FORT ST. JAMES – He was invited and he came.
It was an historical moment as B.C. Premier John Horgan visited with rural and First Nations communities in central B.C. this week. It was the first time a sitting premier had visited the communities of Takla Lake, Tl’azt’en Nation, Binche Keyoh First Nation and Fort St. James.
“We extended the invite to him and low and behold, here he is,” said Fort St. James Mayor Rob MacDougall. “He’s open with the fact that he does not have to be here and maybe he sees this as an effort to reach out and see what our issues, wants and challenges are. We are one big region and at the end of the day we are all trying to work together.”
“Indigenous or not, we are here for the common good. I’m thrilled to be able to talk about your hopes and dreams and challenges for the future,” Horgan said. “Thank you for lifting my spirits. I’ve been hearing a lot of people saying that you are the first premier to do this. Thank you for your openness about what you want to see in your communities. We’ve had a few days with so many groups and governments and it has been inspiring. This area is so beautiful.”
Anne Marie Sam from Nak’azdli Whut’en was overjoyed by the visit.
“I never imagined I would be introducing the premier and the minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, Scott Fraser, to our families and to our community,” she said. “It is time for our communities to shine, to share and teach what is important to us and the only way is face to face. I just feel like our ancestors are dancing.”
Sam had joined Horgan in the ministers office in Victoria after she ran for the NDP in the Nechako Lakes riding during last year’s election.
“I wanted to see these communities first hand, and when Anne Marie said she would be our guide, I thought the least I could do is visit her hometown,” Horgan said at a reception Tuesday evening in Fort St. James. “The NDP have not had a strong presence here but we have now seen, the issues are the same. We are getting different perspectives and this is important as a government.”
For Horgan, bridging the gap between nation and non-nation communities is vital, as it is with Nak’azdli Whut’en and the District of Fort St. James.
“We want to be partners with the province and to live as one people in between Nak’azdli and the District,” said Nak’azdli Whut’en Chief Alec McKinnon.
And for Dave Birdi, councillor for the District of Fort St. James, this is a step in the right direction.
“We are building relationships. He has met with everyone from our elders and our youth. He understands the situation and is looking forward to working with organizations and different levels of government to find solutions. From issues in health to forestry, it’s about small towns versus big cities. I compliment him that he has taken steps to try to understand.”
Horgan visited Nak’albun Elementary School, which sits overlooking scenic Stuart Lake and the Fort St. James hospital.
“We see that health care issues are critical in these communities especially in primary care and team-based care. Regarding mental health and addictions we need to get right on this especially in schools,” he said.
With approximately 40 children waiting for services in Nak’azdli Whut’en, the lack of services is a growing issue for the community.
“We are concerned that our voices aren’t heard,” said McKinnon. “And residential schooling has impacted our community for generations. We are trying to resolve these issues.”
The closest detox centre to Fort St. James is in Prince George and treatment centres are located primarily in southern B.C. according to Nak’azdli Whut’en councillor Fred Sam.
“This is a long journey and yet we have to send our members elsewhere to heal,” McKinnon said.
Horgan announced on Monday that the provincial government would invest $550 million to provide new on- and off- reserve housing for Aboriginal people in need of housing. Normally the responsibility of the federal government, Horgan believes communities in rural northern B.C. will benefit most.
“We want Ottawa to know we want to work with all levels of government.”
From ringing the old church bell in Binche, to dancing with elders and youth in Takla First Nation, it was a welcome for Horgan like no other.
“It surprises me that no other premier has done this. And how special to be embraced like this,” Horgan said. “A little boy in Takla kept coming up to me for hugs. To make that impact in people’s lives, that’s why we are here.”
— Barbara Geernaert is a former Citizen reporter who is now the events coordinator for the Nak’azdli Whut’en in Fort St. James.
FORT ST. JAMES – He was invited and he came.