BC NDP yanks bill giving Indigenous nations statutory powers on land use

Written By Rob Shaw

After a bungled launch and fierce blowback, the B.C. government says it will pause plans to change the provincial Land Act to include Indigenous co-decision-making on Crown land.

Lands Minister Nathan Cullen made the announcement Wednesday at a hastily-scheduled news conference, just two hours before the NDP government was set to face its first question period of the spring legislative session.

“One First Nations leader said to me, ‘We can only move at the pace of trust,’” said Cullen. “And I think that was an important sentiment.

“We have, I think, unearthed in this conversation that there have been concerns about the pace with which the government has been moving.”

The government had been planning to make the legal changes this spring, which would have included Indigenous governments as co-statutory decision-makers on Crown land, potentially affecting things like land tenures for ski hills, hunting, fishing, parks, eco-tourism, ranching, forestry, mining, gas extraction, water docks, and more.

Amendments would give legal decision-making power to Indigenous nations

The move was not widely-publicized by the NDP government, and news only filtered out in January after Vancouver lawyer Robin Junger highlighted a public engagement page buried on an obscure section of the government website.

Critics have called the changes far-reaching, vague and rushed before the fall election. Junger described them as potentially giving First Nations governments veto power on Crown land management and the ability to make decisions involving the land rights of non-Indigenous people — though Cullen has denied that was the intention.

“They’re simply trying to remove this as an issue for the election.”

Peter Milobar

“They’re simply trying to remove this as an issue for the election and hope that people forget during election time, so they can then just implement it after an election if they are successful,” said Peter Milobar, BC United MLA for Kamloops-North Thompson.

“So we will not be letting them forget, or the public forget, what their true intentions are.”

BC Conservative leader: Government must represent all British Columbians

BC Conservative leader John Rustad, a former aboriginal relations minister, has accused the government of trying to “take away your property rights.”

“The government of British Columbia is responsible for making sure that decisions are made on the land base for all British Columbians, taking all British Columbians’ interests into consideration,” Rustad said in the legislature Wednesday. 

“The government … is responsible for … taking all British Columbians’ interests into consideration.”

John Rustad

“When that decision-making is made jointly with First Nations, what you’re talking about is First Nations making decisions that are in the interest of the First Nations, not for all people in the province.”

The criticism drew Premier David Eby to to his feet in response. He said the changes were intended to recognize the reality of modern reconciliation, the commitments made in the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (DRIPA) passed in 2018 and the fact the province has lost multiple court cases for failing to properly consult Indigenous nations.

“The concern I have is that the view that has been advanced by the leader of the Conservative party is a view that the only way to advance reconciliation in this province is to take something away from one person and give it to somebody else,” said Eby.

“We know — we’ve seen it — that working in partnership with First Nations, we can lift all boats. Communities as a whole can prosper.”

‘You pitted natives against non-natives’

BC United MLA Ellis Ross, a former Haisla Nation chief, disagreed.

“You actually pitted natives against non-natives for political purposes,” he said to the premier in the legislature.

“The media had to track this down and disclose this to the public. 

“In fact, if it wasn’t for the B.C. United party going to do town halls to try to explain that ‘We don’t know what it’s about,’ people wouldn’t have had their voice, Ross said.

“If anything, it should have been the NDP doing those town halls, in 87 ridings all across B.C. That’s what consultation is.”

‘They are all fear-mongering’

Caught in the middle of all of this have been some First Nations leaders who were working with the government on these and other changes to acts that stem from DRIPA.

“Frustrated and disappointed is what I’d say,” said Cheryl Casimer, a member of the political executive of the First Nations Summit.

“We are just concerned that a small group of people, whether its members of the Opposition, or industry, or business, are opposed to the amendments because they have some misunderstanding of what those amendments would in fact do, which is create the tools necessary for the province to enter into shared decision-making agreements with First Nations.

“The way it’s being presented by these people is from the basis of fear. They are all fear-mongering, saying all this power is going to be given to First Nations in this province and they are worried about what the outcome will be.”

Casimer said the government needs to do more to keep the public informed about these types of changes. Cullen agreed.

“This touched a nerve … and the responsible thing for government to do is to listen.”

Nathan Cullen

“This touched a nerve in a moment in time that we now recognize, and the responsible thing for government to do is to listen,” said Cullen.

“And what we heard from people is dedication and commitment to reconciliation, zero desire to go back to a time where we just spend all of our time and money in court and in conflict, and to pace this right, to get this right. And so that’s what we committed to do.”

Damage done to reconciliation, says BC Green MLA

There are 650 different groups and organizations the province will reconvene with, to sketch out a new consultation process, along with the province’s 203 First Nations, said Cullen.

On the possibility of holding large public meetings to consult, Cullen said he is worried about racism, and cited an event in Salmon Arm this week where a First Nations man who wanted to speak in his traditional language was shouted down by others who demanded he speak english.

BC Green MLA Adam Olsen blamed government and Opposition MLAs for doing “tremendous damage to reconciliation” on the issue.

“The provincial government here, the BC NDP, opened the door, and then the Opposition parties in their pursuit to, I don’t know, chase each other to the lowest part of the sludge, did just that,” he said.

“They took all the space and they framed this in a way that is very damaging.”

Adam Olsen

Olsen said the issue now becomes election fodder, where some parties will use it as ammunition to say you can’t re-elect the NDP.

United leader Kevin Falcon took that approach on social media Wednesday after the announcement.

“I have no doubt that god forbid if they ever get back into office they will bring it back and they will impose it,” Falcon said in a video posted online that urged supporters not to vote New Democrat this fall.

“We’ve temporarily stopped them but we have to continue to fight.”

Kevin Falcon

Cullen would not say if he intends to resurrect the changes after the election, only that the government will continue doing the work of reconciliation.

“The path that we are on is the path that we will maintain,” he said.

“The pace at which we do it, is an important issue that was raised by hunting and fishing organizations, resource groups, and we listened. 

“Ultimately this is to the interests of First Nations as well, I would argue, that we accomplish this in a way that we can bring people along.”