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Lil’wat Nation Political Chief declines to participate in ceremonial re-signing of 2020 Framework Agreement

‘If I leave here and I did sign that thing, I’d feel bad because I let my people down because I wasn’t true to what I felt’

The ceremonial re-signing of a landmark Framework Agreement between the Lil’wat  and Squamish Nations, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW), the Province of British Columbia and Whistler Blackcomb took an unexpected turn Friday morning, June 16, when Lil’wat Nation Political Chief Skalúlmecw  Dean Nelson took to the podium to announce he would not re-sign the document on behalf of his people.

“We're talking about relationships and understanding, but up to this point, we haven't had that relationship … I've never really known who I’m talking with, whether it's the governments or neighbours,” Nelson told the small crowd of stakeholders gathered at the Rendezvous Lodge on Blackcomb Mountain.

“I’ve requested for time to build our relationship with them, but that never happened, even up to now—previous Olympics, political things. So I'm not here to disrespect anyone, but I will not be signing the agreement until we establish the relationship with the governments—all governments. We've never had that, and I seek that still.”

The historic agreement, however, will remain in place. It was officially signed by all five partners in June 2020. The document provides a framework that aims to strengthen government-to-government relations and promote reconciliation, by creating new opportunities for economic development. Those include the creation of an Economic Development Committee, as well as a land exchange between the RMOW and the Lil’wat and Squamish Nations, on whose unceded shared territory the resort operates.

The 2020 signing marked the conclusion to a second phase of negotiations that began more than a decade earlier. It supersedes the 60-year Master Development Agreement and the Memorandum of Understanding that put an end to the first phase of those negotiations when they were inked in 2017, as well as a subsequent Protocol Agreement signed in 2018.

In its immediate aftermath, the 2020 Framework Agreement also paved the way for the adoption of Whistler’s updated Official Community Plan.

Public health restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic prevented a ceremonial signing from taking place when the agreement was finalized. The June 16 ceremony was an “opportunity for all parties to reaffirm their commitment to the Agreement, and the government’s commitment to reconciliation,” as Whistler Blackcomb shared in a news release prior to the event.

Nelson was the fourth of five representatives to step up to the mic at the Rendezvous on June 16, following B.C.’s Minister of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport Lana Popham, Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton, and Doug Pierini, senior vice-president and chief operating officer of Vail Resorts’ Western Region. Squamish Nation Councillor Sempúlyan​ Stewart Gonzales took to the podium following Nelson, and confirmed he intended to sign the ceremonial declaration on behalf of Squamish Nation.

The scheduled speakers were slated to sign the ceremonial document after each had finished their remarks, but instead, the leaders convened for a conversation in the corner.

Huddled in a circle, the discussion lasted for nearly 20 minutes before Crompton announced the group wouldn’t proceed with the re-signing after all. The representatives agreed “we're not going to have an agreement signed that doesn't have all parties’ signatures on it,” Crompton explained.

Instead, officials from the municipality, the province, and both First Nations moved straight into the planned reception in Christine’s Restaurant.

“We all want to thank Chief Dean for his leadership today,” Crompton told the room. “We’re grateful for it.”

‘It was wrong and it still is wrong and we’re still there’

Nelson’s statement was a long time coming. His sentiments, in part, date back to the 2010 Olympics, when the stronger relationships and commitments promised to First Nations in the lead-up to the Games were never established as advertised.

“There needs to be really respectful relationships from the governments. Anyone and everyone is talking about that, but I just really felt that needed to be done,” Nelson said following the reception on Friday.

“I don't mind moving on, but there's no foundation, and that would be the key to it. I’ve been talking to everybody here about our needs, and they don't even understand who we are. They see me, and I'm happy, but go back to my community and we’re struggling with everything. I look at the prosperity of everyone, including this place,” he said, gesturing to the resort infrastructure on Blackcomb Mountain.

Making the statement went “against my nature,” he added, “but I had to do it. I couldn't carry on … if I leave here and I did sign that thing, I’d feel bad because I let my people down because I wasn’t true to what I felt. But in the other sense, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, as I said.”

A foundation needs to be built on a true, honest understanding of “where people are at,” said Nelson. Despite the oft-cited need to prioritize reconciliation, the individuals and organizations raising that topic don’t always understand what the people living in First Nations communities need, he said.

“I really want people to understand that First Nations—I just talked to the minister about this—we’re still on a reservation, we’re still [living] under the Indian Act, and we’re still suffering from the impacts of everything,” Nelson explained. “And that’s never seen.”

“We are moving ahead, and moving ahead, and [meanwhile] people are still suffering on-reserve. That’s the truest thing I can say, is people need to understand that. That is the bottom line. In this day and age, it was wrong and it still is wrong and we’re still there.”

First Nations communities like the Lil’wat Nation’s have “been conditioned to acceptance of whatever happens, we're on reserve and that's the way it is,” he continued.

“I've heard children and my students saying that about things in the community—‘Very good, well, that's just the way it is on the rez.’ They grow up accepting that.”

Outsiders, meanwhile, will ask, “‘Oh, don't you guys get funding for that?’ Yeah, there's funding for that, but it's programs, and the programs are the thing that drive it, and if you don't stick within those guidelines, then oh well, too bad. Our source of revenue in the territory would be here,” Nelson said, pointing to the ski slopes outside the Rendezvous Lodge. “This would be one of the main revenue sources for us, but we don't have that. We don't have political voice.”

Nelson was acclaimed to another four-year term as Lil’wat Nation’s Political Chief earlier this month, ahead of the First Nation's election on July 15. The former Xet̓ólacw Community School P.E. teacher served two terms on council before he was elected Political Chief in March 2015—a decision that was confirmed in a re-election held that July.

What happens next?

Following the speeches, Minister Popham acknowledged Nelson’s announcement was unexpected, but said “it's not unusual to have these pauses.” It took strength for Nelson to express his concern, she added.

“And I'm really happy that he did, because it allows us to, together, step back, and then we'll be able to move forward again at some time but when people feel like it’s time to move.”

The Framework Agreement “was technically signed in 2020, but the work continues every day,” added Popham, who took over B.C.'s Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport file last December. “I think what we've reflected on, even over the last few days leading up to this moment, is that it's a living document that was signed, and there always has to be continual check-in with community. Ironically, that's the conversation I had last night with some folks, and today we saw that play out … There's relationships that need to be worked on, and that's fair, and I expect that to happen along into the future.”

Crompton has been vocal about the importance and privilege of building relationships with local First Nations throughout his five years in the Mayor’s chair. Asked about his reaction to Nelson’s acknowledgement that those relationships aren’t up to par, he said, “I think it's a recognition that we all have a tremendous amount of work to do.”

What does that work look like?

For the RMOW, it could mean increased engagement about municipal projects or improvements in the amount of information shared with its First Nations partners. To Crompton, “It probably looks like sitting down at the same table and having a meal,” he said. “I know that sounds trite, but that's really the important part of this, is the relationships that we have with one another, and ensuring as Chief Dean has stated so clearly, that they're authentic.”