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‘If this is the introduction, there has to be more’

Lil'wat Nation Chief Dean Nelson urges Sea to Sky to keep embarking on the challenging work of Truth and Reconciliation
n-nelson courtesy City of Van
Lil’wat Nation Chief Dean Nelson speaks at a Dec. 10 press conference in Vancouver announcing plans to pursue a 2030 Olympic bid.

Lil’wat Nation Skalulmecw Chief Dean Nelson exudes an almost preternatural calm. But beneath that relaxed exterior is, at times, a simmering frustration whenever he begins discussing the injustices his Mount Currie community has and continues to face. 

The frustration is understandable. The elected political chief has been urging for a deeper understanding of the historical context of the Lil’wat for years now, and he has looked on as the Nation has been forced into the unenviable position of having to decide between forking over tens of thousands of dollars to buy back pieces of traditional land that were stolen from it by settlers, or risk losing them forever to eager developers. 

But it’s not all doom and gloom, either. The Lil’wat has, in recent years, begun to truly leverage the power it gained, in part, through the legacy land swap tied to the 2010 Olympics, and has seen its budget expand by leaps and bounds with each passing year—its 2023 budget tops out at more than $43 million, roughly 25-per-cent higher than last year—leading to a flurry of new projects, including a new transition home expected for completion this year, a $2.4-million renovation of its Istken Lane townhouse development, slated for next year, and an expansion of the Xet’ólacw Community School completed this summer. 

Pique caught up with Nelson via email for a wide-ranging conversation on Truth and Reconciliation, better integrating the Lil’wat into decision-making in Whistler, and Indigenous knowledge in the schools. 

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

It has been a year since Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Generally speaking, how do you think the Sea to Sky and Canada as a whole has done to advance reconciliation? 

DEAN NELSON: In the Sea to Sky corridor, I feel there is a general enquiry of wanting to understand what reconciliation truly means, but also I feel there is some reluctance to acknowledge the full impact or vastness of what has occurred in the history of the Indigenous people with the general public.

Do you feel that attitudes among non-Indigenous people in the corridor have shifted in how they think about Canada’s history of colonialism, residential schools, and the harm that has been done to the Indigenous population? 

I feel the cold, hard truth was revealed with the findings and the testimony of the children that did not return home from residential schools. I feel there remains a lot of general public processing of the scale of what took place, if this is indeed their introduction to Truth and Reconciliation. If this is the introduction, there has to be more.

Take the Reconciliation Day to fully understand why this day is framed as such. What is your truth and understanding? Is my understanding congruent to what is being shared? What are the inherent rights of Indigenous people prior to contact?

How do you feel about the fact that the Lil’wat has had to buy back its own land from settlers? 

We have been buying back lands mainly adjacent to the reserve when opportunity arises that has history of the Lil’wat on them. We need to secure them from further complications of new owners, developers from occupying them before we have an opportunity to address wrongful transactional occurrences. I feel it is very essential that we secure all lands when we have the opportunity to address unethical transactions through a historical, ethnocentric process. 

How do you think the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW), and by extension Whistler, can better integrate the Lil’wat into decision-making? 

The RMOW and Sea to Sky corridor initially need to understand the history of the lands and the original people’s values before contact and the pre-monetary period. And why the original inhabitants were removed from the land they so dearly cherished as it was. People ask, what do I need to know? If people really want to know, they should take the time to hear the full history from a reliable source. One thing I recommend to people about the Truth and Reconciliation Day is to take that day to further understand what occurred, what are your truths as told to you. There has to be a willingness to undertake full understanding.

There’s been a lot of talk about hiring more Lil’wat to help shore up Whistler’s staff shortages. What do you think needs to happen for Whistler to hire more Lil’wat? How can employers best welcome Lil’wat members into the fold? 

There must be effort to undertake Lil’wat people as employees. There must be commitment to see this through fully, within reason. There is a lot of interactive work that we all need to undertake, understand and communicate. 

We’ve spoken before about incorporating more Lil’wat history and knowledge into school curriculum in the Sea to Sky. What do you hope young students in the corridor learn about the Lil’wat? 

Young students need to learn where the Lil’wat people lived in the immediate area and why they were moved off the lands. The children need to know basically what happened in local history. The children need to know where the Lil’wat are today: on the reservation, under the Indian Act. The children need to know where the Lil’wat are trying to get to as far as language, culture, and traditional living. There will be further questions stemming from the conversations. The answers that are given to the children is what we will base our future on.

How do we ensure reconciliation with the Lil’wat is meaningful, and not just a hollow promise? 

We need to see positive, concrete changes on the ground. Reconciliation is positive change and understanding to do what needs to be done to fulfil positive change, or undo what is wrong to correct the wrongs and [gain a] full understanding of it. 

On Oct. 7 at 1 p.m., the Lil’wat Nation is hosting a ceremony to celebrate the official transfer of a parcel of its traditional Upper Valley lands, formerly the Coast Mountain Outdoor School (CMOS), which was donated to the Nation at no cost. The ceremony will take place at the former CMOS schoolhouse across from the Lillooet River Bridge, about 20 kilometres east of Pemberton. All are invited to attend. 

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