Vancouver Sun

The B.C. Liberals have quietly endorsed lawyer Celeste Haldane as chief of the B.C. Treaty Commission, two years after they noisily vetoed former cabinet minister George Abbott for the position.The B.C. Liberals have quietly endorsed lawyer Celeste Haldane as chief of the B.C. Treaty Commission, two years after they noisily vetoed former cabinet minister George Abbott for the position.

Haldane, who represents the First Nations summit on the overseer body for the treaty-making process, has been serving as acting chief commissioner since mid-2015.

She stepped into the post on an interim basis after the mess that erupted in March 2015 when the Liberals withdrew support for Abbott just as he was preparing to take up his duties.

Haldane has also been endorsed for the top spot by the First Nations summit. But her three-year appointment to the $200,000 a year posting won’t be finalized until an order from the federal cabinet, expected soon.

The Liberals said it was because the appointment was still pending that they didn’t make any kind of public announcement in connection with their own order, granting provincial approval to Haldane, passed by cabinet on Feb. 22.

I expect they were happy to have that excuse for keeping a low profile, given the high-profile debacle that accompanied their rough treatment of one of their own.

Abbott was in the midst of briefings to take over from retiring chief commissioner Sophie Pierre on March 18, 2015 when he got a call from John Rustad, then as now, B.C. minister of aboriginal relations and reconciliation.

Rustad had personally recruited Abbott for the position six months earlier and shepherded the appointment through approval by First Nations and the federal government, formal in the first instance, tacit in the second.

Abbott, who retired from the legislature in 2013 after 17 years as a B.C. Liberal MLA — 12 of them at the cabinet table including two stints with aboriginal relations — had already put his consulting business on hold. The handover was set for the end of the month.

But now, as a shocked Abbott recounted the day after the call came through, Rustad advised his recruit that “he was unable to secure cabinet approval for my appointment.” Here’s your hat pal, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

The fallout was not long in coming, starting with a blistering news release from outgoing chief commissioner Sophie Pierre.

“This retraction of the chief commissioner selection after months of agreement, expectation and reliance by the other parties raises questions about B.C.’s commitment to the treaty negotiations process,” she declared. “To pull this away at the 11th hour questions the commitment of B.C. — this is not how to effect reconciliation.”

She also paid tribute to the man who had been poised to succeed her until the Liberals exercised their last-minute veto: “George Abbott is a man of integrity, intelligence and extensive experience who would have benefited the treaty process, First Nations and all British Columbians.”

Abbott, for his part, speculated “some knives came out in the cabinet … It is the only conclusion I can form.” And he had taken some nasty shots at Christy Clark during the 2011 B.C. Liberal leadership race, where he finished third.

Speculation along those lines prompted an explanation from Premier Clark, albeit delivered one week after she and her cabinet colleagues had consigned Abbott to the dumpster.

She began with an apology of sorts: “I do very much regret the fact that communication with George was done very, very badly … Ultimately, I need to take responsibility for that … I’m not going to point fingers at anybody else.”

She denied nurturing any lingering resentments over the leadership race: “George is someone that I counted on for two years when he was a senior cabinet minister in my government. I have a great deal of respect for him.”

Rather, the cabinet working group on First Nations (herself, Rustad and six other ministers) had decided “we were not going to appoint a new treaty commissioner. Meaning neither Abbott nor anyone else.

“We didn’t want to invest more in the status quo,” said Clark, faulting the two-decades-old process that had produced only a handful of treaties. “We have to be able to move faster.”

That was two years ago. The treaty count is still in the single digits. And now Clark and her colleagues are prepared to support filling the vacancy at the top of the commission on a permanent basis. What changed?

Rustad’s ministry directed me to the report on “the multilateral engagement process to improve and expedite treaty negotiations in B.C.,” a 38-page statement of good intentions that the federal, provincial and First Nations governments endorsed last June in hopes of rescuing treaty-making in B.C.

Now that the process is back on the rails so far as the province is concerned, I asked Rustad if he considered asking Abbott to pick up where he’d been forced to leave off  two years ago.

That was not in the cards, he explained awkwardly. Abbott was not on the list of acceptable nominees for the top post circulated by the other two parties, whereas Haldane was named by all three.

No chance that Abbott, now working on a dissertation on indigenous relations at the University of Victoria, would have considered returning in any event.

He gave up his Liberal party membership after the rough treatment at the hands of his colleagues. But he was a study in grace this week on the Haldane appointment. “She is an excellent and inspired choice. I wish her all the best in that challenging role.”

She’ll need it.