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Indigenous signage aims to make B.C. legislature more inclusive, accepting

Elder Mary Ann Thomas and Charlie George, of the B.C. Association of Aboriginal Centres, welcome the new Indigenous signage unveiled on the grounds of the B.C. legislature, once the site of an Indigenous village, in Victoria on Wednesday Nov. 29, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dirk Meissner

VICTORIA — British Columbia's legislature, described as the province's symbol of colonialism, now has a series of Indigenous language signs with seven messages about ancestors, warriors, settlers and children permanently bolted to the building's stone sidewalk perimeter.

Messages written in the Lekwungen Indigenous language and English were unveiled Wednesday at an outdoor ceremony at the 125-year-old building, attended by Indigenous leaders, Premier David Eby and members of the New Democrat, BC United, Green and Conservative parties.

Esquimalt Nation Elder Mary Ann Thomas, accompanied by drummer Charlie George of the B.C. Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres, walked slowly beside the signs, stopping to bless them with prayers and sprinkles of eagle down.

"This building is the largest symbol of colonialism in B.C.," said Speaker of the legislature Raj Chouhan, adding throughout the province's history laws were passed to "undermine" and "forget the Indigenous people of B.C."

He said the installation of the Indigenous language signs are a necessary step toward opening doors that have been historically closed.

"In my small humble way, I just want to share with you that it is my priority to make sure that this building now becomes more welcoming and inclusive," Chouhan said. "This is why we are now installing the Lekwungen language at the front of the building."

Hereditary Chief Edward Thomas Sr., of the Esquimalt Nation, said the signs are a historic event for a nation seeking to preserve its language and see its history and presence in the province acknowledged.

"This is a great honouring day to unveil a piece of who we are as Lekwungen speaking people," he said. "It's a long time coming."

Thomas said the legislature site was once an Indigenous village but the people were moved from the area.

"Now to go and be able to come here to witness and to see some of our language being represented on one of our village sites is a great honour," he said.

The Songhees and Esquimalt nations ratified a $31.5 million settlement in 2007 with the B.C. and federal governments for a claim to land in downtown Victoria, including the legislature.

The claim alleged the land was originally set aside as a reserve in 1854 by Gov. James Douglas, who took it back for the legislature site without obtaining a surrender of the reserve.

"Thank you all for coming here and witnessing this," said Thomas. "It's a big deal for us."

Among the messages on the legislature signs are: "It is good that you settlers are one together with the Lekwungen people," and "We all love the children. (Every child matters)," and "Thank you, ancestors."

Murray Rankin, B.C.'s minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation, said the messages tell stories the Indigenous people want others to hear and see.

"I don't have a problem with the word settlers. We are settlers," he said. "I think it's important we're not telling them what to say. Self-determination means you can express yourself."

Green MLA Adam Olsen, who is Indigenous, said the signs at the legislature are a symbol of welcome.

"By having language put back, it starts to rebuild a full picture," he said.

Michael Lee, Opposition BC United Indigenous relations critic, called the ceremony a "remarkable commemoration."

Chouhan is "creating the space for greater recognition, respect and honour for our province," he said in the legislature. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2023.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

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