North Vancouver elder accepts Jubilee medal amid day of tension between government, first nations

Tsleil-Waututh Nation Elder, Leonard George receives Queen Elizabeth II
Tsleil-Waututh Nation Elder, Leonard George receives Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee Medal presented by Senator Larry Campbell as RCMP Constable Anthony Cameron (right) looks on.
— image credit: CNW Group/Tsleil-Waututh Nation photo

A former North Vancouver First Nation chief won a medal of merit from the Queen via the Governor General on Friday, a day that saw strained relations between first nations, the federal government and the Crown reach a tipping point in Ottawa.

By Friday, the Idle No More protest movement had seemingly achieved its goal of bringing aboriginal leaders together for a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor General David Johnston. But by then political rifts within the movement and among some First Nation chiefs were casting serious doubts about whether any common ground would be found between the two sides.

It was in this climate that former Vancouver mayor, Senator Larry Campbell, bestowed the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for outstanding service upon Tsleil-Waututh Nation elder Leonard George.

And while George graciously accepted the honour in North Vancouver Friday afternoon, even calling it "the highlight of my life," three high-profile Canadians, who were themselves would-be recipients, rejected their medals, saying the move was in solidarity with the nationwide Idle No More protests.

Musician Sarah Slean and author-activist Naomi Klein took to Twitter Friday to publicly refuse the Queen's medal, while Council of Canadians chair Maude Barlow issued a press release declining the award.

Both George and the senator applauded the motives of the women in refusing the honour, while not necessarily agreeing with their methods.

"I think that's a wonderful gesture for those people to make this statement," George told The Outlook following his own medal ceremony at the Tsleil-Watuth Nation community centre. "But I think that the more First Nations people like myself get recognized for the significant work they do in Canada, it helps raise the profile and bring a better understanding and a better relationship between us and the Canadian people."

Campbell for the most part agreed, saying he appreciated the spirit of the stunt but felt it may have been slightly off the mark.

"I'm saddened but I understand that when you reach the level of frustration with the government that first nations have, and obviously the lack of trust with the government, there are very few ways which you can express your disappointment and certainly this is one," Campbell told The Outlook. "I'm saddened because really the government has nothing to do with this medal; it's the Queen who presented it. But it's sad and it should be a wakeup call to this government that they have to deal with the first nations in a trustful, respectful manner, and they aren't doing it."

In his speech to the nation members in attendance, Campbell said all Canadians would be in "a much better place" if politicians in Ottawa made it a habit of listening to the likes of George.

"Chief George has taken his community on an incredible march forward," Campbell explained, rattling off just some of the ways the elder's economic and spiritual guidance have enriched the Tsleil-Waututh Nation.

"This is a nation that is peaceful with the nations around it," Campbell added. "The prime minister would do well to think of the word, peaceful."

Campbell is the one who initially nominated George for the Jubilee Award, having first met the Tsleil-Waututh leader in the 1970s, when the senator was then an RCMP officer in North Vancouver.

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