A milestone on the road to strengthening relations between the Secwepemc First Nations and Okanagan-Shuswap governments was passed during the signing of a communications agreement Sept. 28.
Representatives of local governments and First Nations communities gathered at the Adams Lake Recreation and Conference Centre to formalize an agreement that has been in the works since 2016. The Shuswap Local and Secwepemc Governments Communications Agreement is meant to “establish and maintain a long-term, cooperative government-to-government relationship and open communication across the Shuswap watershed,” as the document reads.
The agreement was signed by all representatives present, with students from the Chief Atahm School acting as witnesses, as is Secwepemc tradition.
“This is how we take this from the young to the old,” Adams Lake Band Chief Cliff Arnouse said of the importance of youth acting as witnesses. “If we can’t look after our people, we can’t look after our land, we can’t look after our title and rights, we can’t do all these things.”
The communications agreement was established to put in writing a sense of trust, mutual respect and recognition of legitimacy between First Nations and other local governments. It mandates openness, transparency and “no surprises” in communication between these governments going forward.
The agreement encourages all parties to come together both formally and informally to speak on issues of importance to both Secwepemc First Nations and local communities. This includes a yearly formal gathering of elected officials from communities that signed the agreement.
As each signatory took their turn to step up and sign the communications agreement, they underwent a smudging ceremony, a First Nations tradition that is meant to cleanse negative thoughts. They were then offered a chance to speak a few words about what this agreement means to them.
Columbia-Shuswap Regional District chair Rhona Martin said, “I’m sad and I’m joyful; I’m sad because it has taken us so long on this journey to get where we are today.”
Chief Wayne Christian of the Splatsin First Nation said, “I think Kukpi7 Arnouse said it really well. This agreement represents a time of change. I think this is what this is about, we are in that time of change whether we know it or not. We are being forced to work together because our lands and waters and everything around us is being threatened by many things.”
Echoing Chief Arnouse’s statement about caring for the land, Christian continued, “I think it is important we begin to think about that collectively. We need your help and you need our help to do that. That is to me what this signals, is the importance of that communication with each other.”
Salmon Arm Mayor Nancy Cooper reflected on the memory of a much-loved Neskonlith elder who she hopes would be honoured to see this agreement come to fruition.
“This started for me many years ago when Dr. Mary Thomas spoke with the college when I was teaching there,” Cooper began. “She talked about us needing to work together if we were going to make things go forward, we needed to all work together. So I want to honour Mary Thomas at this time as well. It is very important and very honouring to me to stand here and sign this agreement.”
Neskonlith elder Louis Thomas spoke to how this agreement will help pave the way for a better future.
“We have all our communities here together, we have to work together to help make this place a better place for our children, everyone’s children for the future,” he said. “I think that is all our responsibility, not only the Secwepemc people but with all of us combined together. We have to make this a better place because we are losing everything; our fish are disappearing, our plants are disappearing, our animals are disappearing. We need all that help to create a better place for our future.”
Elder Ronnie Jules seemed optimistic that this agreement poses solutions rather than creates arguments.
“It is very important as I have said to bridge these gaps time and time again. I sat on council here for 34 years and I remember the days there was a lot of arguments about that which don’t help build these bridges,” he said.