If John Horgan and the New Democrats go on to win the provincial election May 9, some of the most significant and far-reaching changes would involve the provincial government’s relationship with B.C. First Nations.
The NDP leader set the stage for the dramatic shift in responding favourably to a dozen-and-a-half questions from the leadership council representing the three main aboriginal groups in the province and 203 individual First Nations.
Moreover the change would be immediate. Horgan’s letter of response — released earlier this week by the council itself — said many of his most sweeping commitments would be incorporated into the mandate letters for the first cabinet of an NDP government.
High atop the marching orders for the new government would be adoption of a United Nations declaration that has been interpreted as granting B.C. First Nations a de facto veto over development of land and resources.
“An NDP government will officially adopt the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples,” wrote Horgan, reiterating a commitment made last September in a speech to the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, whose leader, Grand Chief Stewart Philip, is a longtime New Democrat.
“It will be in the mandate letters to government ministers,” the letter continued.
“A NDP government will require each minister to consider the legislation they are responsible for, and the implications of the UN Declaration … on those laws. We will work with First Nations leadership to develop a way forward to address those laws together.”
The B.C. Liberal government, while accepting many of the 46 provisions in the UN declaration, has balked at a blanket endorsement because of the implications for decision making on crown land and resources.
Though the word “veto” does not appear in the declaration, several of the 46 articles have been interpreted as giving indigenous peoples “the right to say yes and the right to say no,” in the words of Perry Bellegarde of Canada’s Assembly of First Nations.
“Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use,” the UN declaration reads in part.
“States shall consult indigenous peoples in order to obtain their free and informed consent before the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources.”
Such “free, informed and prior consent” would presumably apply to virtually all of British Columbia, given the dearth of treaties and the overlapping territories of some 203 recognized First Nations.
A Horgan-led NDP government would also endorse the full set of recommendations of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation commission.
“The first step toward implementing the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action is accepting them,” wrote Horgan. “When elected, every minister will be asked to review the calls to action and their ministry’s role in implementation. The progress of implementation will be reflected in their ministry service plans.”
Another blanket endorsement involved the recommendations of the Cohen commission on the West Coast salmon fishery, all 75 of them, especially those with impact on the fate of fish farming.
“Our primary focus in implementing the recommendations will be to review salmon farm siting criteria to ensure migrating salmon are not put at risk from farmed salmon locations, keeping the existing moratorium on new farms on the North Coast, and working with the industry and B.C. communities, First Nations and others to grow land based fish farming as an economic alternative to open pen operations.”
So 46 articles (UN declaration) 94 calls to action (TRA) and 75 recommendations, for a running count of 215. And there was more to come.
Horgan promised a rewrite of the provincial environmental approval process with a view to giving First Nations a greater say “as partners in evaluating projects.” He offered similar commitments on forest tenures, timber harvesting, mineral exploration, mining development and even emergency management.
He also signalled a break with the Clark government’s practice of doing one-off agreements with First Nations on forestry and other resource developments, saying those would be subject to review and reconsideration.
“The Liberal government is focused on short-term economic agreements, and is ignoring the tremendous opportunities of working in true partnership with First Nations,” wrote Horgan. “True partnership does not involve signing time-limited agreements designed to promote enduring partnerships with industry … It involves building an enduring trust, making decisions together and recognizing each other’s rights and obligations, and ensuring all British Columbians benefit from our natural resources.”
B.C. Liberal Leader Christy Clark cited such agreements in her response to the series of questions from the First Nations Leadership Council.
“We are proud of the relationships we have built with First Nations over the years, reaching close to 500 economic and reconciliation agreements — nearly 400 of those since 2013,” wrote Clark. She cited the three First Nations leaders running for her party in this election: Ellis Ross in Skeena, Wanda Good in Stikine and Dallas Smith in the North Island.
But Clark stopped well short of the sweeping commitments made by Horgan in his letter to the council. Nor did Green party Leader Andrew Weaver go as far, though on some points he matched Horgan.
“These are not simple commitments,” Horgan acknowledged in his letter, which is putting it mildly.
I doubt there’s anything on the NDP leader’s agenda with farther-reaching and less-reversible implications for B.C. than his commitments to First Nations.