Once the B.C. government’s meetings with Indigenous leaders are over, the details of North America’s first embrace of the United Nations Indigenous land rights law still have to be hammered out in the legislature by the end of November.
In his opening speech at the annual “all chiefs” meeting with Indigenous leaders Nov. 5, Premier John Horgan pointed the province’s agreement to shut down salmon farms in the Broughton Archipelago as a model for implementing the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) in B.C.
“Five farms closed already, five more farms closing in the future, and the last seven farms to be there subject to relationships between Indigenous peoples and industry,” Horgan told hundreds of Indigenous leaders gathered in Vancouver. “That is what reconciliation is about. That is what free, prior and informed consent is about. If you want to do business in British Columbia, come and talk to the owners of the land, come and talk to those who have inherent rights, and we will find a way forward.”
B.C.’s legislation is the first attempt in North America to formally impose UNDRIP on an existing jurisdiction. In opening debate on Bill 41 in the B.C. legislature, Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser said adoption of the framework bill is only the beginning.
“This legislation is enabling, so we won’t see the world change overnight once it is passed,” Fraser said, adding that “the business community is ahead of government on this.” Addressing the most contentious part of the legislation, he said there are “countless experts” who have concluded that the UN declaration of “free, prior and informed consent” is is not a veto over land use and resource projects.
“For example, James Anaya, the former special rapporteur for the rights of Indigenous peoples, has explained that free, prior and informed consent — that standard — is meant to ensure that all parties work together in good faith, that they make every effort to achieve mutually acceptable arrangements and that a focus should be on building consensus,” Fraser said. “This is quite different than veto.”
Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad recalled his time as Indigenous relations minister, starting in 2013. The B.C. Liberal government had 18 non-treaty agreements, later called reconciliation agreements, sharing forest and other land resources, and then-premier Christy Clark gave him a mandate to sign 10 more.
“Well, I’m pretty proud of the fact that by the time 2017 came around and I was in there for just over four years, we had signed 435 of those agreements, over and above what was done before,” Rustad told the legislature.
On the contested issue of what defines “consent,” Rustad described the issue of overlapping territories in his own northwest B.C. constituency, involving the Yekooche First Nation.
“Yekooche came out of one of the other nations and has kind of been settled in the middle of a number of nations,” Rustad said. “Well, they have overlaps in every direction. As a matter of fact, the Nadleh Whut’en want to be able to sign the pipeline benefits agreement and be able to advance their work with the Coastal Gaslink. They’re waiting for government to help resolve an overlap issue they have with Yekooche.”
Saanich North and the Islands MLA Adam Olsen, a member of the Tsartlip First Nation and one of three B.C. Green Party MLAs, recounted colonial injustices he wants ended, and was combative about critics of UNDRIP.
“Some voices in this House would have us believe the UNDRIP is imposed on us by the United Nations,” Olsen said. “They undermine it. They’re ignorant of it. I believe it’s intentional.”
Olsen was also defiant about energy projects, including the Trans Mountain oil expansion project and the Coastal Gaslink pipeline for LNG exports that is supported by the NDP and B.C. Liberals, and opposed by the Greens.
“It is clearly time for us to move beyond the resource colony mentality, the desperate attempt to liquidate the resources from these lands and waters that were enabled by the convenient doctrine of discovery and terra nullis for the benefit of multinational corporations, starting with the Hudson’s Bay Company,” Olsen told the legislature.
Skeena B.C. Liberal MLA Ellis Ross, a former elected councillor and chief of the Haisla Nation at Kitimat, is hopeful but skeptical about UNDRIP. Ross described his 15 years on Haisla council, dealing with the B.C. treaty process and other government commitments, with no change in poverty conditions on his reserve.
“I went to Ottawa. I came to Victoria, to lobby the government for programs and money,” Ross told the legislature. “When I realized that all I’m doing is asking for more dependency, I refused to go on any more lobbying trips for more money.”
Ross said his years of work towards the Kitimat liquefied natural gas export facility have produced jobs and tangible economic benefits.
Ross said the “free, prior and informed consent” in UNDRIP already exists in case law.
“It has already been in practice for many, many years,” Ross told the legislature. “That’s why we have LNG. That’s why we have peace in the woods.”