Shawn Atleo is former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations and hereditary chief of the Ahousaht First Nation. Heather Atleo is a long-time strategic adviser, negotiator and facilitator working with and for First Nations’ leaders and Nations.
“They are just beginning to see us,” my late grandmother said to me through tears as we sat holding hands in the House of Commons in the summer of 2008. She was 87. We had just listened to Prime Minister Stephen Harper express an apology on behalf of Canada to her and all of us impacted by the residential schools.
When I was in my early 20s, I had written in my journal that we would “have to reach millions” if we were to change the relationship between our people and the state. We would need a full shift in public consciousness. This time has arrived.
Now, I return to Ottawa having served close to 15 years in First Nations elected roles. This time, Heather and I are travelling as co-chairs for the Tsilhqot’in Nation’s negotiations. We come with our friends and colleagues, the chiefs of the Tsilhqot’in National Government, to enter into the House of Commons today to hear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau exonerate six Tsilhqot’in chiefs who were unjustly hanged 154 years ago.
It is well chronicled that, under the guise of a truce and diplomatic mission, the six chiefs were invited to “peace talks.” They had been steadfastly defending their territories against unwanted encroachment. The invitation was false. Instead, they were tricked, imprisoned and hanged as criminals – never to return home. This story is one that is all too familiar for Indigenous peoples, who were seen to be “in the way of progress.”
Understandably, this pain has cut deep into the memory of the Tsilhqot’in for generations. This week, the people have sent their chiefs to Ottawa, this time in hopes they return with the spirit of diplomatic friendship they were promised in 1864.
In 2014, a new era was ushered in when the Tsilhqot’in won a Supreme Court case that recognized 1,900 square kilometres as Aboriginal title land. Rightfully called a “game changer,” the case remains the standard bearer.
Like the residential-school apology and Supreme Court decision, this moment of exoneration matters. The truth is surfacing in Canada about the way this land was settled, and it is often painful and difficult. Most will agree that, whether as an individual, a family, a community or, indeed, a Nation, it is necessary to first understand, then embrace and share the pain to make room for healing and progress. The Tsilhqot’in are to be recognized and lauded for their resilience, their tenacity and their ferocious fighting spirit. They have made it clear that they will only enter negotiations after exoneration. We feel hopeful about this moment in Indigenous-Crown relations, and we will continue to support the Tsilhqot’in chiefs.
We accepted the invitation from the Tsilhqot’in to help implement their title case, recognizing the tremendous significance for each and every one of us. And we encourage others to consider how can we better stand together and support one another, as Nations, as communities and as peoples, Indigenous and Canadian alike. We need each other. As we say in our Ahousaht language, we must ha-hope-stulth (teach one another), isaak-stulth (respect one another), ya-ak-stulth (love one another).
We have both personally been able to arrive at a place of healing and of real forgiveness for the horrors we experienced as a result of intergenerational trauma and hurt. I was inspired, after I left the office of National Chief four years ago, to “drop the hot burning coal of anger” that I was grasping so tightly. As a result, we experience more days of feeling freedom, joy, love, calm and peace in our hearts.
This is our wish for our Tsilhqot’in friends. We know it won’t be easy. Today, the pain will be touched on, and we invite Canadians to experience it with them. It is hard to rebuild or restart relationships. It starts with seeing each other. It starts with acknowledging what needs to be repaired.
Through moments such as this, built on mutual respect and trust and, we suggest, love, we will find our shared path forward to health and prosperity as people and as a country.