Anger. Frustration. Sadness.
These are some of the emotions Terry Teegee, the Regional Chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, has felt in recent weeks.
News reports present and past of Indigenous people being badly hurt or killed in incidents involving police in Canada have affected him deeply.
He lists off some of their names: Chantal Moore, Athabasca Chipewyan Chief Allan Adam, Dale Culver and his relative, Everett Riley Patrick, who died in hospital in April after being arrested by Prince George RCMP.
“Across this country we’re seeing it more and more with Indigenous peoples being injured or killed while being arrested,” he told Glacier Media. “I’m so frustrated and dumbfounded. When you’re arrested, you shouldn’t end up being dead.”
Teegee spoke to Glacier Media in advance of National Indigenous Peoples Day, which goes June 21. His interview was one of three conducted recently to gauge the state of Indigenous peoples’ lives and issues in British Columbia in 2020.
Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer and Scott Fraser, B.C. Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, also participated in separate interviews, where policing and government affairs were discussed.
Teegee, a member of the Takla Lake First Nation, joined Glacier Media via a Zoom call from the Lheidli T’enneh reserve near Prince George, where he lives with his family.
The following interview was condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Needless to say, National Indigenous Peoples Day will take on a different flavour in the middle of a pandemic. I know that large gatherings are an important part of Indigenous culture. What are you hearing from Indigenous leaders about how to safely mark this day in 2020?
I think there’ll be a lot of virtual celebrations that will be occurring that day. For many Indigenous peoples, not only in Canada and the United States, it’s a significant day. For Indigenous peoples, it’s really to take stock of where we’re at in this period in time, and look to see where we need to go, and speaking to the many injustices and the current state of affairs for Indigenous peoples in Canada —and really, I suppose, North America, as well.
Does the day take on a different resonance with what’s going on in B.C. and across the world, with people taking to the streets to condemn racism and calling for change in institutions, including police departments?
It’s a significant day because of what we’re seeing with policing systems in the United States and in Canada, and how the police have racist policies, are enforcing racist policies, and in many respects, are profiling. The vast majority are minorities. What we’re seeing today with the Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd ‘I can’t breathe’ movement…we totally sympathize because it’s cut from the same cloth.
The same thing is happening to Indigenous people here in Canada. The RCMP were here to enable law and order, which came from the colonial system. It wasn’t our law, our order. And in many respects, those laws were used to take us from our lands and put us on smaller reserves, and really enforce a colonial system. If you look at recent history, over the last 100 years, the police were used to take our children away. As a matter of fact where I’m from, Dakelh Territory, in our Carrier language we call the RCMP ‘nilhchuk-un,’ which means those who take us away. The parents saw the RCMP as the ones who took our children away to residential school.
If you were in charge of a police department, what would be your first order of business?
We’re seeing examples out of the United States where police forces are being disbanded and being torn down and being built back up to reflect the current realities in society today. Far too often right now we’re seeing that police forces and the way they’re trained is very heavy on force, it’s very heavy on penalties and not enough on understanding the situation, or the people they’re arresting — whether they have mental health issues, addictions issues, the domestic disputes.
If it were up to me, there needs to be an overhaul, a systemic overhaul of the policing system, whether it’s the RCMP or municipal police. I think we’ve really got to understand what the job really means. If you’re a police officer, what training do you need more than just the ability to arrest somebody? There are situations out there where right now they’re ill-equipped.
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart has called on Premier John Horgan to conduct a review of policing in B.C. The B.C. government says it will review the 45-year-old Police Act and look to modernize it. What do you say to that?
We’re seeing some progress in B.C. We have I believe six First Nations, Indigenous judicial courts, sentencing courts. They are more appropriate for some of the sentencing out there for Indigenous people that find themselves in a vicious cycle of getting arrested, going to jail. We do have a justice stategy — the B.C. First Nations justice strategy. They have adopted our suggested strategy. So I think there is significant movement and it’s a good case where we can see some significant change here in British Columbia.
How would you describe the relationship between the B.C. Assembly of First Nations and Premier John Horgan’s government?
Right now, the situation here is far better than other provinces. We’ve seen the adoption of Bill 41, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act. That’s really a significant movement in terms of commitment from a level of government that sees it necessary to change their relationship with Indigenous peoples. So I think there is some positive movement which is great. We’ve seen other legislation that will live up to the Declaration. That’s what we’re working on in our action plan, and part of it too would probably be some of the judicial policies out there that really need to be changed provincially and federally.
I believe right now there is a commitment from the federal government to legislate the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It’s really important that they do this, and also live up to the fact that we have our own laws, we have our own sovereignty and those have to be recognized and lived up to as well. So provincially, I think we’re in a better situation than most regions. However, there is needed steps to carry on this momentum we have with the province of B.C.
As you know, Indigenous people are overrepresented in prisons, in homeless counts, in overdoses. Why do you think that is, and what are you doing as a provincial leader to reverse those trends?
We’re only five per cent of the population, and yet we’re overrepresented in incarceration rates. Women in jail — I believe in B.C. about 60 per cent of the population are Indigenous. For men and boys, we’re about 40 per cent. It’s really important to understand and know those situations and how we need to change it. It’s systemic change we need within how we treat Indigenous peoples.
Our communities need the resources for all facets of life. It’s economic development, it’s mental health, it’s health, it’s infrastructure, having high speed internet in remote communities. We’re always lagging behind the norms of normal Canadian society. The situation we’re trying to create is for those First Nations to take over jurisdiction, take over their sovereignty, to implement their ways, really to assert their sovereignty and become self-sufficient.
All three levels of government have made commitments to reconciliation. How would you assess their commitments — are they genuine?
The definition of reconciliation, let’s look at that: Who’s reconciling here? In many respects, it’s government, it’s colonialism that’s reconciling with the Indigenous people. I think we’ve seen some positive steps and progress. Many of our chiefs talk about implementing our own laws and we’re starting to see that with child welfare, here in this province and federally. We’re seeing it with environmental assessment law policies — the Environmental Assessment Act. I really saw ourselves co-writing that bill. So I think there has been some progress. Is it enough? I don’t think it is enough right now. This journey is long. It’s going to be along hard journey and we need to do this together, and there needs to be significant commitment to what reconciliation means.
You’ve been Regional Chief since 2017. What inspired you to take on a leadership role?
I saw an opportunity to speak up not only for the nations I represent, but all nations in B.C. My job is finding some semblance of justice. I wake up every day and I have to find some semblance of justice in speaking to and talking about the Forestry Act, or the judicial system, or child welfare. With all those conversations, the common denominator at any event that I’ve been asked to speak at — a week ago, I spoke to a rally here in Prince George about Black Lives Matter — all of those cases, the common denominator I’m speaking to and recognizing is that there is an injustice.
Are you optimistic about the future for Indigenous people in this province and country?
Yes. If I wasn’t’ optimistic, I wouldn’t be in this position. If I wasn’t optimistic, I wouldn’t be in these many meetings, I wouldn’t show up to the rallies. Because those things are needed. Things need to be said. Our situation is far better right now than I remember when I was four or five years old. We’ve gone through, in the last couple of years, a significant step with the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act here in B.C.
It’s been far better than I remember it in the last 40 years. Going forward, I would like to see a far different situation, not only for my children, but for my great grandchildren and generations ahead, and now is a good opportunity to do that.
How would you like Canadians to mark National Indigenous Peoples Day in 2020?
I think for all Canadians, they should think about their relationships with Indigenous people. How do they see Indigenous peoples, the original peoples of this place we call Canada? How do they relate to Indigenous peoples, to relationships with the First Nations. Because every inch of this country has been inhabited or is a First Nations territory. If you’re in Vancouver, you’re in Coast Salish territory. What do you know about the Musqueam, Squamish and Tseil-waututh nations — all those others nations and communities in the Greater Vancouver area? The Semiahmoo people? What does the average Canadian know about Prince George, know about the history of the Carrier people here, where I’m from, where I live?
Understanding and knowing where you’re from is half the battle, but also too, understanding in our lived experience, we all experience racism. And whether the average Canadian knows it or not —it could be inadvertently — but understanding and accepting that racism is alive and well in Canada will bring us a long way to healing our relationship with not only Indigenous people, but with Black people, minorities. Know and understand the lived experience of Indigenous people, and go out there and celebrate with Indigenous people.
I think it’s a significant day that many Indigenous peoples hold dear to their heart, and I think we celebrate with everybody. And this year, we see a reckoning of racism throughout Canada and British Columbia and United States. I think June 21 would be a good day to begin a healing and understanding of this colonial relationship that we have with the Canadian government.