We consider Nanaimo a tolerant, accepting community, so when we discovered that Bill Yoachim is likely the first person of aboriginal descent to be elected to city council, we were surprised, to say the least.
We were also surprised that less than a generation ago, aboriginal people were not welcome on Commercial Street or on the main decks of the ferry from downtown Nanaimo to Vancouver. It makes Yoachim’s win in last month’s municipal election, as well as that of Natasha Bob for Nanaimo school trustee, all the more historic.
Nanaimo’s relationship with its indigenous population has been a rocky one at best. Snuneymuxw No. 1 Reserve is located within Nanaimo’s municipal boundaries, but the two governments might as well be on different islands. Snuneymuxw continually complains that Nanaimo fails to consult with the First Nation on issues that affect them, from the closure of schools in Cedar to the removal of the Colliery dams. Increasingly, First Nations across Canada have turned to the courts to have their voices heard.
In the last decade, that relationship has started to change. Municipal water was finally connected to the downtown reserve in 2012. The reconciliation agreement signed between Snuneymuxw and the provincial government in 2013 granted the First Nation 877 hectares of land on Mount Benson, $50,000 to kickstart economic development and a two-year extension to manage Newcastle Island – all of which hold partnership potential for the City of Nanaimo and the Regional District of Nanaimo.
Aboriginal people in Canada still face discrimination daily. But hopefully, with advocates like Yoachim and Bob at the table, First Nations’ issues will be addressed early in the discussions, rather than during the litigation process.
The coming years are an opportunity for new kinds of leadership to emerge, to help create unity from our diversity.