More than 55 vehicles took to the roads of the Cowichan Valley on the afternoon of Sunday, Jan. 24 to show support for members of Cowichan Tribes in the wake of blatant racism that followed an outbreak of COVID-19 in the First Nations community. The following day, the provincial Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation and BC Green Party caucus weighed in on the issue as well.
Participants in the rally decorated their cars with stickers and signs sporting the slogan “I stand with Cowichan Tribes,” which has become ubiquitous in the Valley in recent weeks, showing support for the First Nations community after racist comments and actions emerged in the wake of a rise of COVID-19 cases since Jan. 1.
Set up by the Cowichan Intercultural Society, the car rally was followed by a two-hour virtual panel discussion about the historical and sociopolitical context that frames anti-Indigenous racism in our communities as well as ways we can and should intervene when we witness or notice racist thoughts, behaviours, and actions. The panel was organized by the Resilience BC Anti-Racism Network, which includes the Cowichan Intercultural Society’s Equity and Inclusion Task Force, Liminal Spaces Consulting, and the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society. More than 90 people from across Vancouver Island and B.C. watched the panel.
Panel participants included Cowichan Tribes councillor Stephanie Atleo, Cowichan Tribes Elders Kitchen manager and freelance writer Jared Qwustenuxun Williams, and Cowichan Tribes member Joseph Elliott. The welcome was provided by Cowichan Tribes elder Tousilum (Ron George), Cowichan Valley MLA Sonia Furstenau served as moderator and spoke about the need for non-Indigenous people to take responsibility for responding to racism, Cowichan-Malahat-Langford MP Alistair MacGregor acknowledged the responsibility everyone holds, and Cowichan Intercultural Society executive director Lynn Weaver called on audience members to demonstrate community solidarity against racism and hate.
“I thought it was really great listening to different perspectives,” Atleo said afterward. “What I liked a lot was that the majority of the panel was members of Cowichan Tribes.”
Because of the format, Atleo wasn’t sure how the panel was received, but she said she had received personal messages thanking her for what she said.
Atleo noted that the COVID pandemic wasn’t brought up much, and that the discussion was more about the historical context of racism and how it is seen and felt by First Nations today.
“There’s a value in having the perspective of First Nations members who want to talk about the roots of racism and what brought us to this time and place,” Atleo stated. “Discussions like these are definitely valuable. Having First Nations voices there really grounds the discussion and makes it real for people, too. I really think everybody who participated in the events is willing to learn and self-assess.”
Monday saw another group from the provincial government, including Furstenau, issue a response to racism against First Nations in recent weeks. Several politicians in the Cowichan Valley had previously spoken out, but the latest statement was issued jointly by Furstenau as BC Green Party leader, Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Murray Rankin, and Parliamentary Secretary for Anti-Racism Initiatives Rachna Singh.
The statement specifically mentioned Cowichan Tribes and the Resilience BC Anti-Racism Network.
“We stand together with Indigenous peoples across the province to denounce and condemn in the strongest possible terms the racist behaviour and discrimination directed at Indigenous peoples,” it read.
“We are deeply concerned about the recent reports coming from members of Cowichan Tribes and the mounting reports regarding anti-Indigenous racism from many other Indigenous communities throughout the province. Racism toward Indigenous peoples has no place in our society and it must stop. We need to stand up to this kind of reprehensible behaviour.
“As we all grapple with this pandemic, now is the time to come together, to support one another and to be kind to each other so we can all get through these difficult times safely and soundly. We applaud the work the Cowichan Tribes and members of the Resilience BC Anti-Racism Network are doing together to galvanize the community.
“The disturbing examples related to COVID-19 cases in Indigenous communities and the recent report by Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond into systemic racism in our health care system highlight the need for each of us to take an active role in stopping anti-Indigenous racism and racism in all its forms, everywhere. That is an act of reconciliation in which every one of us as individuals has a clear and critical role.
“We can — and must — do better. Ending racism is an issue that crosses all political stripes. We are calling on everyone in B.C. to come together and show that racism and discrimination will not be tolerated.”