This week is Premier John Horgan’s first appearance at the B.C. Cabinet and First Nations Leaders’ Gathering, an annual event established by former premier Christy Clark.
The province pays expenses to bring together representatives from across the province for meetings in Vancouver. It’s commonly called the “all chiefs” meeting, including as many of B.C.’s 200-odd aboriginal communities as care to go.
There will be plenty to talk about this week, from wildfire losses to timber, ranching and other aboriginal business to the latest changes in Ottawa.
With the usual hugs and fanfare, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reorganized his cabinet, dividing the Indigenous Affairs ministry into two. There is now an Indigenous Services department to carry on the burden of providing for 600-odd federal reserve communities, and a new Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs ministry to focus on the broader relationship between Canada and its Inuit, Metis and First Nations people.
Yes, each will have its own deputy minister and staff, confirmed Carolyn Bennett, who moves to the new Crown-Indigenous role. “It’s about de-colonizing,” Bennett said. Right, by fattening the stagnant Ottawa bureaucracy that presides over a paralyzed B.C. treaty negotiation process that burns through millions a year.
Trudeau likes to strike poses in his buckskin jacket and make symbolic gestures, like renaming the Langevin Block on Parliament Hill to expunge the name of an architect of residential schools. That’s easier than fixing water systems and failing schools in remote locations that will never host functional communities, no matter how much public money is thrown at them.
Bennett has been mostly in the news lately for the ongoing collapse of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry, an idea so naive and flawed it’s a wonder even Trudeau’s urban Liberals imagined it could work. One of the main obstacles to progress is Ottawa’s refusal to reopen every old murder case across the country, or at least the ones in which the victims weren’t Indigenous men or boys.
Mid Island-Pacific Rim MLA Scott Fraser has been handed B.C.’s Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation. I asked him about Ottawa’s latest move.
“It’s separating the service side of it, that’s kind of the old colonial Indian Act stuff, from the meat and bones of where we’re going in the future,” Fraser said.
He’ll be hitting all these politically correct talking points at the “all chiefs” meeting this week. Last year, federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould gave a long speech there in an attempt to explain how the United Nations declaration of “free, prior and informed consent” can’t just be imposed on Canadian law. Fraser has orders from Horgan to reorganize the B.C. treaty process to reflect the UN declaration as well.
Skeena MLA Ellis Ross was elected for the B.C. Liberals in May after serving as chief councillor of the Haisla Nation, and trying to get liquefied natural gas development going. Ross is more concerned about the new NDP government’s opposition to resource projects than the abstract “rights and title” discussion. He tuned that out while leading a northern community near Kitimat that struggled with unemployment, alcoholism and related social issues.
He said the NDP’s last-minute intervention in a court case against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is a “well-known strategy” to delay and starve energy investment. In an urban society where only protesters get media attention, the rural aboriginal communities that support investment and jobs are mostly ignored.
The NDP is negotiating to offer them a small share of B.C.’s gambling revenues instead.
Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter
and columnist for Black Press.