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4.19.2019 – Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Non-Citizen Voting, and Rep. Bob Forguites

Committees continue to work hard with the goal of ending the 2019 Session in mid-May. We are focusing on bills that came from the Senate and have, fortunately, had more time to work in committee taking testimony and less time on the Floor of the House.

The House did work on and pass two bills that garnered more than the usual amount of debate – the creation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day and an amendment to the charter of the City of Montpelier that allows non-citizen voting in City elections.

Over the last several decades, there has been increased awareness brought to the fact that there were native, or First Nation, people here when Columbus landed in the New World. We have also come to recognize that Columbus was not the first European to “discover” North America. In fact, the Vikings landed here approximately 500 years earlier. Years ago, I remember having a conversation with a now-deceased Windham substitute teacher who was lamenting the fact that Columbus Day was no longer a day off in the school calendar. When I pointed out that Columbus had not discovered America and that there was a native population already here, it was like a bubble had been burst for her. Change is sometimes hard.

According to the findings in S.68, Indigenous Peoples’ Day was first proposed in 1977 by a delegation of Native Nations to the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas. There has been a recent trend in many places to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day in an effort to celebrate our country’s native heritage and educate ourselves about the resilient people who were here before the Europeans arrived. In the case of Vermont, it was the Abenaki people who lived here and reportedly taught us how to make our beloved maple syrup.

On the Floor of the House, there was a lot of debate regarding tradition, history, and Italian-American pride. As we all remember, Christopher Columbus was Italian though he was sailing for Spain at the time. During the debate, it was also pointed out that Columbus was responsible for some less than honorable acts such as the kidnapping of native people and his promotion of slavery.

The formal change of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day is in no way a disparagement of Italian pride, but a recognition that times have changed, and our understanding of the situation has grown. Those who want to continue to celebrate Columbus can do so but it provides an opportunity to learn more about and honor the people who were here before we were.

I can remember a friend of my mother-in-law’s when I moved to Windham to marry Alan – a remarkable woman who only spoke of her native heritage if you knew her well. In her youth, it was something to be hidden and ashamed of. And while I think it has already happened to a great degree, it is my hope that the creation of Indigenous People’s Day will continue to change that perception for people with native ancestry.

We also spent time debating a charter change for the City of Montpelier, H.207, that would allow people who aren’t citizens to vote in City elections. The people of Montpelier, on a two-to-one margin, voted in favor of allowing non-citizens to vote in their local, city elections.

We learned that non-citizen voting has historically happened in our country. In her eloquent vote explanation, Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, Chair of the House Government Operation Committee said, “Madame Speaker, non-citizens voting was the norm for much of the U.S. history. Less than a century ago non-citizens were even allowed to vote in presidential elections. Putting this 1924 change in historical context it was post WWI rise in nationalism that led to the denial of that right. For the first 100 years of U.S. history it was the policy to not only encourage immigration but to extend voting rights as an intentional preparation for citizenship. Today we recognize that for the residents of Montpelier they, too, wish to welcome residents who were born elsewhere to join in their local municipal elections. And to be true to our history that, embrace it or not, we are a nation of immigrants.”

The bill passed on a strong 95-46 vote, I think, in part, because we were honoring Montpelier’s right to make this decision and that their votes counted. As I reflected on this, it occurred to me that I would hope that all towns’ votes count and that ultimately, the votes of the towns that rejected Act 46 mergers will also be respected. As the court case makes its way through the process, I hope that the principle that property should not be taken from or debt imposed on Vermonters who did not vote for it will be honored. Votes count and that principle should be respected.

Reps. Matt Trieber, Emilie Kornheiser, and I were delighted to have a group of students from Friends for Change in Bellows Falls visit the State House on Friday. They visited my committee and after introductions, told us a little about the group. Friends for Change was founded after the Boys and Girls Club in Bellows Falls lost funding and could not continue. Their Director, Hailee Galandak-Cochran, told us that Friends for Change is a play-based, trauma-informed, democratically-run group that offers a safe after-school and summer program where young people feel comfortable, accepted, and also learn to contribute to their community.

A current project they are working on is the collection of prom clothes, shoes, and accessories to be used for the prom, which is on May 4th. I was told I could drop off dresses at Parks Place in Bellows Falls and I plan to do so! It was wonderful to have these students visit with us and to make them part of our day.

The week also included a bus trip with many legislators to the Town of Springfield in order to attend the funeral of Rep. Bob Forguites. Bob was a quiet, humble man who wanted to do his very best for his constituents. He dreamt of a world made better for all people and worked to make it happen.

It is, thankfully, rare to lose colleagues in the Legislature, but also a reminder that we are, despite our differences, a large family in which grief has no political boundaries.