Mr. Speaker, I am divided right now talking about this important bill. I want to thank the member for Cumberland—Colchester for bringing it forward. This bill would create a national strategy on aboriginal cultural property repatriation.
I appreciate the intent of the bill, and I will be supporting it. However, I am also very concerned about the weakness of the language in the bill. It says things such as “to promote and support the return” and “encourage owners”, which would leave this bill as an option for people.
There is an important conversation that needs to happen in this country about what it means to be looking at reconciliation and the history of Canada. We know that the protection of cultural property touches many aspects of policy development, and this raises the risk that inconsistencies may happen and even that contradictory actions may potentially be taken if there is no coordinating mechanism. That is one of the biggest concerns I have. There is nothing here that is actually going to deal with this very important issue.
I had a wise person in my riding once tell me that for him, one of the best things about being indigenous was that the history of the culture was that they did not leave much behind. There were things like totem poles, but the actual impact on the environment was very balanced and limited.
I know that in indigenous communities across the country, their cultures are alive and active, and some communities are working very hard to bring back culture in their communities.
The history of this country is such that the human rights of indigenous people have been violated and often continue to be violated. Cultural heritage has been disturbed, stolen, excavated, exchanged, and taken under duress, and this is important when we talk about this bill. It is important to recognize that indigenous people were studied and bodies were exhumed and moved out of their territories and Canada without free, prior, and informed consent. That is the important thing we are speaking of today, as we saw with the passing of Bill C-262. In this day and age of reconciliation, it must be a key part of the conversation. How are we looking at what it means for indigenous communities to have free, prior, and informed consent? How are we are looking at the history of Canada and what has happened, and how are we making things change?
The University of Winnipeg, for example, currently has the remains of 145 indigenous people stored on its campus. It is concerning that the remnants of the first people of this country are left in places where they are not taken care of in a proper way.
In the riding I represent, North Island—Powell River, whenever remains are found, there is a working process with the indigenous community to make sure that those remains are treated respectfully. When we look at this bill, we have to be looking at that as well.
It makes me think of a community in my riding, the Klahoose First Nation, which is currently undertaking to find ancestors across the world. Recently, an ancestor was located in a Lower Mainland institution. The community came together and worked very hard. They wrote:
When it came time to transfer the ancestor from a cardboard box to the cedar box prepared by the Klahoose Nation we were guided into a private room. This is an incredibly spiritual and honourable undertaking: a precious moment as we handle the remains, bless them, brush and cradle them with cedar and tobacco, and then pray for peace to surround them on the journey to their final resting place.
However, when they walked into the room, what they saw was a cardboard box, which was home to their ancestor for more than 50 years. It had a single word written on it: “skull”.
One of the things this bill does not really look at is how to move forward in a respectful way to make sure that the remains of loved ones are returned home to their communities and that when that process happens, it is in the most thoughtful way possible.
The sad reality is that the history of Canada is steeped in colonialism. In the region I represent, many communities participate in the potlatch system to this day. The potlatch system was a way of redistributing wealth. It was a way of making sure that people were looked after. It was a very sacred process, and it was one of governance. That is really important. It was not a celebration. It was a way of governing. It was a way of making sure that there was fairness and that no one was left behind. People were respected for their generosity.
We know that in 1885, when the ceremony was made illegal, authorities took items away, including totem poles, regalia, and sacred family items. It is hard to explain the impact on the communities. These were the ways they governed themselves. These were the ways they dealt with conflict. These were the ways they acknowledged when people were moving from one phase of life to another. Therefore, it had a huge impact having all of those things gone.
I want to talk about the Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre in my riding, which has done a lot of work repatriating artifacts to their community. One of its main objectives is “to recover from other institutions and individuals, artifacts and records of cultural, artistic and historical value to the Kwakwaka’wakw people.” This cultural centre has activities for schools to educate young people about the history of the area. It has a carving and education centre where they continue to train people in methods that have been passed down from generation to generation. It works hard on language preservation. There is also archival footage in the lower gallery theatre, where people can see some of the recordings that were taken so long ago.
In 1975, the hereditary and elected chiefs founded the Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre so they could begin negotiating the return of their potlatch artifacts and regalia. In 1979, the society had things finally returned home and several months later, opened the doors and allowed the community to come in and engage with those things. It also encouraged the public to come and learn more about their history. It is important that they continue to do that work and find things all over the world that are from their cultural territory.
There are challenges trying to get those things back. The capacity of many indigenous communities to store and care for objects is extremely limited. Some museums work very hard with communities to make sure that they have access to these items.
Recently, a community in my riding, Homalco, took elders and young people to the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, where they saw masks from the late 1800s that are now stored there. They also saw baskets and other pieces of regalia. It was a really meaningful moment for those young people to see how long their history was, to see what the masks looked like, and to interact with the elders to learn the stories of the things that have been passed down. It is good to see those relationships happening, but there is so much more that can be done.
Professor Jack Lohman, chief executive officer of the Royal British Columbia Museum, said the following:
My last issue concerns the slow progress being made toward reconciliation. Our museum displays are still riddled with stereotypical display information, displays of indigenous life emphasizing and privileging white history over indigenous history. Repatriation is inadequately funded. Our museum culture is still predominantly white.
I understand the intention of this bill, and I appreciate it. It is important work. I think it is time in this country of Canada that we start to focus more on the impact than the intention, that we talk with indigenous communities and make sure we recognize the vibrancy in those communities, the history, and what it means when a person has things from their ancestors, their parents' parents' parents, and loved ones sitting in a box somewhere far away and there is no pressure to have those things returned. What does it mean to communities when they get those things back home? This is something we have to look at.
I look forward to supporting this bill. I wish I saw a little more emphasis on money. I understand that in a private member's bill, we cannot talk about money, but I want to make sure that this plan actually has a discussion about that. I saw nothing in there that said there would be a plan that comes forward from this national strategy that would include some of the heavy financial commitments that would have to be made to do this and do this right.