Concerns voiced by the First Nations Summit in British Columbia are being addressed on two different fronts, with a panel struck to look at controversial murals hanging in the provincial legislature, and a number of place names viewed as offensive being eliminated across the province.
The future of four murals hanging in the rotunda of the legislature is to be decided by a special panel formed by Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, Bill Hartley at the end of November. The panel was formed in response to complaints from the First Nations Summit that the murals are offensive, portraying Aboriginal people in a demeaning way.
Membership on the panel includes Jo-Ann Archibald, professor of education at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and director of the First Nations House of Learning; Dr. Jean Barman, professor of educational studies at UBC and past director of the BC Heritage Trust; Dr. Martha Black, curator of ethnology at the Royal British Columbia. Museum; Dr. John Lutz, professor of history at the University of Victoria; and Art Thompson, an Aboriginal artist and lecturer on Northwest Coast art and culture. The panel has met once so far, and is expected to meet again sometime in January.
Kathryn Teneese is a member of the First Nations Summit Task Group. She said the paintings have been a concern to First Nations representatives for a number of years.
"It was only as a result of personal initiatives on behalf of former task group members Grand Chief Edward John and the late Chief Joe Mathias, who raised the issue with British Columbia's Lieutenant Governor as an indication of the government's commitment to changing the relationship between themselves and First Nations in British Columbia. In terms of the murals, they felt that the representations that the murals made in terms of public perception about the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in this province, the message that came from those murals, was not a good one," Teneese said.
While the summitt is pleased that the panel has been established, the hope is that the group's mandate could be expanded beyond just dealing specifically with the murals to examine other issues affecting government's relationship with Aboriginal people in the province.
The First Nations Summit was also instrumental in bringing about a recent announcement by B.C.'s Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks that the term "squaw" has been eliminated from all official place names in the province. The announcement, made Dec. 8, took effect immediately.
Eleven place names have been eliminated, including two different Squaw Creeks in the Kootenay region, two different Squawfish Lakes, a Squaw Lake, and Squaw Mountain in the Omineca-Peace region, and Squaw Fish Lake, Squaw Island, Squaw Range, and two Squaw Creeks in the Skeena region.
Gary Sawayama is director of Geographic Data B.C., the organization responsible for geographic naming in the province.
According to Sawayama, the move to eliminate the place names began after a letter was received from the First Nations Summit in July, asking for consideration to be given to withdrawing the names, which the organization felt were extremely derogatory references to Aboriginal women. Two letters supporting the Summit's request were also received from the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, and from the B.C. Human Rights Commissioner.
With the official elimination of the 11 place names, those names will no longer be used on any official government documents or maps printed in the future, and will be phased out of usage on existing documents or maps as they are replaced or reprinted.
The process to rename the 11 sites began as soon as the previous names were rescinded, Sawayama said. According to policies and procedures regarding geographical naming in British Columbia, preference will be given to selecting a name already in local usage.
"So what we'll do is we'll canvas the local communities and Indian bands ad others - historical societies and so on - to find out if there are other names for those features that were in local usage but were unofficial names, and if we can get a consensus from that group, then those names will be brought forward," Sawayama said.
Until new names are selected for the 11 sites, no name will appear on those locations on any new government maps or documents.
Teneese said the removal of the term "squaw" from B.C. place names is a "good first step" in the provincial governments attempts to re-examine its relationship with Aboriginal people. "In our view, that the use of that terminology over the years became an extremely derogatory term for a very important part of Aboriginal society, ie. women. Given the role that many of the nations place women, in terms of their cultural identity, of being matrilineal societies, that anything that again moves away from a continuation of the poor relationship that is exhibited in that kind of derogatory usage of terminology is well accepted from our perspective," she said.