Abbotsford candidates talk reconciliation
Candidates in the Abbotsford riding share their views on reconciliation in the Fraser Valley
For the 2021, federal election, The Current is focusing on two issues with critical and unique local implications: housing affordability and Indigenous issues.
We sought interviews with candidates from each of the four major parties. In Abbotsford, we spoke to Green candidate Stephen Fowler and Liberal candidate Navreen Gill. Conservative candidate Ed Fast and NDP candidate Dharmasena Yakandawela did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. (You can read why we did not request interviews with other parties’ candidates here.)
To read candidate questionnaires from other ridings, and to catch up on all our election coverage, check out our Fraser Valley Votes election hub. You can also read our riding profile for Abbotsford to learn more about the election in that riding.
Green — Stephen Fowler
FVC: How did the news about the discovery of thousands of unmarked graves at residential schools across Canada affect your thinking personally about what Canada needs to do to address past wrongs?
Fowler: I don’t even know if I used the word right but I had one of those ‘woke’ moments where [as] a 59-year old-kid living in this area all my life, I felt brainwashed. I felt like the government had been… I mean, I’m complicit in it, because I believed them and I didn’t question it. But for all of my life, I lived next to St. Mary’s residential school and I used to go up there as a kid in Maple Ridge and play soccer against St. Mary’s residential school and I didn’t know what it was. And I did obviously learn what a residential school was, but never to the extent that thing that so much was hidden from us. I remember distinctly hearing about it the same night as everybody else, the same day. And I made a commitment to myself as an educator, that was going to be the driving force of the rest of my teaching career, was going to be making sure that the students who came into my classroom knew what has been going on for over roughly 100 years. So it deeply affected me. And I know a lot of people around me that, on Facebook, we are that white settler colonialists that… My parents were good people, and I don’t think they knew, or else they would have said something. So I do feel like, on one hand, the government did a good job of hiding the truth. Because if they didn’t know that, that’s on them, too. But yeah, it was devastating.
FVC: What does Canada need to make amends?
Fowler: A lot of things. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action. I can’t say that I’m an expert in all of them. There’s seven that deal specifically with education. They need to be implemented now. And, when you make promises about water on reserves and stuff like that, we have to follow through. I think we have to give back the Indigenous people’s ability to make decisions for themselves. I’ve never been more clear in the need for Indigenous people to be able to have their own land and do what they want with their own land and be stewards. If they want to build a foundation for a home, they should not have to ask somebody for permission to do so. There’s an artist who did the heritage blanket, and he referred to it as: it’s not reconciliation, is conciliation, because there was never a relationship. It was always a one-sided relationship. And so we, Canada, needs to extend our hands in so many different ways to try to get the Indigenous people not back on their feet, but to help them be the master of their own futures.
FVC: Talking about the land question: should federal Crown lands on Indigenous peoples traditional territory be turned back over to them?
Fowler: I think yes. I mean, I used to probably think about that question a lot and say, ‘Wellllllll, you know…’ But no. We took that land away from them, we are responsible for that. I think because the Indigenous people, the First Nations people, are such good stewards of the land—and I do believe that’s a whole different question, perhaps about how they can help us even there—I don’t think that if we gave them part of a national park that it would necessarily become private property? I don’t know. But I think that we have to start leaning heavily the other way than the posture we’ve had, which has been very: ‘We’ll do what we’re going to do. We’ll ask you for your input, we won’t listen to your input, we’ll just do we want to do’ —that sort of mentality.
FVC: So it sounds like you’d suggest that consent, not just consultation, from Indigenous communities is necessary before the approval of large projects. Is that correct?
Fowler: Yes, absolutely. If it’s crossing their land, then they need to be aware of it and have a right to have a voice.
FVC: And then should they have like a veto, basically, or the ability to say no this won’t proceed?
Fowler: There, you get into the difficult things, right, like the oil pipeline that’s going through five or six or seven different treaty lines. One says yes. And seven say no. How do we do it? And I mean, that obviously would have to be something that was discussed. But I think it’s a thing that’s worth the discussion. I mean, one of the pieces of Green policy is the idea of a bigger circle, a bigger table than just provinces, where we bring in, you know, leaders from First Nations, and so they’re all part of the conversation, not just Premiers. So, yeah, I think that a veto… Yeah, I do think that.
FVC: What happens if and when the views of a general group of First Nations conflict with the Green Party’s own policies or priorities? So what happens when you hear from Indigenous groups that they want to do something that the Green Party would generally or naturally be opposed to?
Fowler: I think that we have a healthy ability to listen. Like, obviously, if it’s Green Party policy that there’s no more fossil fuel, mining, or whatever and there was a proposition from anybody in Canada that we want to dig for oil, I think there will be pushback on that, saying ‘No, that’s not the direction the country is going.’ But maybe we could compromise and say, you know, you live in an area that has geothermal or wind or sun solar. Not just slam the door, ‘No,’ but sort of looking the other way and say, ‘Are there options to go the other way?’ Because I think that that’s a big piece that a lot of people miss. The finance, the economic infrastructure that we’re all used to, is… It’s funny, when there’s a movement the other way, it’s like, ‘You’re going to lose all those jobs.’ And they never talked about all the jobs from the green movement. I would say, yeah, if there were conflicts, it would be case to case.
I would add about the First Nations is I think it’s really important that in terms of the environment, they are better stewards of the environment than we are. You know, for all these forest fires that you hear about, doing natural burns for the fuel was underneath the trees every year; like they take away the fuel, so when the fire burns, there’s no fuel to burn. And I think that is something that in the future, we have to start looking to the First Nations communities and people as being experts in areas that we’re not experts in, and definitely the environment is one of them. So I think that just to add to your questions about First Nations, I think it’s really important that we’re looking to them as guides. Because we’ve failed, brutally, right. So we need to be looking to people who haven’t failed the land.
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Liberal — Navreen Gill
FVC: How did the news of the discovery of those thousands of unmarked graves at residential schools impact you personally and your thinking about these issues?
Gill: It was very horrendous for me to see. It made me tear up multiple times when I heard about it. It affects me dearly, actually, because I did residency in Prince George. So we actually take care of a lot of Indigenous population there. We even have patients just to provide us with information and culturally inform us for a whole month we’re there to make sure that we understand what Indigenous people have been put through, and how it’s going to affect them for generations to come. So it was heartbreaking. It was heartbreaking on so many levels. It was especially heartbreaking as a physician. Because I see Indigenous people, when they come to my clinic or when I see them in the hospital. And I see the effects of everything that’s been done to them. And I saw patients that also came to me afterwards and said it brought up these emotions to them that they couldn’t even explain. So it was very heartbreaking.
And it affected me on such a personal level because those are my patients that are being affected directly by this. And those are people that deserve to be supported. No one deserves to be treated like that. So it affected me greatly because I just believe in equality. And it was hard. We all know about what’s happened. But to see these graves discovered of these children—it was just, it was very real. And I just demonstrated even to my patients, it brought up a lot of emotions from years past. That’s what I would say.
FVC: On that topic, as well, as you know, the Liberal government made the promise, I think it was $320 million to search for residential school graves. But the Truth and Reconciliation Report came out six years ago. So why wasn’t that promise made six years ago?
Gill: So actually, they were working on it. I think there’s 94 items on the Truth and Reconciliation document. And actually, the Liberal government has either completed or is well underway on 80% of those items. So I think that, of course, that it was very important to start for those grades, but they were definitely going to get to it. But we want to make sure that every single item on that document is done thoroughly, properly, and given correct resources, etc. and enough resources. So I think that the Liberal government was going to get to it. Unfortunately, it should have happened sooner. I agree with that.
FVC: You said the Liberal government was well underway on 80% of the calls. And I’m just looking at some of the notes that we have here, and I think the Assembly of First Nations put together a report card on the progress, and they determined that it was only about a quarter of those calls that had significant progress on them. Why should people think that the Liberal Party is willing to go forward on these if there’s that difference in ideas of what progress has been made?
Gill: So the Liberal party is actually the only party that’s worked so well with Indigenous people. And honestly, once again, 80% of the items on that list, we’re acting on right now. So and even the fact that I’m so happy that they’re calling the federal day of Truth and Reconciliation, to demonstrate to Indigenous people that we don’t want to forget what has been done and the horrendous things that have been done so it never happens again. This will be in history forever, because this is a federal day where people are going to take off and remember everything. And so I feel like those are many reasons that they should trust that the Liberal party cares. And the Liberal Party wants to work with Indigenous people. And we want to make sure that they know that we recognize what’s happened and we want to honestly reconcile and continue to remember, forever, what’s happened, so it never happens again.
FVC: So on a slightly different note, do you think that federal Crown land should be returned to the Indigenous people who have traditional territory there?
Gill: I think that’s quite a complex question. And I’ll have to get back to you on it because I feel like I don’t have enough information in regards to that.
FVC: And on a slightly different note, then, do you think that consent from Indigenous communities should be necessary for the approval of large infrastructure projects on their traditional territory? And then also, what processes would need to go into place to make sure that those consultations would be legitimate for everyone?
Gill: So I think we definitely should be talking to Indigenous people about projects. We should be asking them, not us, actually, what processes do you think that we need to make sure that you have full involvement and your opinion is known and recognized. So truly, I feel that I’m not the person to answer that, we should be asking Indigenous people what they would like us to do. And I think that’s what I’ve been really appreciating throughout—well, I’m diehard Liberal, but always have appreciated that the Liberal government has been involving Indigenous people in all decisions right across the board. So once again, I feel like we should talk to them, and see what they need, because I think they’ll have a lot of ideas around that.
FVC: What would happen if, and when, the bulk of Indigenous people are in conflict with your party’s policies or promises? What would happen in your thinking, then?
Gill: Oh, I think that we should sit down with all the various communities and talk about it, and see how we can create that trust again, essentially. Communicate to see what they need, and how they feel and why they feel that way, and what we can do. I think that’s exactly what I do as a physician. Until you talk to a patient who is frustrated or needs something but feels like they’re not getting it from the healthcare system, etc., you actually don’t, don’t know what to do. And you could actually further make things worse. So that’s what I would say, I think that there should be open lines of communication at all times.
These interviews have been very lightly edited for clarity and basic grammar. Nothing of substance has been omitted. Each interview was recorded, but technical difficulties with two interviews makes publishing consistent recordings for each candidate difficult, so in the interest of fairness and consistency, we are publishing the transcripts.