The federal government supports B.C. Premier Christy Clark's quest to reclaim aboriginal remains and belongings that are housed in American museums, but some First Nations leaders caution that while they appreciate the initiative, it needs to be driven by them to help.
Since the plan was announced in June, Jack Lohman, chief executive officer of the Royal BC Museum, said he has received many requests from First Nations communities looking for repatriation assistance and that "a lot is happening behind the scenes."
The identification and repatriation efforts of "culturally significant belongings" are aimed at museums across the United States, but a curatorial review of the inventory at the Royal BC Museum is ongoing, with a plan on the next step to be implemented in September, said a spokesperson for B.C.'s Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development.
Ms. Clark sent a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama in June requesting the return of aboriginal items and remains from British Columbia that are now in museums south of the border. A spokesperson for Ms. Clark said Friday that she had not yet received a response from Mr. Obama.
"The support of [repatriation] being a little more accepted throughout Canada, I think that is a great initiative," said Dallas Smith, president of the Nanwakolas Council, part of the Kwakwaka'wakw Nation.
"It's just getting people to understand that it's not just a 'we want our stuff back now or we are going to have a hissy fit' sorta thing."
Mr. Smith said while he appreciated the Premier's "zealousness," the abrupt announcement of the plan risked upending efforts already under way by the Haida to repatriate some of their artifacts.
"Had we been able to have had a couple more discussions, I think we could have eliminated this and not offended the Haida, as they seem to be a bit perturbed that this has happened," Mr. Smith said, noting that the intention was not to get in the way of any ongoing repatriation efforts. "It's more 'how can we support existing discussions and start discussions where they are not happening?'"
Haida Gwaii Museum curator Nika Collison said her museum had spent decades building relationships with U.S. museums in possession of Haida artifacts, including ancestral remains, and Ms. Clark's unexpected announcement could have threatened that work.
The Premier's office provided a list of 30 names of First Nations representatives who were part of discussions leading up to the announcement, including Mr. Smith. He said that to his surprise he had been approached by Ms. Clark concerning repatriation efforts, but was not made aware of her letter to Mr. Obama until the day it was announced.
At the annual meeting of federal, provincial and territorial ministers in charge of culture and heritage in Victoria last month, Minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Joly endorsed the initiative.
"We think B.C. has been leading the pack in terms of working with indigenous peoples and developing a strategy in terms of repatriation," she told a news conference. "I've commanded my team to work closely with the Royal BC Museum in developing a strategy along with the indigenous people in terms of how we repatriate and making sure we have good, fair dealings when it comes to repatriation."
The Department of Canadian Heritage says decisions on which artifacts are being claimed rest with indigenous communities themselves. The province also says it plans to follow the lead of indigenous people.
At July's ministers' meeting, Dr. Lorna Wanosts'a7 Williams, professor emerita at the University of Victoria and former Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Knowledge and Learning, was asked to make a presentation on the role that arts and culture have in reconciliation.
"I want the Canadians to know who we are," she said later in an interview. "It is the Canadians' right to know that the indigenous people of Canada are here, were here and continue to be here."
She said collaboration is key – something that she hopes will improve going forward.
Dr. Williams said she believes there is a "spirit of doing something," but she felt Ms. Clark's efforts seemed "impulsive" and that there should have been more widespread discussions prior to her letter and "blanket" request to bring items home.
"Supporting us to bring the things that we need to bring home, home – that message is important," Dr. Williams said. "The next step that they seriously need to take is to not continue to be colonizing and patronizing, but to work with the First Nations, Métis and Inuit to bring home the things that need to be brought home."