The Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, Janet Austin, made her first official visit to the Kootenays this week.
The duties of the Viceroy — the Crown’s representative in the province — include a regular schedule of visits to B.C.’s regions. But for Her Honour Janet Austin, those duties were interrupted by two years of the pandemic. And she is only now starting to resume them.
“This is an area of the province I hadn’t been able to travel to [as Lieutenant Governor] during the pandemic,” she told the Townsman in an interview. “So it was really our first priority to come here.”
Austin, who was named B.C.’s 30th Lieutenant Governor in April, 2018, grew up in Calgary, and spent a lot of time in the Kootenays in her earlier life.
“It’s a spectacular place, with a warm and welcoming culture,” she said.
Austin said she particularly wanted to make the Kootenays her first official visit since the pandemic because of her friendship and professional relationship with former Aq’am Chief Sophie Pierre, “and the advice and support she’s offered to my office”.
“She’s a remarkable person who’s provided incredible leadership for her people, and helped to steer a future oriented vision for the Ktunaxa First Nation,” Austin said.
Austin had stops planned in Cranbrook, Creston, Nelson and Castlegar. In Cranbrook and Creston, she joined the Ktunaxa First Nation in recognition of Indigenous History Month, and to mark the reconciliation process between the Crown and First Nations. Reconciliation is an ongoing process through which Indigenous peoples and the Crown work to establish and maintain a framework for living together, overcoming historic issues.
While in the Cranbrook area, the Lieutenant Governor visited Aq’amnik School, and hosted a luncheon for the Ktunaxa Nation Council’s xaȼqanaǂ ʔitkiniǂ (“Many Ways Of Doing The Same Thing”) research team, which won the inaugural BC Reconciliation Award in 2021 for its work towards “decolonizing relationships between health systems and Indigenous nations.” In Creston, Austin visited the YaqanNu’kiy School.
Reconciliation was very much a theme of Austin’s Kootenay visit. And while the office of Lieutenant Governor is largely seen as a ceremonial one, Austin says her office, with its voice and visibility, can play an important role in this process, as well as other issues facing the province.
“I do represent an historic colonial institution,” she said. “And sometimes people might think that might put me in a conflict. But I think, who more important than me, given my role, and the history, to stand up and say as a nation we can do better, and to be a visible and a vocal advocate for reconciliation in all its dimensions.
“My role is hopefully a unifying role. I’ve always used the evidence base to bring profile to issues of importance. [The office of Lieutenant Governor] is also a powerful neutral convening space for conversation, with respect to a number of issues we’re facing in British Columbia.
“I see it as an opportunity to bring people together who may have different views or different experiences, in perhaps a confidential environment to have those conversations to achieve those areas of compromise in between the extremes of public opinion.”
The establishment of the BC Reconciliation Awards, “a very high status award in the province,” is part of this theme. Through her office, Austin also champions indigenous language and cultural revitalization through connection with a number of organizations and ongoing events.
Austin also focuses on the themes of diversity, inclusion, respect for pluralism and equality, which, she says, is an extension of the work she did previously, professionally and as a volunteer.
“We have been, in our office, engaged in a number of initiatives. I’m patron for a lot of organizations that work on things like the rights of immigrants and refugees … over the past couple of years we’ve worked with the BC Business Council around a campaign to get people to pledge their commitment to foundational Canadian values we think of, as respect for pluralism, diversity and inclusive behaviours.”
Austin identifies democracy and the democratic process as another focus of her office.
“I feel that’s something that’s particularly appropriate for a Lieutenant Governor. Our system of government in Canada is a constitutional monarchy and that because it is a separation of state and government I believe that is a stabilizing characteristic of Canadian society. It’s a check on the power of the first minister. So different than from a republic.
“I’m also concerned about the fragility of democracy internationally. We see the rise of authoritarianism and a decline of trust in public institutions which are stabilizers in our society. And the challenges to traditional media.”
After Cranbrook and Creston, Her Honour was scheduled to tour downtown Nelson and take part in a roundtable with women- and family-support service providers at Nelson Community Services.
In Castlegar, Austin was to visit the Southeast Fire Centre and thank B.C. Wildfire Service Emergency staff.