Chief Joe Alphonse notes that in other parts of Canada, endorsing similar views has disqualified individuals from office.
Sparked by a letter, one Mayor faces anger and pressure
By Matthew Fraser, Editor in Chief
A mysterious letter by a man named Jim Bissell has ignited issues in Williams Lake, BC. The letter, written to the Toronto Sun’s Lorne Gunter, seeks to tell the “other side” of the residential school story. The author claims to be a man in his 70’s who grew up in northern Canada and has an indigenous daughter and many indigenous acquaintances. Throughout the letter, Bissell describes his personal experiences with nuns and priests and argues that those who suffered in residential schools have either passed on or forgiven those who caused their suffering. Bissell also states that the “new generation just want to be victims” in an effort to gain money. Though the letter was not published in the Toronto Sun, copies of it have been reposted online.
One such repost was done by Williams Lake Mayor Walt Cobb on his private Facebook page. When screenshots of the post were shared online, the contents of the letter caused the Tŝilhqot’in National Government to issue a public statement calling for Cobb’s resignation. In their November 1 press release, the Nation argues that this is not a first-time or isolated incident. The press release includes the recollection of a June 2020 incident where Mayor Cobb and Councillor Marnie Brenner “reportedly opined about the need to understand ‘both sides of the story’ when it comes to residential schools.”
The release goes further to quote Nits’ilʔin Chief Joe Alphonse, who explains the unacceptability of the post. Chief Alphonse notes that in other parts of Canada, endorsing similar views has disqualified individuals from office and that across BC and the nation, people are “finally acknowledging the trauma of the residential schools and the ongoing impacts for our communities.”
In the days following the initial incident, the Vancouver Sun reported that Mayor Cobb offered an apology in a council meeting. In his apology, Cobb would state that he “never intended to offend or make light” of the historic trauma caused by residential schools. However, while offering his apology in an interview with CBC, Cobb would tell reporters that he was “annoyed” that the issue went public before someone spoke to him. During his comments to CBC, Cobb stated “This article was on my private site—[on] which I post jokes, I post a lot of things—but it’s not on my ‘Mayor Walt Cobb’ site[…] So, it is what it is. I did my apologies and I am seriously sorry.”
In response to the media statements by Cobb, the Tŝilhqot’in National Government created a second press release on November 3 calling the apology a “disgraceful attempt.” In this release, the nation alleges that a second racialized post directed at indigenous peoples had been posted around the same time by Cobb. Chief Joe Alphonse alleges that “This is a pattern, this is a state of mind, and it is unacceptable in a leader in this day and age.” Alphonse goes further to state that Walt Cobb’s words and actions have disqualified him from the authority to govern. Alphonse also states that Cobb has “Made it very clear that he has no care or regard for Indigenous peoples in Williams Lake and the surrounding communities.”