Interview With AFN Vice-Chief, Satsan (Herb George)


6:43 a.m. "Interview with Assembly of First Nations vice-chief, Herb George re recording oral histories of First Nations for use in court"

Host: Laura Chapin

CBC: BC's vice-chief to the Assembly of First Nations is going from coast to coast, asking aboriginal people to record their history. Part of the 1997 Delgamuukw Supreme Court decision ruled that legends and songs passed down from generation to generation are admissible in court. And Herb George is trying to breath life into that decision. He joins me now from his home, in Hagwilget. Good morning.

GEORGE: Good morning.

CBC: What difference does this part of the Delgamuukw decision make?

GEORGE: Well it makes a tremendous difference, given that when the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en went into court at trial, in 1987, and the subsequent decision of Chief Justice McEachern. In that decision a lot of the evidence that was given by our elders and chiefs were considered to be hearsay and therefore inadmissible as evidence, or if it was admitted, then very little weight would be given to it. And with the1987 decision in Delgamuukw, the Supreme Court of Canada has made it clear that our histories - aboriginal histories which are passed down orally, must be admitted as good evidence and must be given due weight, just as anybody else's history in the world.

CBC: What does due weight mean?

GEORGE: Well it means that you have to - you have to consider it and give it sole consideration, as opposed to just simply dismissing it as hearsay.

CBC: If that had been allowed in the past, what difference do you think that would have made to decisions?

GEORGE: Well I firmly believe that if this were the case when we went to trial on Delgamuukw, that we would have won. Clearly that was the basis on which a retrial was ordered, in the 1987 decision of Delgamuukw, because in the court's - in the Supreme Court of Canada's view, Chief Justice McEachern had so badly mishandled the evidence that we had put forward, that the Supreme Court ordered a new trial.

CBC: What happens in a case like the Nisga'a and the Gitanyow, where each of the group's histories conflict with one another - they don't match?

GEORGE: Well I can't comment on that. I mean that's something that's ongoing between them and it's not for me to comment on that.

CBC: Is there a way that the history could be questioned or is it accepted without question?

GEORGE: Well I think the important thing in terms of the work that I'm trying to do, is to get people to realise that given the decision in Delgamuukw and the admissibility of our oral history as evidence, and given the test that it was in that decision to prove title, for example; we need to put our histories together. So what I've been doing is saying to people 'You need to start to record your history and transcribe it and get it down, for your own use.' And what I say is that 'You have to put it together for your own use, so that your children can learn their history and they can have it for their children.' And secondarily that 'You need to have it in case you need to go into trial to prove title or something to that effect. You have to look at it as if you were putting it into a trial situation and to try to predict what the objections of the other side might be and the kind of attack that they might make on it, and to be prepared for that.' And one of the areas, for example, is if you have a history about a particular or peculiar place and you put that evidence forward, you need to also establish a reputation of the evidence that's being put forward, so other people have got to be able to corroborate what you're saying about that particular place.

CBC: That it's just not one person?

GEORGE: Yes. So I mean you have other people to corroborate it. You have surrounding nations to corroborate it. You have the historical archival record to corroborate it, and you've got to look at all of those things.

CBC: How many different forms can this history take?

GEORGE: Well the most obvious one for us is of course, the oral part of it. But in other ways you can show or depict by other means, for example, in our area here with totem poles, with different ceremonial garb, different carved pieces. So it's a very broad area.

CBC: How time consuming is this, gathering all this history?

GEORGE: Well that's the problem with it in a lot of people's eyes, is that it's time consuming. But what I'm saying is that 'Yes, it is time-consuming, but if you never start, you'll never get it done.' So it's important for people to realise that it's as simple as picking up a tape recorder and starting to record the histories that our elders hold.

CBC: What have reactions been like when you have gone to different places across the country?

GEORGE: Well what I've found is that more often than not, this hasn't been done, and people have this perception that it's such a complex, difficult and time consuming task, and costly, that they just - you know, seem to have this problem with it. And when I come in and say 'Look it. It's as simple as picking up a tape recorder and recording your elders and recording your histories, and transcribing it, putting it in order, in terms of what the people are saying to the land, and putting it in terms of the maps and starting to make those connections.'So once people learn that it's not all that difficult as it seems, people are very excited because they know they have to do it.

CBC: How much are you fighting the sands of time passing through the hourglass, in this case?

GEORGE: Well that's one of the most difficult areas for us, given that -you know, we've gone now - I believe like we're third, fourth generation removed from the whole residential school situation, where our people were - you know, barred from speaking their own language, where our cultural traditional practices were outlawed. We have to come up against that. And our elders, a lot of them have passed on, before they've had a chance to tell their histories so they can be recorded. So that's really a problem that we have, right across the country, and it's a problem that - that's why in the work that I'm doing, I'm saying 'You need to start now. As we speak you have to start. You can't let it go.'

CBC: Has the decision come too late, do you think?

GEORGE: No, I don't believe so. I think that everywhere I've been across the country and within the province here, that the historical record is still there and it's just a matter of us getting busy and putting it together.

CBC: Mr. George, thanks for taking the time this morning.

GEORGE: I appreciate it very much. Thank you.

CBC: Herb George is BC's vice-chief to the Assembly of First Nations