ahan, New Westminster had donated vehicles scheduled to be replaced (two police vehicles and two fire trucks) to the Tŝilhqot'in Nation. During the 2017 wildfires, some local firefighters travelled to Williams Lake to fight forest fires and helped train the Tl'etinqoxFirst Nation how to use the donated equipment.
A recent staff report to council stated the relationship between the City of New Westminster and the Tŝilhqot'inNational Government is based on the exchange of cultural, educational and technical expertise between both parties.
That’s something that flows both ways, said Puchmayr, citing tourism and education as areas that could benefit both communities in the years ahead.
“The things that we can learn from our Indigenous neighbours is so powerful, it’s unbelievable. It’s not something you can just open a book and master it – it takes years and years to learn,” he said. “They have culture camps every year in the summertime. It would be really cool if we could have our high school students travel up and spend a week in a culture camp – learn how to dry meat, learn how to create things, learn how to make drums. It would be extremely powerful.”
Puchmayr said the sister community agreement is also significant in that it recognizes the independence of Indigenous governance. He said the Xeni Gwet’in, one of the six communities in the Tŝilhqot'in Nation,won a landmark court decision in 2014.
“On June 26, 2014, for the first time in Canadian history, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized 1,700 square kilometres of land as Aboriginal title land,” states a staff report about the sister community agreement. “Aboriginal title land includes the rights to control the land and decide how it will be used, use the land for traditional and modern purposes, full benefit and ownership of the lands and resources.”
Truth and reconciliation
New Westminster city council has identified reconciliation as a key prioirity, along with implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action that relate to local governments. The city is committed to moving forward with reconciliation with First Nations peoples with an interest in the city.
“The goal is to enhance knowledge and deepen understanding of our city and its diverse peoples through respect for people’s lived experiences within the context of traditional knowledge, scientific knowledge, historic record and contemporary society,” said the staff. “The current plan for reconciliation includes building relationships with approximately 11 First Nations or Indian bands, some of whom the city already has a relationship with and some who we are intended to meet with following the COVID-19 pandemic. Staff are recommending that each First Nation be contacted to share the purpose of the sister community agreement with the Tŝilhqot'inNation to ensure continued transparency.”