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B.C. presses pause on Indigenous-related changes to the Land Act

Lands Minister Nathan Cullen says more consultation needed in the wake of growign conflict
B.C.’s Minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship Nathan Cullen, here seen in 2022, said it is time to press the pause on proposed amendments to the Land Act. He did not say when government, assuming its re-election, would return to the issue following months of concerns about the substance and process of consultations leading up to amendments. (Thom Barker photo)

The provincial government won’t go ahead with changes to the law governing about 95 per cent of provincial land during the current session of the legislature.

B.C.’s Minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship Nathan Cullen announced Wednesday (Feb. 21) that his government won’t bring forward amendments to the Land Act, citing the need for more consultation following months of conflict.

The decision comes after widespread concern from legal scholars, political opposition, interest groups and private citizens about the consultation process, which had opened in early January and would have concluded on March 31. Several voices accused government of secrecy.

Central to the issue are agreements under Section 6 and 7 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, which establishes the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the basis for reconciliation.

Agreements under those sections allow the province to enter “agreements with a broader range of Indigenous governments and to exercise statutory decision-making authority together.” Cullen said the government was seeking to bring the Land Act in line, as it had already with five other pieces of legislation.

Proponents said the amendments would have fulfilled constitutional obligations and created certainty for the resource sector. But critics accused government of downplaying the consultation to avoid attention and planning to give First Nations veto power over land decisions, something Cullen denied on multiple occasions.

He said Wednesday that legislative support for DRIPA was unanimous and that legislators — including those opposed to the amendments now — knew back then what their vote meant.

RELATED: B.C. minister says land act changes don’t give First Nations veto power

“But this touched a nerve and a moment in time that we now recognize,” Cullen said at a hastily arranged news conference at the legislature. “The responsible thing for government to do is listen.”

Cullen also used the occasion to criticize parts of the political opposition, referring to anti-Aboriginal comments and sentiments.

“The dog whistle politics was abhorrent and I hope it stops,” Cullen said.

When asked why he was talking about the opposition rather than what many considered a botched public consultation, Cullen said he took public responsibility.

“I’ll do it again here today,” he said.

Cullen did not say when government — assuming re-election in the fall — would return to the issue.

“I think it has to come in that broader conversation that we are having,” he said.

BC United MLA Peter Milobar said government is not going ahead with the amendments because they are proving to be unpopular, pointing to town halls organized by his party as evidence.

“I have been out in the field, holding town halls. We have been hearing directly from literally thousands of British Columbians,” Milobar. “They have very much shown their cards what they want to do. (In) my opinion, they are simply trying to remove this as an issue from the election, so they can just implement after an election if they were successful.”

Milobar promised that his party would keep issue alive in the public’s mind.

BC House Leader Adam Olsen, a member of the Tsartlip First Nation, said government’s decision was disappointing.

“That’s a very curious decision to me,” he said.

But even as he accused government of “horrible timing” and cited the proposed amendments as a case of the NDP government trying to use its majority to push something over the finish line without proper debate, he was also critical of BC United and the Conservative Party of BC.

“We saw members of the opposition exploit that in a despicable way, frankly, and it’s infuriating,” he said. “The reality is that that the provincial government, the BC-NDP opened the door and then the opposition parties…chased each other to the lowest part of the sludge,” he said.

Olsen said he experienced this first-hand, while calling it out on social media.

“The phone calls I was getting, the emails we were getting, were very, very hard to stomach,” he said. “(It) was very clear what happened was that Indigenous people were put in the middle of a political fight and it was not necessary for Indigenous people to put there.”

Olsen predicted that it will take a long time to repair the damage and framed the dispute as a larger, historical conflict.

“It’s important to acknowledge that conflict over land is not a moment in time,” he said. “It’s the entire time that this province has existed. There has been a conflict over land that goes right back to before we were a province. It needed to brought to forward in that context. It needed to brought forward with that sensitivity at the heart of it.”

Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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