Flirting with disaster in British Columbia

As an unelected premier, Eby should be treading much more carefully. For a change as monumental as this, he is having a short consultation period which has been announced very quietly. It seems he would like to sneak this by BC citizens without giving them a fair chance to understand the issue and participate in a debate. Pictured: British Columbia Premier David Eby. Photo Credit: The Canadian Press/Ethan Cairns. 


There is a very serious legal change being contemplated in British Columbia that will greatly affect people living in that province and potentially in the rest of Canada. This change pertains to BC’s adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP). This declaration was put forward by the UN in 2007. It basically states that indigenous people have the rights to the lands and resources on those lands where they live. There has been much confusion over exactly what this means. 

In fact, the Canadian government did not initially sign on to the declaration as there were significant concerns about the provisions regarding land, territories and resources being very broad, unclear and subject to a wide variety of interpretations. Canada was also concerned that some of the sweeping provisions in the document were not consistent with constitutional law in Canada. What was especially concerning was the wording in the declaration that said “free, prior and informed consent” had to be obtained from indigenous people before economic development projects can take place. 

Considering the amount of opposition to economic development projects that has been levelled by indigenous groups over the past couple of decades, many interpreted this clause as meaning a death knell for any such project in future. Indeed, many indigenous activists have used the lack of clarity in the declaration to say it effectively means they have a veto over any such project. The Supreme Court of Canada had previously established a “duty to consult” with First Nations groups, but clarified that it was never intended to be a veto over economic development projects. 

UNDRIP is not legally binding unless a government adopts it into legislation. Then Prime Minister Harper adopted the declaration in 2010, with the vital caveat that it was not legally binding but rather a statement of aspirations. BC went further in 2019 by passing Bill 41, which also contained unclear language over exactly what it meant but was nevertheless interpreted by indigenous groups as having made UNDRIP the law in BC. Shortly following BC’s passage of Bill 41, the indigenous blockades of several railway lines took place to protest the Coastal GasLink pipeline project, with protestors claiming that Bill 41 gave them a right to veto the pipeline’s construction. Blockades also sprung up in other parts of Canada in sympathy with the BC indigenous protesters. 

The Trudeau government went on to pass its own legislation in 2021 in the form of Bill 15, which the Liberals claimed would start the process of bringing Canadian law into alignment with UNDRIP. Nothing has happened since then to clarify exactly what that will mean, likely because other priorities have dominated the government agenda. But beware – this issue is not over yet at the federal level. 

In BC, however, having apparently learned nothing from the fractious history and problems created by UNDRIP in Canada to date, the BC government of Premier David Eby is proceeding to add detail to exactly how they intend to incorporate UNDRIP into provincial laws. Eby, who has never been elected as Premier but won the NDP leadership after the resignation of the previous NDP premier John Horgan, is proposing a sharing of the management of Crown land with indigenous groups. 

Although a number of estimates of how much of the province will be affected have been discussed, it is generally agreed that most of the territory of BC will be involved. This is expected to give indigenous groups an effective veto over most if not all future resource, agricultural, forestry, communications and other such projects in the province. 

Needless to say, this is a massive change that should not be up to any government to make without extensive consultation. This was never an election issue for the NDP and most British Columbians are likely not even aware of the immense scope of this policy change. Some commentators have said that proceeding with this will move BC away from its current legal system and form of government. 

Indigenous groups are understandably jubilant, in that their control over the economy of the province will increase enormously. They are already talking about the large amounts of compensation they will be seeking from BC taxpayers for sacred sites, various types of reparations etc. But one of the huge issues is that there is no central body that will represent the views of the hundreds of different First Nations communities in the province. 

As we saw with the Wet’suwet’en blockades of the rail lines, a handful of hereditary chiefs acted against the interests of the large majority of Wet’suwet’en members who were very much in favour of the Coastal GasLink project as they would reap significant economic benefits. And that dispute happened within one indigenous group. Can you imagine the impossibility of having agreement among hundreds of groups? It would take years to reach agreement on any project, if it is ever reached.

Investment is already fleeing Canada because of the absurd amount of delays and red tape the current federal Liberal government imposes on resource projects and other large undertakings. Continuing with this legislative plan will damage the BC economy very seriously, and will be extremely difficult to reverse. 

As an unelected premier, Eby should be treading much more carefully. For a change as monumental as this, he is having a short consultation period which has been announced very quietly. It seems he would like to sneak this by BC citizens without giving them a fair chance to understand the issue and participate in a debate. 

At a minimum, his government should be involving all British Columbians in a significant consultation exercise and a referendum. He should also be running in the next election on this issue before any decision is made. All too often these days, governments seem determined to dupe Canadians as they pursue their personal vanity projects instead of representing the actual views of citizens. This worrisome BC situation is just the latest example. 


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