The City of Burnaby’s guide to reconciliation with First Nations
Fancy C. Poitras has been the city's first-ever Indigenous relations manager since January 2021. She has a big task ahead of her
Fancy C. Poitras wasn’t even half a year into her new job when the announcement came.
The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation had found 215 unmarked graves on the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential “School.” Most, if not all, of those graves were believed to be occupied by former students at the school—Indigenous children stolen from their families.
The discovery horrified settler Canadians. But as noted by Poitras, hired as the City of Burnaby’s first-ever Indigenous relations manager in January, Indigenous people were less shocked by the discovery.
“We’ve been telling these stories for years. This is not new. There’s a whole section in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report dedicated to this,” Poitras says.
And that dissonance between the understandings of Indigenous communities and of settlers was notable in the national dialogue, as it was in Poitras’s own life.
“I had to figure out for myself professionally, how do I operate in a space where people are just coming alive to something that’s been out there for years,” she says.
“I needed to explain to friends and colleagues alike why this isn’t history. Even though these events have happened in the past, this is not history to Indigenous people. This is very much alive. We live with the impacts, the intergenerational trauma, all these things, of the residential schools.”
That dynamic—bridging the gap between Indigenous and settler frames of mind—is characteristic of her job.
‘A catch-all support’
Poitras, a Mikisew Cree woman from Treaty 8 territory, wears any number of hats on a given day, including being a counsellor, a historian, a researcher, an ethnographer, a philosopher, and a friend.
“The day-to-day looks different every day. And that’s not to say that people in the city weren’t doing some of this important work prior to my coming,” Poitras says.
Her job looks both inward and outward. On the former, she’s “a catch-all support” for city departments and staff looking to work with local First Nations and Indigenous people.
“Basically any question my colleagues have, [it] is sort of my job to figure out, well what’s the path forward? Or what are the barriers, and how can we work around them?” Poitras says.
“The city staff overall has been very welcoming and very committed, so it makes it a lot easier for this newly created position to take root.”
Looking outward, her job is to connect with local First Nations and the Indigenous population in Burnaby, to build and maintain relationships.
So far, the city has developed a relationship with the səlilwətaɬ First Nation, work that started before Poitras began at the city.
“And that’s not to say that other nations haven’t been contacted. It’s just that when the city reached out to contact these nations, it was literally February ,” Poitras says.
“It was just bad timing. … We’re giving the nations the space that they need because they are small organizations, and their staff need to really be focused on supporting communities at this difficult time.”
Overlapping Indigenous territories
But as Poitras and the city begin to develop those relationships, she notes a particular challenge. While Burnaby isn’t home to any First Nations reserves, it is home to numerous overlapping traditional territories.
The ones most commonly mentioned are the səlilwətaɬ, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm First Nations, but plenty others have histories in Burnaby.
That includes the kʷikʷəƛ̓əm, the qʼʷa:n̓ƛʼən̓, the q̓ic̓əy̓, the sc̓əwaθn məsteyəxʷ, the Sto:lo, the Semiahmoo, the Qayqayt, and others from as far as Vancouver Island.
“On any given day, I have to take into consideration anywhere between 9 and 17 nations. … It can be a bit of a challenge for me, at times, to figure out, on a particular issue—I can’t say there’s one, two, three nations that are of importance,” Poitras says.
“I have to consider carefully, well, what’s the geography? What’s the history of the particular project? What nations might have interests? Which ones are going to be more vocal in their interests? So there’s a lot of calculus involved in Burnaby.”
The Indigenous communities with histories in Burnaby can vary from just 15 members, such as the Qayqayt, to several thousand members. And those with smaller communities—and therefore, less administrative capacity—may have to triage which issues they want to be involved in.
With a background at the First Nations Health Authority and the Government of Canada prior to this job, Poitras says this position is entirely new to her.
Prior to starting, she contacted Ginger Gosnell-Myers, the City of Vancouver’s first Indigenous relations manager, for input, but aside from that, it has been a learn-as-she-goes experience.
But there are also several documents to lean on. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report (2015), the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls final report (2019), the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007), and the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples report (1996) have all laid out recommendations and calls to action for governments at all levels.
One that is of particular significance is the UN declaration, often referred to as UNDRIP, which sets out how governments should interact with Indigenous communities.
One point that has been seized on by First Nations is the notion of “free, prior, and informed consent” for settler organizations to develop on Indigenous territories.
The question has seen much debate: what, exactly, constitutes free, prior, and informed consent? The courts have weighed in at various times, around projects like the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
"I had heard from journalist friends that the number was going to be big the night before. I wasn’t prepared for the number being what it was."
Photo: Dustin Godfrey / Burnaby Beacon
Nearly 15 years after Canada voted against the declaration at the UN, governments are now grappling with how to implement it into policy. And it’s particularly salient for municipalities, whose mandates revolve almost entirely around land use.
“One of the goals I have towards the end of the year is to get before city council this idea of how they want to adopt a framework around UNDRIP,” Poitras says, adding that there are other municipalities around BC that are looking at this particular issue.
But with cities being creatures of the province, local governments do have to heed provincial law—namely, the Community Charter and the Local Government Act.
“We’re also, I think, a lot of us, waiting to see what comes out of the DRIPA action plan … that the BC government is forming,” Poitras says, referring to BC’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.
“That’s going to actually help the cities figure out, in their own space, where is it that cities need to be involved in some of those discussions? Where can we be good partners and supportive?”
‘What’s the UNDRIP factor in there?’
Working with the planning department, Poitras said she’s been trying to get the various reports’ recommendations tied into their frame of mind when considering things like the transportation plan or the official community plan.
“What will the impact be for that plan, long term, if you’re not thinking in advance and thinking out loud about, what’s the UNDRIP factor in there?” Poitras says.
“My advice, whenever approached, by my colleagues across the city, no matter what the issue is [to] get to me as early as you can in the process, and let’s start that dialogue, and let’s figure out when and how we approach the local First Nations for their input.”
Going beyond UNDRIP, the land back movement has been gaining steam. It sounds exactly like what it is: demanding land be returned to Indigenous communities.
The city has a portfolio of properties within Burnaby, so should the government give some of that land back to local First Nations? That’s a question for the mayor and council, Poitras says.
“I have a particular frame that I have to look at that issue through, and I certainly have my own opinions, which are not the opinions shared by the city, necessarily,” she says.
“But I would say that it’s at least a question that everybody should be looking at and considering in the city. I don’t know what the answer is, and I don’t know how Burnaby as a corporation goes ahead with that, but it’s certainly a question worth asking.”
As a function of her position, Poitras gets involved in a broad scope of the city’s policies.
“Right now, I am a staff of one in the city because this is a new position. And it’s too much for one person to handle an entire city’s issues with regards to Indigenous relations,” she says.
“So instead, what I can be is … a partner and a guide for, say, project managers, who ultimately are going to be the ones with the knowledge and expertise on a particular project.”
And because every project has its own set of factors, there’s no cookie-cutter approach, she says.
Who bears the burden of reconciliation?
Recently, national and international conversations have brewed about who bears the emotional labour of educating the broader society about racism, homophobia, transphobia, colonialism, and other similar issues.
“I have certainly heard a lot of [Indigenous] people say, ‘It’s not my job to educate you.’ And I fully support [them] when they say that, because it’s not,” Poitras says.
“I’m in a really strange situation vis-a-vis how all this gets done. I’m literally here being paid to help people, to help the organization, to help colleagues, to help citizens with that reckoning, and how we go forward with that reckoning. And that means that sometimes I have to make myself more available.”
But she adds that she has to set boundaries and to set time aside in which she is not available. And that’s especially true when the country is going through a period of reckoning.
After the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announcement in May, the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced in June that it had discovered 751 unmarked graves at the site of the Marieval Indian Residential “School.”
“I had heard from journalist friends that the number was going to be big the night before. I wasn’t prepared for the number being what it was, over 700. That was the one time where I sort of psychologically broke for the day,” she says.
“I had to close my doors and say, ‘I’m not available. There’s a lot going on in my head, in my heart, that needs to be sorted out first.’ And everybody was great about giving me the space that I had to have.”
Poitras says she’s been good at setting those boundaries, and she has also had a good support system between her friends and family.
And at the end of the day, it’s those issues that push her to keep working on promoting Indigenous people in the community.
“We can’t push this off to the side. Those children who lived through the ‘schools’ are now adults, and a lot of them you see are hurting. And maybe you’ve never questioned before why they’re hurting,” she says.
“I just use those as motivations, personally, to keep going, to make sure that … citizens in Burnaby finally realize this is no longer something that can be ignored.”
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