September 13, 2022 – Stephen Point, Former Lieutenant Governor of BC

Stephen Point
Former Lieutenant Governor of BC

The Honourable Steven Point is a double alumnus of UBC and retained close ties with the University after receiving his Bachelor of Laws in 1985.

Mr. Point served as director of the First Nations Legal Studies program at the Peter A. Allard School of Law from 1991 to 1994. He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 2013 for his exceptional commitment in the field of law, legal and Aboriginal education, and his leadership in the Indigenous community.

In addition to his role as the 28th Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, Point’s career included practicing as a lawyer, working at the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs and in the Department of Employment & Immigration, serving as a provincial court judge and the Chief Commissioner of the British Columbia Treaty Commission.

Mr. Point is a member of the Skowkale First Nation and has advocated for Indigenous people throughout his career, pressing for greater recognition of their contributions and their fuller involvement in all aspects of life in British Columbia.

Mr. Point is a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals, the Order of B.C, the Joseph H. Cohen Award from the Justice Institute of British Columbia Foundation, a National Aboriginal Achievement Award, the Order of Chilliwack, and honourary Doctorate of Laws degrees from the University of the Fraser Valley and Capilano University.

Transcription of presentation.

Stephen Point was introduced by Chris Finch

The Canadian Constitution guarantees Aboriginal people certain rights based upon their occupation of the land prior to European contact. Among these are their right to self-government. Currently, this right remains undefined legally. Many Indigenous leaders have however expressed what self-governance means to them. Steven Point, a representative for Stó?l? nation chiefs and our presenter, has defined Stó?l? self government as a process whereby the Stó?l? regain control of their lives becoming self[1]supporting and self-determining. This implies breaking free of the demoralizing cycle of dependency on government grants and subsidies and the paternalism of the Indian Act.

Chancellor Point joined us on Zoom from his ancestral lands along the Fraser River in Chilliwack to talk about the history and current reality of Indigenous rights to self-determination. He is a member of the Wolf Clan of the Sumas First Nation and registered at Skowkale First Nation.

Well before Europeans arrived, First Nations were organizing, living off the land, and governing themselves in their villages. First Nations have always governed themselves according to their own traditions and laws. They have a unique relationship with their lands that is based on their own worldviews and belief systems. However, when European explorers, colonizers, and settlers arrived, they considered Indigenous people less than hu[1]man and therefore considered the land as vacant and declare Terra Nullius. The Fall of the Flag Doctrine under British Common Law at the time, ruled that the laws of Britain would follow the settlers to unoccupied lands. If land was ceded through war, the laws of the conquered would continue.

In 1763, King George III passed the Royal Proclamation to officially claim British territory in North America and that Indigenous people were living under the protection of the Crown. It explicitly states that Aboriginal title has existed and continues to exist, and that all land would be considered Aboriginal unless ceded by treaty. This proclamation laid the foundation for establishing treaties in both Canada and the United States and is an important first step in the argument toward the recognition of Aboriginal rights and title including the right to self-determination. However, the Royal Proclamation was designed and enacted by British colonists without input from Aboriginal people, and clearly establishes a monopoly over Aboriginal lands by the British Crown. The old treaty process, which includes Treaties 1-11, dealt with the land that was purchased from the First Nations but not the right to self-government. In the late 1880’s the federal government passed the main Indian Act which specified that Indigenous people were wards of the federal government. The federal government assumed parental responsibility for Indigenous people and took control of managing reserve lands. Each Indigenous person would be registered under the Indian Act and assigned a number. The Indian Act made it so that Indigenous people could not vote, could not practice their culture, and could not organize or hire lawyers to fight for their rights. In some cases, Indigenous individuals would be struck off of the list if they went to university or if they wanted to drink while fighting in WWI and WWII due to prohibition laws on reserves. If they moved off the reservation they could also lose their Indian status, all in the name of whether they still needed the “protection” of the Indian Act. In 1951 many sections were removed from the Indian Act and Indigenous people were allowed to vote and participate in their cultural practices again.

We now recognize that the Doctrine of Discovery is dead. The Constitution now recognizes and protects Aboriginal rights and title and the right to self-determination. And pursuant to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People which Canada and the province of British Columbia have signed onto, the right to self-government is recognized as well. In BC, First Nations are still negotiating their right to title to the land and for the right to self-governance with the federal and provincial governments. The modern treaty process, which started 25 years ago, now includes self-government models and de[1]terminations in the negotiation processes in addition to the land. For example, the Nisga’a parliament is thriving with their own self-governance model. The Tsawwassen agreement has the resolution of their land claim and the establishment of their own model of self-government and the Stó?l? are also working on a treaty that deals with both the issue of land and the issue of self-government.

As the treaty process moves forward in BC, we should expect to see more treaties that actually define a new role for their leader[1]ship, a new role for decision-making and specified jurisdiction on affairs like child welfare, health, and education that will require shared jurisdiction with the federal and provincial governments. Long-term, First Nations are moving out from the paternalism of the Indian Act, and into modern treaties that specify a new relationship with the federal government which finally allows them to share power, own and use their land, and improve the lives of their members through self-governance under the guidance and auspices of the Royal Proclamation that defines a relationship of a sovereign protected nation under Canadian sovereignty.

 Stephen Point was thanked by Jay Powell.

Recommended Reading:

  • You Are Asked to Witness: The Stó?l? in Canada’s Pacific Coast History by Keith Thor Carlson
  • A Stó?l? Coast Salish Historical Atlas by K Carlson

Q&A transcription

Question: When self-governance is achieved, will it vary from band to band, or will there be a one-size-fits-all in terms of the various sub-jurisdictions within the self-governance for particular bands?

Answer: Well, there are certain parts of the treaties in the modern government agreements that are going to be a bit different from one group to another, particularly in the area of culture and language retention and protection. There are other areas that probably will be very, very similar. Child protection for example, the federal government recently passed national legislation to establish a national standard on protection – when a child is in need of protection and how we protect their cultural identity. First Nations are now invited to participate in that legislation. A lot of us are looking at that. There’s no interest in creating a checkerboard of legislation that would confuse the issue of child protection.

Land management is another area where the federal government has recently passed land management legislation that expands out of the Indian Act. I would say that most First Nations have already signed up for that. So, there’s unanimity among First Nations who are in the Land Management Act and how land management will operate on reserve now in relation to the federal government.

So, I can see that as treaty-making progresses, there is already built-in uniformity for a lot of areas. But there will be some areas that will be certainly distinct, depending on the nature of the First Nation, especially in the area of Chief selection or how they do their potlatches to recognizing their leadership. All of that won’t necessarily be the same for everybody.

Question: Could you speak to the power of hereditary chiefs versus the power of elected councils?

Answer: Of course, the idea of elections comes with modern democratic principles. The old hereditary chief system when Europeans arrived was still alive and well. In those days, hereditary chiefs used to hold and convene meetings with heads of families that were called Siy?ám?. The Siy?ám? were in charge of the families. The hereditary chiefs’ responsibility was to call them together to make decisions with them. In the old days, decisions were made by consensus. In other words, everybody had an opportunity to speak, and they would come to a term that roughly translates to one mind or one thought. So, the hereditary chiefs certainly had power to convene, but the actual plenary power was with the Siy?ám?, the people who came together as heads of families. So, this European idea that hereditary chiefs are some sort of despotic all-powerful people that’s just coming from the movies.

Question: Is there any need to repeal the Doctrine of Discovery? Does it actually still have any real effect in law?

Answer: Once Columbus proved the world was round, for one thing, a lot of people still thought the world was flat. There still is a Flat Earth Society out there. But coming west and finding new land, there was a race to discover new lands then. You had Spain. You had Holland. You had Britain. You had all these British governments doing what was called planting their flag in different areas to claim land.

This was called discovery. Of course, that’s a misnomer, too, this idea of discovering a new land. When you take a look at the map of North America before Europeans arrived, it’s replete with thousands of nations of people living here. It wasn’t vacant land. This doctrine that Simon Fraser discovered the Fraser River, Columbus discovered North America, and Vancouver discovered the West Coast, from our Indigenous perspective, is a lot of baloney. They didn’t discover anything. We were already here. Indigenous people have been here for thousands of years. To state from a European perspective that these people discovered anything is laughable. Bill Reid, of course, went to France up the Seine River and planted the Haida flag there to say that he discovered France. Well, that’s the same idea. How can you discover a land that’s already occupied by people? So, the Doctrine of Discovery was really reflective of the colonial times and this race to gain new lands as colonialism expanded. It was convenient for European nations to just ignore the fact that these places were already occupied. So yes, the Doctrine of Discovery is not really morally valid. It’s not even legally valid.

Question: Chancellor Point, thank you very much for that condensed history. I’ve never heard such a condensed history with so much in it.
Thomas King, in his book, The Inconvenient Indian, says that if you want to understand Indigenous people, you have to understand the land and its relationship to Indigenous people. And Clarence Louie recently wrote a book called Rez Rules, which talks extensively about the value of land in economic development. Could you speak a little bit about land issues? I realized that some reserves lost land for various reasons but then, as cities are impinging on reserves and the need for land for the population. I just wonder if you could comment on how Indigenous people are approaching the whole issue of land?

Answer: Well, there’s no doubt that in modern times, we’re talking about 100-200 years since the arrival of Europeans, Indigenous people have not stayed static in their beliefs and understandings, right? And Chief Clarence Louie represents a very cutting-edge view in terms of how do we turn around poverty in our communities? How do we put people to work? How do we get them away from wardship from the federal government? His view is that we take and make use of the land for economic development so that we can change the way we’re living currently. Of course, the traditional view of land that our people held before Europeans arrived is that the land is our mother. The land is an alive, sentient being, and we have a spiritual connection to the land. That we were created and put here by our creator god, and we have a responsibility as stewards of the land to take care of the land and protect the land. So, there’s historically, pre-contact, a very traditional spiritual connection that existed with the land.

When the federal government, of course, began writing treaties with the Indians and settling Europeans in British Columbia, in Chilliwack particularly to set up farms, the First Nations didn’t understand that the European concept of land was central to their understanding of wealth. What is wealth? You had to own land in those days. I would say that the modern paradigm of wealth today is probably around oil. Oil is what drives world economies right now. But historically, unless you were a land owner, you couldn’t even vote in Canada when Canada started its country. And certainly, in Britain, you have to be a landowner to participate politically. So, the idea of this connection to the land was very different from the First Nations’ eyes.

But our connection currently with the land in the modern treaty process is really one of both of those things. How do we preserve our cultural identity and our higher spiritual relationship with the land? But at the same time, how do we help our people out of poverty? How do we help them get better housing? Better education? How do we help them if they want to start a golf course or small business? And that means control over some land and more land from an economic development perspective. So that’s the sort of bifocal view of the land right now, and as we move through the treaty process, you’ll probably see those two things reflected in those agreements.

Question: In terms of areas where self-governance has been effective – how are areas of conflict between the other laws of the community resolved? To what extent do the Indigenous people assume a responsibility to make their own laws generally?

Answer: The way the treaty process is working now, with every head of jurisdiction, let’s take education, for example, the jurisdiction is spelled out, and then there’s a section called Conflicts of Laws. If there’s a conflict between our law and British Columbia, then it’ll specify which area will prevail. So, we’re not leaving in the treaty-making process any room for dispute over whose laws would prevail. We don’t want to create more conflict, we want to create less conflict, but at the same time, our footprint over jurisdictions needs to be there. This area of Conflicts of Law certainly is being resolved in the treaty process. As for what the laws are going to be – yes, the laws will be published. You can look up the laws for the Nisga’a Nation. I believe they’re all online. Tsawwassen Nation’s laws are all public as well.

Question: There’s a huge disparity in the economic potential of reserve lands. The lands of the Squamish Nation are very valuable because of their proximity to Vancouver. But what can be done to help an isolated community in northern Ontario become self-sufficient?

Answer: This problem of economic development is something that isolated communities have been grappling with for some time. One of the things I do know is that as Canada embarks upon what’s called environmental credits or green credits, a lot of the isolated communities are beginning to exchange their credits for economic development dollars. So, they’re using those funds to create businesses and create self-sufficiency around that. But it’s always a challenge for communities that are away from rural centers to do that. So, the answers are not too easy. There’s no recipe that I can tell you, and all I can say is that these communities have always faced these challenges.

Question: Do the Aboriginal people own title to their own piece of land? As you know, we have a fee simple approach where we can have title to our own piece of land, we can mortgage it, and we can sell it. In terms of the land in the reserves, do individuals actually own their own piece of land? Or is the land owned by the reserve?

Answer: Currently, the lands in the reserves in British Columbia are owned by the federal government and fee simple. Okay, so the Indians on a reserve only have a right to reside on those reserves.

Question: Could you address the importance of the recent Truth and Reconciliation report, which has almost 100 calls to action? What’s your view of how these calls are being addressed by our current federal government and other political leaders?

Answer: All I can say is that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was, of course, an amazing event in Canadian history. It’s the first time that Canadians have taken a hard look at the residential school history. Of course, you know, one of the historical realities in modern governments, with Canada being no exception, is that whenever they’ve come up against some sort of a prickly, difficult political issue, they send a commission out, do a report, and these reports get filed away. They never see the light of day, just collecting dust somewhere nobody will ever see it. But not so with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission actually came out with what was called Calls to Action, and they challenged the government, they challenged businesses, they challenged universities and different law societies to change their ways in light of the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I’ve been called, and I don’t know how many times, to speak at organizations to talk about reconciliation. I’ve talked to a law society about courses they want to develop. Even with the government, around how do we implement these various recommendations? The simple fact that organizations like yours are doing land recognitions now, recognizing the fact that we are living and playing in the traditional territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. So, Canada has changed and is changing for the better, in my view. How all of this will play out, and how all these recommendations will be lived up to? I don’t know. I hope that the government will continue to do what it can to implement them and that we will see that change finally happen.

Question: Presuming that most of the activity in these areas is being done by adults, what’s being done to engage a younger generation with respect to these various questions and important issues?

Answer: One of the things that we’ve done under our treaty negotiations is that we’ve created what’s called a Youth Council. So, we treat it as a kind of training ground for leadership. We invite a Youth Council member to attend all of the chiefs’ meetings so that we can hear their perspective from time to time as these matters arise. So, we’re not ignoring the need to train our youth in order to keep them involved and to obtain their perspective. And I must say, even at the Prime Minister’s Office, he has a youth representative that advises him, so it seems to have caught on.

Question: Thank you very much for a condensed history lesson loaded with the insider information that you were able to give it. I wonder if we can switch to a different part of the news and ask for your personal experience with the royal family and the Queen while you were her representative here in BC. Could you talk about that?

Answer: On my relationship with the royal family, as the past representative, there are some things that I can’t talk about. There are some things that I can talk about. Of course, I met Her Majesty back in 2007 when I became the 28th Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia. They brought us to, first of all, Ottawa to meet the then Governor General of Canada. And then from there we, my wife and I were brought to meet her Majesty in England at Buckingham Palace. And from there, we met the Pope actually in Vatican City. But her majesty was a very warm, humble individual. She was kind to us and spoke about my role as Lieutenant Governor. She gave us some advice, and she was very genuinely, I think, interested in us and who we were, and we had a wonderful visit with her. I’ve since, of course, after that, met two or three other members of the royal family. Princess Anne at the opening of the Olympic Games in Vancouver. I’ve met Prince Edward. I’ve met Prince Charles, of course, and Camilla. I’ve met Prince William and his wife. They came for the rings that we put on the rod at BC. So, in my role as Lieutenant Governor, I’ve had the chance to meet members of the royal family. They’re all incredible, interesting people, of course. And that’s about all I can say about that. I have met with members of the royal family, but mostly very briefly, mostly very short scripted meetings.

Question from Bob McFarlane: How should Indigenous identity be determined?

Answer: Indigenous identity, of course, is something that’s particular to every First Nation as they identify their own historical background. The Tseycum, the Haida, the Sts’ailes, they all have their own particular definition as to who they are, and they identify with their own traditional names as well. But if you’re talking about identity in relation to Canada, that’s being defined through our treaties. We are still going to be Canadians, and we’re still going to be under the Canadian Constitution. Our relationship with the country, though, will now be defined through treaties and not the Indian Act.


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