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Walking the self-determination walk | Ellis Ross

Friday, June 19, 2020 @ 11:53 AM | By Ellis Ross

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Ellis Ross %>
Ellis Ross
I’m a 55-year-old Aboriginal man born and raised on a reserve on the west coast of British Columbia. I had no intention or desire to be a leader but was always asked to step into these roles as I grew up.

There is nothing remarkable or outstanding about my history. In fact, in looking at my younger years, including my younger adult days, my story is typical of thousands of Aboriginals that came before me and continue on to this day.

My first realization of hopelessness came when I was approximately 14 years old standing in front of our condemned fire hall and it occurred to me that I had no future and that I would be doomed to wander the streets of my village doing drugs, drinking alcohol and getting into trouble.

I decided right there that I would quit doing drugs. Instead, I poured my physical and mental health into basketball. In our village, basketball is highly popular, and it is the same with neighbouring communities. It was also the only option I could see as an alternative to my situation at the time.

As the years went by, there were incidents in different settings that made me reflect, and in turn, changed the direction in life.

In 2003, I was nominated to run for our band council which I innocently accepted with complete naivety. The biggest misconception I had was that my council was rich and I could somehow tap into that wealth and help fund the youth basketball teams I was coaching at the time.

In my first month of council meetings, I found out not only did my council have no money, we were in danger of being shut down by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada because of the uncontrollable deficit we were in. With hard work and sacrifice, we managed to turn things around in a couple of years, but it was painful.

It was even more painful for me to realize that the word “independence” had no real meaning. In my first year, I was asked to go out and find money from governments and the private sector to help fund our community needs and proposed projects.

Growing up I was taught by my parents — who both went to residential school — to work hard, take responsibility and be independent.

So, upon returning from my first trip to Ottawa, I informed my council I would no longer go on trips to ask for money. It definitely wasn’t in my personal upbringing to ask for money or help, so I didn’t want to do it as an elected official.

I also believed it went against the grain of leaders who spoke at great lengths about self-determination and self-governance. It became clear that these were just words, and true independence was meaningless without a specific action plan for it to become reality.

I subsequently removed myself from all portfolios that were connected to government funded programs which I believed kept us in a state of dependence and under the arm of the Indian Act. I stayed on as chair of our treaty negotiations mainly because nobody else wanted to do it, even though at the time it was almost the centre of our plans. It also came with non-discretionary funds, which is rare when it comes to Indian Affairs funding.

So I needed something else. I started to read our archives and recorded everything that happened in my community which was not so different to other Aboriginal communities across Canada.

Suddenly, I realized the systemic pattern of exclusion and control that had been exercised over my people for generations. I recall a number of emotions that ended with anger and thoughts of payback.

After a few days thought, I realized anger and revenge were not going to help anybody and would probably make things worse. I started looking for other ways to address our current and future circumstances.

Our chief councillor at the time was pushing for us to fully embrace Aboriginal rights and title as a tool to get us to a better place. So without legal training, I started reading the case law, including different interpretations and opinions. I would also have in-depth conversations with our lawyer who specialized in the Indian Act and rights and title principles.

In 2004, a LNG “import” proposal came to town. Almost at the same time, the Haida court case ruling came out with a favourable ruling to First Nations which spelled out a duty of the Crown to meaningfully consult and accommodate First Nations’ interests, including the inescapable economic component (Haida Nation v. British Columbia (Minister of Forests) [2004] 3 S.C.R. 511).

It was painful in the beginning for all three parties to implement the direction given by the courts but it slowly became clear that our band would now have a seat at the table for the first time in at least 60 years.

Those same 60 years brought incredible wealth and prosperity to everyone in our territory except us.

We were in a difficult spot because we couldn’t really rely on anyone to give us information on how to leverage case law principles into a better future.

It hadn’t been done before on a scale that would include all proposed projects that came at us.

Not all projects had the full weight of our “asks” behind it.

Two projects in particular were to modernize existing facilities to be more efficient and reduce emissions. In these cases, we put less emphasis on the economics and supported the goal of less pollution. In this context, one project worked out great, the other folded up and left town.

It took me a while to get everything straightened out in my thinking. But it did convince me that if we do want to make a difference with respect to the high number of Aboriginal suicides, high number of incarcerations, high number of kids in care, high rates of substance abuse, then we couldn’t just rely on casting blame and asking for others to fix it with more government money and programs.

In the same breath, if we truly want to walk the talk of independence and self-determination, then we had to change the narrative, because if the private sector is on board, then government would be on board as well.

The bottom line is that our potential future is in our own hands. If we were to achieve independence, government and the private sector could play a role. Ultimately, it’s up to us to decide what exactly it is we want. Once that decision is made, then we have to be willing to pursue it. Our courage and fortitude might be challenged over the long term, but eventually it would work out to the benefit of our people and serve as a model for others.

I can tell you that my community soon began to trust my council’s vision and we haven’t looked back. As things get progressively better, we can see the next generation is already off to a better start. One that my generation could have only dreamed of.

All this started as a 14-year-old kid with no answers or direction but definitely knew what I didn’t want to become. It’s been a long, tough but worthwhile journey.

Ellis Ross was elected Liberal MLA for Skeena, B.C., in 2017. He currently serves as the official opposition critic for LNG and resource opportunities and is a member of the select standing committee on legislative initiatives. Follow him at @ellisbross

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