B.C. mayor taken to task over residential school comments

Williams Lake city councillors condemn Facebook post, remain committed to reconciliation.

Walter Cobb is the mayor of Williams Lake, B.C. Photo: Submitted


It’s the birthplace of Orange Shirt Day in Canada, but some non-Indigenous politicians in Williams Lake, B.C., continue to deny the horrors of residential schools.

This week, Walter Cobb, a three-term mayor and former MLA, was under fire for sharing a racist post on social media about the “other side” of the residential school story.

The post, first reported by the Williams Lake Tribune, said “most of the older generation that did suffer are long dead and gone or have forgiven” and “it seems to me that many of the new generations just want to be victims and feel the money would solve their pain.”

It has since been deleted from Cobb’s private Facebook account.

The post, which Cobb told the Tribune he was forwarded and decided to share, shows a continuing lack of acceptance of the documented harms inflicted by the residential school system.

Cobb apologized during the special council meeting on Nov. 2.

Orange Shirt Day 

Phyllis Webstad, of the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation (Canoe Creek) south of Williams Lake, created Orange Shirt Day on Sept. 30, 2013 to honour residential school survivors.

She did it in memory of the orange shirt her grandmother bought for her first day at St. Joseph’s Residential School in Williams Lake in 1973, which was taken from her and never returned.

Orange Shirt Day is now a national holiday in Canada to reflect on the forced assimilation, cultural genocide and intergenerational trauma inflicted on generations of Indigenous Peoples.

But that didn’t stop Williams Lake city council from discussing the positive aspects of residential schools during a regular council meeting back in June 2020.

Now, Chief Willie Sellars of Williams Lake First Nation has said enough is enough.

Advance a narrative

“We can no longer abide the City of Williams Lake, or any of its elected officials, trying to advance a narrative which is a slap in the face to our community, to other First Nations communities, or to the vast majority of Canadians who acknowledge the horror of residential schools and who want to assist with reconciliation,” Sellars said in a statement.

The two communities have had a good working relationship until now, partnering on various economic development projects and other initiatives.

Sellars even broke rank with area First Nation chiefs in 2020 to support Williams Lake’s plan to target repeat criminal offenders, who, critics say, are usually First Nations’ people.

The electronic ankle bracelet monitoring program, first introduced as a pilot project in 2016, would keep track of “prolific offenders” – mostly males in their 20s – who are released on bail and sentencing conditions despite having hundreds of charges for breaches and rearrest on their criminal records.

The plan was panned by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), who said it would unfairly penalize members of 14 First Nations whose communities surround the small city of 14,000 in B.C.’s central interior and visit Williams Lake for all kinds of services, including court appearances.

Over-stepping

“The municipality of Williams Lake is over-stepping their jurisdiction,” Carly Teillet, a community lawyer with the BCCLA, told APTN News in an earlier interview.

“Bylaws that they pass and any rules that they pass in Williams Lake with respect to this are ripe for constitutional challenge.”

The plan garnered support from various Williams Lake community groups, the area MLA and MP, Cariboo Regional District, and Union of BC Municipalities. Williams Lake RCMP also endorsed the program.

Cobb spoke to APTN about the plan in a separate interview, saying: “My personal opinion is what’s happened to the judicial system is the crook has more rights now than you and I as a law-abiding citizen.

“They don’t look at the victims anymore,” he added, “they just look at what was the history of this young man or young lady, did they have alcoholic parents, were they beaten as a child? Well, sooner or later, individuals have to be responsible for their actions and can’t continue to blame society for their problems.”

Williams Lake city council further wants a public inquiry into how sentencing decisions made by the courts are putting its community at risk.

“People support a public inquiry to basically find the holes in the judicial system where the rights of one individual are being given superior rights over an entire community of 14,000 people,” Cobb  said.

Online Journalist / Winnipeg

Award-winning reporter Kathleen Martens covers western and northern Canada for aptnnews.ca. A veteran of the Brandon Sun, Sun Media and APTN Investigates, she is based in APTN’s head office, specializing in stories about property, women’s rights and community.