The Semiahmoo First Nation and the City of White Rock will have much to talk about in the new year.
First and foremost will be discussion of the formal city recognition of Grand Chief Bernard Robert Charles Plaza – and the East Beach park surrounding it – following a written report to council from corporate administration director Tracey Arthur.
That report, received on Dec. 16 – the last council meeting of 2019 – concluded that Totem Plaza had, in fact, already been renamed in memory of the late, widely respected SFN leader in 2009, during the administration of Mayor Catherine Ferguson, even though existing records are not clear on the process followed.
Council also endorsed a follow-up motion from Coun. David Chesney that the city begin discussions with SFN about renaming the entire park in honour of Charles, although chief administrative officer Dan Bottrill – noting the exhaustive process undertaken in determining the renaming of Totem Plaza – urged caution and consultation with all stakeholders before taking such a step.
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The motion was carried with Mayor Darryl Walker the sole vote in opposition.
Coun. Helen Fathers – who made the original motion in July to formally rename the plaza for Charles – said the clarification provided by the report was welcome, although she noted she had been unhappy that it turned out to be such a long process.
“It’s really good to see this motion on the floor,” she said. “Sometimes we have to wait a long time to get the right thing done. This was the first ceremony I attended (on behalf of the city) back in 2009 and it was of vast importance at that time…it was always something that stuck very large in my mind.”
Fathers said she had been asked why it had taken her so long to raise the issue during her decade on council.
“Sometimes you have to find the right council to get the right approvals. I’m happy that this council is moving forward with the name of the Grand Chief Bernard Robert Charles Plaza, and I’m glad that we’re where we are today.”
Walker said the entire council has been intent on rebuilding a “strong and positive” relationship with SFN.
“I see this as one more step in building or rebuilding that relationship,” he said.
Also received by council at the meeting were recommendations from the city’s Marine Drive Task Force directly concerning SFN, most notably support for ongoing negotiations of servicing agreements between the city and the nation, which the task force said it sees “as an integral part of the revitalization of Marine Drive.”
The task force further recommended council consider ways of increasing funding to White Rock Museum and Archives to support environmental and cultural educational programming – in which SFN history would be included – and also that council consider allocating Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) from development to create signage in both English and Sencoten (the Straits Salish language) to support SFN storytelling and wayfinding on the waterfront.
In her report to council, Arthur wrote that, further to council’s request for a corporate report on Fathers’ motion to rename the plaza, “it does not appear necessary to rename the plaza.”
Interviews with participants at a 2009 ceremony at the plaza – and photos of the event – support that conclusion, Arthur wrote.
“The balance of evidence suggests that many were under the impression the plaza was already named in honour of (Grand Chief Charles),” she wrote.
“Most importantly, the Semiahmoo First Nation believe they went through the necessary process to conduct a ceremony and, following that, with witnesses present, the plaza was formally renamed, and not just a dedication ceremony.”
The renaming of the plaza has been disputed by some – including former mayors Wayne Baldwin and Hardy Staub – who had emphasized that the name Totem Plaza was a reflection of the importance of the RCMP-funded project created at the site in 1999.
As the report reiterated, the force had commissioned the totem and house pole at the plaza as a gesture of reconciliation and apology for its part in historic wrongs against First Nations peoples, including SFN, a step which Bottrill noted to council was a “groundbreaking” act at a time when moves toward reconciliation were not common.
Bottrill told council that in investigating the renaming of the plaza in 2009, staff had interviewed five of the six members of the council of that time, as well as Ferguson, SFN council, RCMP, former city staff members and event volunteers.
“(We) came to the conclusion that, although there wasn’t a formal resolution of council…there’s no question that it did occur with the express approval of the mayor’s office and Semiahmoo First Nation were given that approval.”
But, as he pointed out during council discussion of Chesney’s motion, there is also no doubt the surrounding park has long been known locally as Lions Lookout Park, due to the role now-defunct Lions service clubs on the peninsula had in establishing it, and was likely named that during one of Gordon Hogg’s terms in office as mayor.