Ellis Ross: All Canadians, including Indigenous ones, should celebrate Canada Day

Written By Guest User, Posted on July 2, 2020

In light of the Canada Day celebrations across the country today, TNT sat down with Ellis Ross, an Indigenous B.C. MLA, to discuss the relationship between Canada and Indigenous Canadians.

Let’s talk about Canada Day. I want to get your thoughts as an Indigenous Canadian on what you think of Canada Day. How do you celebrate Canada, given its history with its Indigenous people?

Before it got so political, when I was a young person, we always celebrated Canada Day. It was back in a time when my family had friends that weren’t Aboriginal and weren’t from my community. And nobody even thought about it. It was just going over and partaking in the festivities and eating the food and watching the parade. It wasn’t until I became a politician about 15 years ago, where I started to put some thought into what it meant to be an Indigenous person in Canada. There was so much hype about it. ‘We’re not a part of Canada, and we’ve never been colonized, and we’ve never surrendered’ and all that kind of stuff. But yet, when I take a look at what it’s like to live in Canada, we’re a lucky group of people, whether you’re Indigenous or not, I don’t care if you’re Asian or African or Aboriginal.

“Canada is a pretty good country to live in when you compare it to what’s going on in the rest of the world. You talk about the luxuries over there. We’re living with the conveniences, the rights, the freedoms, the infrastructure we have now, we can always do better, of course, but, man, I still count my blessings that I’m living the life I am here in Canada. “ – Ellis Ross, B.C. MLA

What do you think caused that change? You say over the past 15 years, what do you think brought that about?

“Politics, a tremendous amount of politics. With politics, there’s a lot of rhetoric. There’s a lot of mudslingings. There’s a lot of virtue signalling, especially nowadays. But you know, I heard all that stuff when I was growing up about, you know, about the big bad government and the big bad white man. And then, when I became an adult, I realized it was all politics. But I’ve got non-Aboriginals in my family. I got lots of non-Aboriginal friends. You know, given where First Nations were trying to get to at the time, I could see how that anger was coming out. And they were just looking for a place to place that anger. So they directed it towards Canada. I’ve tried to fight against most of my political life.”

Okay, let’s take the last 15 to 20 years then. Especially now, you’ve been in politics for about that long. What progress have you seen for Aboriginal or Indigenous people over that time?

“Well, it depends. Sad to say it depends on what where you’re from, what community you’re from, and what type of approach your community and your leadership take toward the issues that your people are facing. A little less than maybe six, seven years ago, my band was just like every other band across Canada, living on government funding, basically no future for my people, no future for our community. But with the LNG coming along, and this was hard to do, people are starting to realize that embracing economic development, embracing LNG, embracing some of the other industries that were coming to town has a direct impact on communities as well as individuals, especially next generation.

I look at the news sometimes, and I still see that there’s a lot of communities still facing the same issues they did 20 to 30 years ago. And to them, I say, if you don’t have the opportunity, there’s not much you can do unless you do it yourself. But if you are faced with the opportunity, it’s going to come down to leadership to kind of take on that opportunity if they want to change the status quo of what your people are going through. Now my community, we were doing great because we were brave enough to kind of change the narrative, change our mentality. And now we’re off to a perfect future.”

What do you make of claims that we hear a lot in the media of systemic racism holding Indigenous kids back? Do you buy part of that, or do you think it’s mostly a problem of leadership or stuff like that?

“Well, you know, it might have been true before 2004. But 2004 was the year that the Haida court case came out. Now, if your community is still being held back with that case law in place, and all the other case law under Section 35 of the Constitution, it’s not the government that’s holding you back. It’s not the white guys that are holding you back. You got to take a good look at yourself and your leadership to find out exactly who’s holding you back. If the opportunity comes knocking on your door, and I’m talking about mining, forestry, oil and gas, I’m talking about all that stuff that comes to those fortunate enough to have some useful territory. But there are so many different examples of what the opportunity is; this is not a silver bullet. Because when you’re talking about Aboriginals, you’re talking about the off reserve, you’re talking about on reserve. To a certain extent, you’re talking about Metis. So I focus on communities and members that are coming from certain communities.”

“But really, we’ve never had this opportunity before where our future is in our hands. It’s not dependent on the government. It’s not dependent on anybody else. It’s dependent on your community and your leadership.” – Ellis Ross, B.C. MLA

It sounds like independence, jobs coming back – those are all significant factors in play. As we look forward, let’s say over the next 20 years, and hopefully much more progress can be made, do you see the Indian Act is something that needs to be changed? Is that an impediment to success?

“No, no. I could care less about the Indian Act. No, when I first started on council there, I did a lot of reading. And I did a lot of research into everything Aboriginal. And one of the articles I read about was actually about the Indian Act. I even read part of the Indian Act. Trying to apply what we’re going through at the time in terms of government funding, you know, over the years, I realized that the Indian Act is irrelevant. If you have a huge opportunity coming to your doorstep, whether it be mining forestry LNG or whatnot, you have a huge opportunity coming to your community. The most important thing is that your leadership understands where it’s entitled to. The Indian Act is an imaginary barrier. None of those rules exist for Aboriginals nowadays, none of it. I saw a picture of this once, they kind of explained it perfectly. It was a picture of a horse tied up to a lawn chair, and it said, ‘you know, some of your barriers are imaginary.’ That’s exactly what I think about the Indian Act. I’ve never fought the Indian Act. I’ve never said we’re going to change it or we’re going to abolish it. I mean, for those people that are saying that you realize you’re talking about maybe a 20 to 30-year exercise in trying to abolish or amend, you know, you can’t even amend certain aspects of the Indian Act without everybody getting up in arms and going to court and lobbying against it. So I’ve never fought it. I’ve never cared about it. And look at my community – we’re going full steam ahead.”

So it’s more about using your treaty rights as opposed to the Indian Act then?

“No, we’re not treaty out here. We have a process out here called BC Treaty Negotiations, where we’re trying to settle a treaty with BC. But when I became chief counsellor, I was chairman of our treaty team for about eight years. And then, when I became chief counsellor, the first thing I did was take our band out of treaty negotiations. I just didn’t see the need. When you get everything you want out of Aboriginal rights case law and the government’s banging on your door, begging to be involved with you and the industry is begging to be involved. You don’t need the Indian Act, and you don’t need to negotiate a treaty. If you’re looking for land, jobs, training revenues, you can do that entirely within the realm of rights and title. So you don’t need the Indian Act or treaty negotiations, in my opinion. It comes down to leadership. Leadership has got to know how to implement these principles.” 

Just to steelman the case that there are some systemic problems still, with the breakdown of the Aboriginal family via the residential school system, and the perpetual issues of addiction and whatnot that come with that, right. Could you see a case where a leadership vacuum kind of exists? Is there any room, any room or any role for the government to help in that area in terms of fostering that leadership or do you think that’s more of a community type thing that comes from the grassroots?

“That’s an excellent point. You know, I talked about that a lot. It’s a sore area when you’re talking about the Aboriginal family unit. And I truly believe that’s one of the problems that we have in the Aboriginal world where the family unit isn’t as strong as it should be. I think it comes down to the individual is strong, and you know, holding it all together. And then from there, you take that strength, and you apply it to your family. You don’t hear many people talking about this much. And yet, when you have a strong individual, those trends translate to a strong family. And then that spreads, then you have a strong community. I believe the family unit is one of the biggest reasons why I’ve been so successful. Otherwise, I would have continued on my road of drugs and alcohol and violence and whatnot.”

Let’s look to the future. In 20 years, what’s the best-case scenario for the relationship between First Nations and Canada at large?

“I think that looking at the relationship between Canada and First Nations. We still have a long way to go before we reconcile anything. And yet, when you look at First Nations in the last ten years, in BC alone, there’s probably been over 450 agreements signed between the provincial government and First Nations. I understand why. Ottawa, they’re so far removed from First Nations issues, they’re not on the land. They’re stuck in Ottawa, and they don’t understand anything happening at the ground level. Whereas BC, BC has to deal with everything on the land, they have to deal with everything in terms of rights and title, So they’ve had something in the scheme for a long time. And actually, they did pretty well with it, and they could have done better. We could have done better. But Canada has a long way to go yet.”

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