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Learning to hold each other up

Solomon Reece: Ellis Ross was the only BC Liberal leadership candidate asked about his expertise, and that’s a problem.

This week saw the second BC Liberal Leadership debate. Many important issues facing our province were discussed, but one theme was painfully absent: reconciliation. However, something extraordinary happened.

There was scant mention of First Nations issues, generally discussed in context to resource development, but no actual substantive questions or issues were posed. But something else happened that struck a nerve.

Val Litwin challenged Ellis Ross on his statement that he’s a subject matter expert on climate change.

Litwin asked Ross, “Could you please tell the people watching this debate about the formal or informal education you have received to become this kind of expert?”

Many of those watching the debate or reading this now might ask, so what? Ellis Ross is a politician, and a leadership candidate; it’s a fair question. It’s entirely reasonable that anyone who makes a statement should be able to substantiate it. Ross answered the question graciously and in good form about his experiences over the last 17 years.

Much of the debate centered around Ross and his positions on climate change and resource development. For my part, I thought there was eloquent and thoughtful discussion on climate change and balancing our need for sustainable economic growth. This is what we need to be debating, and I was glad to hear the different perspectives that come from different lived experiences.

I objected specifically to that question, because in asking it only of Ross, Litwin failed to appreciate whom he was addressing. No other candidate was asked about their education or other qualifications, formal, informal, or otherwise.

Within that question is the familiar narrative that Indigenous people need to validate themselves against Canadian standards.

I am entirely certain this was not Litwin’s conscious intention, but that is what he unconsciously reinforced. If each candidate was asked about their credentials to speak to an issue, it wouldn’t be problematic. It is problematic when it’s just the only Indigenous leader on stage and one of the few Indigenous MLAs in BC is asked to.

What I found disappointing in Litwin’s question was that it doesn’t reflect the basic fact that First Nations don’t have the same access to educational opportunities as their non-Indigenous counterparts, especially those in northern and remote communities. Ross grew up in an era when post-secondary education was a pipe dream for Indigenous peoples – and for many, it still is.

The non-response from the other leadership candidates was also disappointing.

One of them is being held to a different standard and yet no one spoke up. I have been involved in the BC Liberals for a very long time. I have seen many things and had many experiences. This felt like a failure for Val, the other candidates, the Party, and me. For the first time I felt ashamed.

Val reached out, and we arranged to have a sit-down. We had the hard conversation. Val listened as I shared my lived experiences and that of my immediate family. I told him that I am the first in three generations to be raised by my own parents because of the assimilationist policies of Canada.

Val listened carefully, not only with his mind, but his heart. We talked about our shared hopes for the future, our aspirations for our party and this beautiful land we call home, the best place on earth. It’s cliché to acknowledge that none of us are perfect, but how we react when asked to be accountable says a lot.

Val and I have agreed to continue this dialogue. I hope that others will join us. We acknowledged each other and the fact that we belong to the same big tent family. When I started in the trenches as a volunteer, then organizer, and eventually co-founder of the Indigenous Network, I did so with the dream of creating the space for more Indigenous free-enterprisers.

I believe that Ross is owed an apology. But is perhaps more important, is the opportunity for true and meaningful reconciliation. This is a moment to reflect on ourselves, our values and the renewal our party needs.

I remember when we were the party of yes. Now we must become the party of reconciliation.

I have served on the board, knocked on doors, made phone calls, stuffed envelopes, and had many uncomfortable conversations with friends and relatives about being an Indigenous BC Liberal. I couldn’t be prouder of what happened between Val and me.

In politics, indeed BC politics, this meeting was extraordinary.

We must learn to hold each other up.

Solomon Reece is Tsimshian, Gitxsan, and Saulteaux. He is an Indigenous relations advisor and business consultant residing on the unceded and traditional territories of the ʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. He is a past president of the BC Liberals Indigenous Network, and is senior policy advisor to Kevin Falcon’s leadership campaign.