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American-born Kaisa McCandless is becoming a Canadian citizen at a ceremony Saturday on the Musqueam reserve. (Jeff Vinnick for The Globe and Mail/Jeff Vinnick for The Globe and Mail)
American-born Kaisa McCandless is becoming a Canadian citizen at a ceremony Saturday on the Musqueam reserve. (Jeff Vinnick for The Globe and Mail/Jeff Vinnick for The Globe and Mail)

On the Musqueam reserve, Canada's first citizens welcome its newest Add to ...

Simon Fraser and his crew came upon a village of natives at the mouth of the Fraser River during the first week of July in 1808.

The explorers had spent 36 days navigating the river in search of its ocean outlet, hoping to open up a trade route for the North West Company. They were told the village was called “Misqiame.”

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Two hundred years later, the Musqueam Indian Band is hosting a citizenship ceremony for 48 new Canadians.

“To my mind, it is just a perfect fit,” said Musqueam Indian Band councillor Wade Grant.

The first nations people, as the first Canadians, will welcome the newest Canadians to the country at the same location where the Musqueam people first had contact with the explorers.

“When I think about the Fraser River, I think about our connection to it, but I also think about how it is a point of contact,” Mr. Grant said.

The citizenship ceremony, which will be held Saturday, provides a method of opening up a dialogue between two communities, he said.

“When new Canadians come to Canada, they get very little information about the first nations of this country,” he said. “This gives them an opportunity to learn a bit more and to understand that first nations such as the Musqueam are more than willing to talk to them and give them a little bit of background about who they are.”

The event will be the first ever held on first nations reserve land in B.C., although citizenship ceremonies have been held on reserve land in other provinces.

The ceremony will be particularly emotional for U.S.-born Kaisa McCandless, an independent consultant on aboriginal relations who will receive her Canadian citizenship after more than 20 years of building relationships between first nations and non-aboriginal people.

Ms. McCandless said she was moved almost to tears when she opened the invitation and saw that she would become a Canadian citizen on Musqueam land.

“I feel I will be bearing witness to a historic moment,” Ms. McCandless said in an interview.

“I feel this ceremony is symbolic of the new road first nations and Canadian citizens need to walk together – the road to reconciliation.”

The first nations offered friendship to the first settlers, Ms. McCandless said, but the relationship has fallen off-balance. “The ceremony represents an opportunity to regain that balance in the relationship,” she said.

Ms. McCandless, who was born in New Mexico, has been in Canada more than 30 years. She was three years old when she came to Canada with her family and grew up in Lilllooet, a small town on the banks of the Fraser River that was “in the middle of the war in the woods” involving forest companies, first nations land claims and environmentalists.

“I learned at a very early age about aboriginal people and land claims and traditional territories,” she said.

As a teenager in high school, she was struck by the polarization between the aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities. She now works with first nations people and industry to help them find common ground on mining and oil and gas projects.

She decided to take out her Canadian citizenship without knowing where the ceremony would be held. She had just decided it was time, she said.

The ceremony will be in the architecturally striking building that housed the first nations pavilion at the 2010 Winter Olympics. The building has been moved to the Musqueam lands in south Vancouver, overlooking the Fraser River, and renamed the Musqueam Cultural Educational Resource Centre.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, Musqueam Chief Ernie Campbell, recently elected MP Wai Young, who will be representing Citizenship Minister Jason Kenney, and John Ralston Saul, co-chair of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, are to participate in a roundtable discussion before the ceremony.

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