Leaders receive lesson in respect

David Wiwchar
10/26/05

PORT ALBERNI, British Columbia -- British Columbian political leaders
emerged from the Tseshaht longhouse behind Nuu-chah-nulth cultural leaders
after a three-hour discussion on numaac, the disrespectful treatment of the
dead in a way that generates negative effects.

Stan Hagen, the province's Minister of Children and Family Development, and
Carole James, leader of the British Columbia New Democratic Party, were
invited to meet with Nuu-chah-nulth cultural and political leaders over
their treatment of child protection issues after the death of a
Nuu-chah-nulth infant in 2002.

The 17-month-old girl was killed by Ryan George, the common-law husband of
the infant's aunt who was caring for the child as part of newly-legislated
"kith and kin" child protection agreements, in which children in danger are
taken to the home of relatives rather than foster placements. George is now
serving a 10-year sentence for manslaughter.

"It is very important in keeping with Nuu-chah-nulth culture and teachings
that we no longer refer to the name of the late child who we're talking
about, and ask for her image not to be displayed in order to let the spirit
of the young girl and her family rest, and recognize the need to support
the family in their healing journey," said Shawn Atleo, Nuu-chah-nulth
Tribal Council spokesman.

"It's not only part of our traditions: it's a law. The name of the person
who has passed on is put away, and anyone in the family and extended family
who shares that name puts it away. It's out of respect for the dignity of
the person who has passed on and to allow them to be on their way, and for
their spirit to rest; and it's also for the healing of the family," he said
at a press conference following the meeting. "So I hope it can be
understood that by the repeated showing of the image and using of the name
goes against how the Nuu-chah-nulth people handle the very traumatic issues
around death and dying."

The child was from a chief's family on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

The issues surrounding her death in Port Alberni will continue to be
discussed, but legislators will make every effort to not use her name to
further political agendas.

"Today was about learning," said James. "Today was about learning about
Nuu-chah-nulth and learning from the family, and it was an honor to take
part in the ceremony that we took part in today," she said. "The tough
issues will continue to be raised, but there's a way to do that in a way
that is respectful to the family and respectful to the community," she
said.

"I will no longer use the name of the child who died, in respect to the
family and to the Nuu-chah-nulth people," said Hagen. "I think it's time to
give the family some rest and some peace."

Provincial leaders were invited into the longhouse on Sept. 26. After an
opening prayer, the cultural speakers of various chiefs gave a description
of ha'wilth-mis; the ancient structure of Nuu-chah-nulth government
systems.

"This isn't something we conjured up six months ago -- this is our
history," said Barney Williams Jr., one of the cultural speakers at the
meeting. "We were trying to help the process in a gentle way and teach them
how we conduct business. It was a really positive experience and I was
honored to be a part of it," he said.

"It was very meaningful to hear from the family about how they've been
affected, and hear ideas on how we can do things better," said Hagen.
"These are the types of experiences that actually create change."

After presentations, Atleo led an open discussion on how to move forward in
a positive way that would improve child protection services in the
province.

"Today marked a significant turning point in that provincial leaders took
the time to sit with the family and sit with our leaders according to our
customs and laws. I'm really appreciative that both the minister and leader
of the opposition took the time, demonstrating that this is a priority, and
engaging in an opportunity for learning and mutual respect on all sides,"
said Atleo.

"We need to have those policy debates and discussions. This isn't about
taking away from the need for difficult debate and discussion about child
and family services. This is about caring for the family, and in this case
we are looking for understanding in allowing the family to rest."

The leaders ended the day by sitting together for a meal, planting seeds
for future discussions on child-protection issues.

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