Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad, the B.C. minister responsible for aboriginal relations, is doing his best Cool Hand Luke impersonation these days. Any flare up of anger or frustration from B.C. First Nations directed towards the provincial government is greeted with the classic line from the movie: “what we have here is a failure to communicate.”
Rustad’s efforts to engage First Nations across B.C. are commendable and a vast improvement over the treatment the aboriginal community received from previous provincial governments on both sides of the political fence. If language and words hold any value, Rustad has taken some giant strides forward and taken his cabinet colleagues along with him.
Even Bill Bennett, the minister of energy and mines, has changed his tune. In that portfolio, it’s his job to “get to yes” with industry on development proposals, to use the language of his boss, Premier Christy Clark, so forgive him if he sees aboriginal consultation as an additional hurdle. He admits he once thought that way but no longer.
“We understand now, and First Nations showed us the way on this, that this is really a big opportunity,” he told Citizen reporter Frank Peebles. “And it is good for everybody – the province, the company wishing to do business, the community, the First Nation.” Everything seems to be on the table now. Treaties are not just the sole goal but an option. Rustad told The Citizen that the Ts’ilhqot’in in the Cariboo aren’t interested in a treaty, they want a peace accord. That’s significant because it was the Ts’ilhqot’in that won last summer’s historic Supreme Court case recognizing the traditional territories of First Nations not covered by treaties. Rustad made plain in his comments that he is comfortable with the idea of a peace accord, an agreement worked out between nations and equals.
The problem for Bennett, Rustad and the B.C. Liberals is that First Nations have moved the goalposts in the wake of the Ts’ilhqot’in decision. In a letter published in Wednesday’s Citizen, the Carrier Sekani chiefs make their new position plain. “We are the original owners of the lands and resources in our respective territories and we have aboriginal rights and aboriginal title to our lands and resources,” they wrote. “We are firm in our view that our respective First Nation’s consent is absolutely necessary (for resource development).” By referring to themselves as “original owners,” the Carrier Sekani are declaring that the provincial government is not on an equal footing with them and never was. Rather, the ownership of the land and resources by the Carrier Sekani nations supersedes any and all provincial government claims to access and control. Furthermore, the Carrier Sekani is asserting a veto over any plans by any level of government in Canada to use land or extract resources on traditional territories. Simply put, there is now no approval without First Nations approval. Environmental assessments and regulatory hearings are irrelevant because government has no role to play without the blessing of the affected First Nations.
If industry was looking for certainty when it came to the necessary steps needed to develop resource projects in this province, the Carrier Sekani has just provided it. “Getting to yes” does not pass through Victoria or Ottawa but only through the offices of chiefs and band councils. If First Nations say no, that’s the end of it, regardless of what premiers and prime ministers say.
Taken one step further, the new reality could feature municipal, regional, provincial and federal governments one day taking First Nations to court for approving resource development that those governments feel are harmful to their interests.
Oh, the irony.
Rustad and his Liberal colleagues are still talking about agreements between the provincial government and B.C. First Nations as if they still matter, framing the conversation as if the Ts’ilhqot’in decision was simply encouragement to further discussion. Meanwhile, his government continues business as usual, handing out environmental assessment certificates on LNG proposals and extending the permit held by Taseko on its proposed New Prosperity gold and copper mine.
For the Carrier Sekani, however, the 2014 ruling is seen as the end, not the start, of the conversation. In their letter, the chiefs have made it crystal clear that the only relevant talks regarding all public and private development proposals on their traditional territories is with them and their people. They are laying out the new rules for engagement with governments and the sector and they are not asking for permission from Victoria, Ottawa or anywhere else to do so.
Neil Godbout / Prince George Citizen