Bruce Williams is CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce
The B.C. Day long-weekend typically marks the middle of the dog days of summer. But this year, it’s an ideal time to think about change, and how we can embrace a new reality as we emerge from our pandemic cocoons.
Our province officially turned 150 on July 20, but there was little celebration other than a few thoughtful columns in this paper. Even the provincial government barely acknowledged this historic date. With wildfires prompting a new Provincial State of Emergency, politicians can be forgiven if they had other things on their mind than marking the anniversary of when the Colony of B.C. formally became Canada’s sixth province.
Of course, the bigger question is whether our colonial history is even worth celebrating. The revelation of mass graves at former residential schools across Canada continues to be heart wrenching. The news hit all Canadians hard, and has been devastating for First Nations. We know the way forward is through reconciliation, but how can we work together to achieve that in a meaningful way?
We can start by acknowledging that our economy and mainstream culture were built by actively suppressing the spiritual beliefs, family practices, freedom and culture of First Nations. Indigenous stewardship of the land, sea and air was also derided — to the detriment of all of us today.
One of the reasons it’s tough to celebrate joining confederation is that it effectively legitimized discriminatory laws and policies. For generations, there was a systematic attempt by Canada’s ruling class to tear down Indigenous people so they could be built back as “good Canadians.” This wasn’t a case of ignorance or the past being a different country, as the saying goes. This was people treating others as less than human. Assimilation, of course, failed horribly and caused so much trauma to families and communities that it will take generations to overcome.
This is a burden all of us must bear. At the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, we’re taking steps to help — starting with a long look in the mirror. As Board Chair John Wilson recently said, “as an organization founded in 1863, we are part of the history of our community. Regrettably, we need to acknowledge that means we share responsibility for the suppression of Indigenous peoples.”
To do more to ensure First Nations are included in economic activity happening in their traditional territory, The Chamber is creating an Indigenous Business Task Force. Our goal is to better engage Indigenous-owned businesses and First Nations to do what we can to help them flourish. Our board has agreed to reduce barriers to Chamber membership so these businesses can participate in relationship-building, advocacy efforts and other services that are so valuable to our members.
We are also forming a new committee focused on diversity and inclusion. We want to hear from members of the business community to identify and help overcome systemic discrimination. If it wasn’t front of mind before, the Black Lives Matter movement and the experience of Asian Canadians during the pandemic shows that we have a long way to go to ensure everyone feels safe and has access to the same economic opportunities.
The last 16 months have forced almost all organizations to rethink their operations and, often, their core values. At The Chamber, our wickedly fun mixers went from being in-person events to Zoom meetings, and our annual Business Awards gala became a television show on CHEK TV. The thing is, though these changes were made by necessity, they’ve opened new doors for us. In fact, we’re planning to continue with some of them long after the pandemic is behind us.
Another project that we announced this year is the launch of the Greater Victoria Business Hall of Fame presented by RBC. This is a natural fit for our organization and one I have been working on for some time. It’s a chance to celebrate the legacy of pioneers and leaders who helped build our business community. And it’s a chance to do our due diligence and offer context to our complex history. We deeply value the connection between good business and great community, and we want inductees who were known to be inclusive and fair in their business practices.
The first class will be announced this fall with an official ceremony scheduled to take place on Feb. 3, 2022. In following years, the hall will recognize those who have shown leadership, vision, and a true commitment to the prosperity of our region. Those stories of success will be showcased in a few high-profile places around Greater Victoria.
The goal is to recognize and respect the diversity of leaders who came before us, and, hopefully, show that honouring our history can lead to positive social change. Let’s learn from the past and use its lessons to create a brighter future.