B.C.’s first annual report on its embrace of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is being presented in the legislature next week, while debate continues over the obligations it imposes on the province.
The report, a requirement under the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act approved by all parties in the B.C. legislature in November, was released July 3 and covers the first four months of its existence. It emphasizes progress such as updating B.C.’s school curriculum to include more Indigenous culture and history, and changes to child welfare laws to keep Indigenous children with their families and communities.
Its release comes a day after the Supreme Court of Canada declined to hear the latest appeal against the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project. Work continues on that and B.C.’s other pipeline project, the Coastal Gaslink line to deliver natural gas for export from northeast gas fields to a terminal at Kitimat.
Supported by most Indigenous communities on the pipeline route, Coastal Gaslink sparked Canada-wide protests and rail blockades immediately after Premier John Horgan’s government became the first jurisdiction in Canada to commit to implement UNDRIP. While B.C. politicians insisted its call for “free, prior and informed consent” isn’t a veto over resource projects, protesters and student supporters responded by blockading the legislature as well.
The framework law passed in November commits the B.C. government to an “action plan” to implement the UNDRIP principles in B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser said the plan is still expected to be completed by the end of 2020, as the province holds a rare summer session after the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The B.C. Liberals ultimately supported the law, after questions about which of many UN commitments it enshrines. One is UNDRIP Article 39, which states: Indigenous people have the right to access to financial and technical assistance from states and through international cooperation, for enjoying the rights contained in this declaration.”
Fraser replied that UNDRIP “does not create a positive obligation on the part of the state, but there will be conversations about funding from the provincial government.”
Conversations so far have produced a share of B.C.’s gambling revenues and commitments to add provincial funds to the federal responsibility to build housing on reserves.
Indigenous MLAs had their say as well before the framework bill passed. B.C. Green MLA Adam Olsen said Indigenous consent is key to stopping energy projects like Trans Mountain and Coastal Gaslink. B.C. Liberal MLA Ellis Ross, a former Haisla Nation chief counsellor, argued that Indigenous consent already exists in Canadian case law.
“That’s why we have LNG,” Ross told the legislature. “That’s why we have peace in the woods.”
In a year-end interview, Olsen, Saanich North and the Islands MLA and a member of the Tsartlip First Nation, said “consent” is more than consultation that has been required of federal and provincial governments.
“So while it might be a more stiff task to get consent, it is a more clear determination at the end of it,” Olsen said. “Consent is not a veto over resource development. No rights are absolute.”