The NDP promised a new start in relations with Indigenous Peoples, and turning some of those promises into reality would be a good beginning for Premier John Horgan’s freshly minted government.
In the agreement with the Green Party that gave the NDP its one-seat majority in the legislature, commitments to First Nations loomed large.
The commitments include formally adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which calls for informed consent on decision-making, implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, and upholding the Tsilhqot’in Supreme Court decision on Aboriginal title.
First Nations leaders want to see movement on those issues, and understandably so. Past promises to improve the relationship have too often languished.
Grand Chief Edward John, political executive on the First Nations Summit, which represents First Nations involved in treaty negotiations, pointed out that September is the 10th anniversary of the United Nations declaration, and he would like to see something in place before then. The federal government has already adopted it.
Adoption of the declaration would demonstrate the NDP is setting a different course than the B.C. Liberals, who — in the dying days of their administration — approved drilling permits for the proposed New Prosperity mine that the Tsilhqot’in people have been fighting. It was a final act of disrespect.
The Liberals had maintained that jobs and the economy would suffer under the declaration, which requires that Indigenous people offer “their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.”
As with reconsideration of the Site C dam and opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, implementing the declaration would show whether the NDP/Green alliance can square its principles and First Nations aspirations with British Columbians’ concerns about their jobs and financial prospects.
This is more than a job for just Scott Fraser, the minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation. The issues cut across many government ministries, so everyone has to be behind the commitment.
Douglas White, councillor and chief negotiator for the Snuneymuxw, near Nanaimo, said: “The core issue is how we begin to make decisions together. … This isn’t just a challenge for the Crown, but also for First Nations to rise and be clear about [what] the world needs to look like at this moment.”
Adam Olsen, Green MLA for Saanich North and the Islands and a member of the Tsartlip First Nation, said: “It’s important for us to sit down with Indigenous leadership and have a discussion about what consent means. No government can come up with an answer on its own.”
The relationship between the province and Indigenous Peoples has been littered with disappointment and missed opportunities. The NDP has a chance to do better.
Provincial ministers and First Nations leaders are scheduled to meet in the fall. Their work will go more smoothly if the new government can show some concrete action before everyone sits down at the table.