‘Any time you’re doing things in a new way, there is some uncertainty.”–David Eby
Premier David Eby used the backdrop of his first major meeting with First Nations leaders to announce a new “special counsel” on Indigenous issues.
Eby appointed Doug White to the job last week before speaking to the First Nations Leadership Council, in what is widely considered to be a sign the new premier intends to take a more hands-on approach to reconciliation in his decision-making.
White has earned praise from all sides of the political spectrum, and is an accomplished addition to the premier’s office: A lawyer appointed Queen’s Counsel (now King’s) in 2020, White is a former chief of the Snuneymuxw Nation in Nanaimo, and the current chair of the First Nations Justice Council. White has represented First Nations as counsel and negotiator, and is particularly experienced in Indigenous treaties, and rights and title law.
In an interview, White said he spent five years working with Eby on First Nations justice issues while Eby was attorney general, and realized they had a similar drive to cut through the meetings and process in order to get results.
Values, focus, drive
“I have great respect for [former] premier [John] Horgan, but in terms of the alignment with David it’s been a remarkable thing for me to work with him over the years and see his leadership approach, principles, values, focus and his drive,” said White, calling it “action-oriented work.”
So when Eby asked White to co-chair his transition to the premier’s office, alongside former finance minister Carole James, White said he didn’t hesitate.
“It was interesting to see how often First Nations came up in all kinds of briefings, across all ministries through the transition process,” he said.
That led to an offer to join the premier’s office, in a new role that White said will boil down to “identifying opportunities that people can grab a hold of, and will be tangible to Indigenous peoples and British Columbians.
“I’m here to help and be value-added to the existing context, but in certain circumstances I hope to function as a coordinator of efforts across ministries,” White explained.
On paper, the job of “special counsel” on Indigenous relations and reconciliation looks an awful lot like a duplicate effort to the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, currently headed by Murray Rankin. But both Eby and White insist that’s not the case.
Eby said one challenge in government occurs when initiatives get stuck because they involve multiple ministries or the federal government. “Doug is going to assist me and assist government in identifying those and moving them through the system,” said Eby, when asked about potential duplication with the Indigenous Relations ministry.
White said he’s seen problems pop up that not only involve the Indigenous ministry, but also the ministries of finance, lands, forests, energy and health — creating a kind of complexity that needs to be cut through and coordinated from the premier’s office.
That hands-on approach would also fit very much with Eby’s early style as premier, where Eby is driving the change himself and cutting through cross-ministry bureaucratic problems in the process.
“When [Eby] talked to me about this particular role… he has a vision about giving priority and focus to figuring out how to accelerate and advance different kinds of work that needs to be done with Indigenous peoples in the next couple of years,” said White.
Eby will have no shortage of issues to address. The First Nations Leadership Gathering saw more than 50 nations bring forward their local concerns, as well as priority issues from the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, BC Assembly of First Nations and First Nations Summit.
The NDP government continues to wrestle with implementing the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in its day-to-day decision-making. The task has already caused costly uncertainty for natural gas, water and forestry development in some parts of the province.
Northern MLAs in particular have warned about resource projects in limbo and companies moving investments to Alberta due to permitting delays in northeast B.C. while the government negotiates with Treaty 8 nations in the wake of the landmark court decision won by Blueberry River First Nation.
The government did announce last week it is “very close to an agreement” with Treaty 8 nations on a new approach to natural resource development, and that a proposed agreement has gone out for consultation with Treaty 8 nations and select industry groups.
“New way of doing things”
“These changes in our province around reconciliation, around recognizing rights and title, led by, certainly, court decisions, led by the initiative of [former] premier Horgan, are a new way of doing things,” said Eby.
“And any time you’re doing things in a new way, there is some uncertainty, but we’re coming out with economic agreements that are really reshaping how our province is going to move forward in the future in a much better and stronger way.”
Not only are things being reshaped by new agreements, but by the new premier too. His special counsel adds another evolution to the constantly-evolving landscape of Crown-Indigenous relations.