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B.C. pair given London’s Key to City in historic UK ceremony

Award marks first time honour has been given to First Nations members in over 350 years

For over 350 years, no First Nations member had received the Freedom of the City Award from the City of London, England.

But that changed earlier this month when Chief Derek Epp of the Tzeachten First Nation, Chief David Jimmie of the Squiala First Nation and Chief Donald Maracle of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte travelled across the pond to receive the honour.

“It was a really cool opportunity,” said Epp. “It’s like actually a big deal…I didn’t realize how big a deal it was.”

“In hindsight, I totally should’ve flown my mom over.”

Chief Epp is a familiar name in and around the city of Chilliwack, serving as Tzeachten Chief for the past eight years. During this time he has worked with various international organizations that support First Nations economic development.

Some of the projects he’s been involved in include the Enbridge expansion and Trans Mountain.

Following the U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union (Brexit) Britain has been trying to build direct international relations with Canada, and more specifically Canadian First Nations, investing in various sectors like green energy or resource extraction projects.

READ MORE: 3 Chilliwack and Agassiz-area First Nations to receive clean-energy funding

This is where Epp, Jimmie and other First Nations communities become involved.

The implementation of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is causing the federal and provincial governments to send communications directly to First Nations communities.

“Basically, the government is deferring to First Nations when projects are proposed in our territory because they’re scared to get sued.”

Epp is among a select few leaders who have been making regular trips to the U.K. over the last few years to build relationships and “create comfort for investors”.

“We talk about what’s worked and what hasn’t and what are some of the solutions that individuals like myself are working on to help create comfort for First Nations to invest and be a part of these projects,” said Epp.

Epp went on to explain that their direct relations have been with the financial district in the City of London, a sector overseen by a group of elected businessmen known as aldermen. This group elects a leader who is referred to as the Lord Mayor.

Elected Lord Mayors campaign around a central theme, being something that they hope to accomplish while in their leadership role.

“This Lord Mayor’s theme was ‘connect to prosper’ with a focus on connecting with First Nations in Canada,” explained Epp.

Lord Mayor Professor Michael Mainelli looked into some of the work Epp and his colleagues had done in the past, and was thoroughly impressed, reaching out and stating his intention to award the gentlemen with the Freedom of the City of London.

“It’s basically like a key to the city,” said Epp.

With the award, Epp, Jimmie and Maracle were honoured by becoming official citizens of the City of London. Should they ever choose to, they could participate in politics too.

Being that the award is almost 800 years old, there are also some very interesting aspects accompanying the practical ones.

“I can herd sheep across the (London) bridge in September if I wanted to,” laughed Epp.

The presentation had some high-up officials in attendance. Even some distant members of the Royal Family were on hand.

For Jimmie, the award induced some mixed emotions.

Jimmie’s mother was born in Chesterfield, England where he was able to see her side of the family while visiting in March following the passing of his grandmother.

“I can appreciate tradition and history so to be a part of a ceremony that started in 1237 is something special,” said Jimmie. “Hearing the names of some of the recipients that signed the Freeman’s Declaration Book was nothing short of amazing.”

But Jimmie admitted having been raised in a First Nations family, reviewing a declaration referencing the King and the monarchy was difficult.

“As First Nations people, we have lived through colonialism so as you can imagine I was torn between the heritage of my mother’s side and that of my father’s side,” admitted Jimmie. “Ultimately, it was a tremendous honor to be a part of such a ceremony that dates back to the 1200s.”

“I couldn’t be more honored and I know my grandmother would have been extremely proud.”

Following the presentation, the men were given an extensive tour of Buckingham Palace, where they got to enjoy some conversation with the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh.

“So I guess it’s tradition but they sent us home with this hand-scribed sheepskin plaque,” said Epp. “I mean, yeah, it was pretty surreal to be honest.”

Following their visit, the men felt compelled to leave a part of their own history. The two Chiefs offered up their cedar headbands as historical artifacts for the City of London.

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Stefan Luciani

About the Author: Stefan Luciani

Before joining the team here at the Chilliwack Progress in spring 2024, I was a story editor for TSN in Toronto and digital journalist.
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