Minister Rustad's not-so-new approach


Late last week, the provincial government decided to unceremoniously dump former B.C. Liberal Cabinet Minister, George Abbott as the incoming First Nations Treaty Commissioner. My thinking was that Mr. Abbott was a good choice. He served twice as the Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation (MARR) and had the support of First Nations leadership and the federal government. But just a few days before he was supposed to begin his new role, Minister John Rustad, current MARR, who recruited Abbott, contacted him to say he was unable to get the necessary support from Cabinet for the appointment.

I am a member of Tsartlip First Nation and while we are participants in the B.C. treaty process, I have been critical about many aspects of it. I am concerned about the millions of dollars spent by the government to negotiate with willing First Nations and the millions of dollars borrowed by First Nations to negotiate with the government. With only a handful of treaties signed in two decades, I have always had fundamental questions about the value of the program.

There is no doubt that times have changed and we need a new working model for provincial/First Nations relationships. First Nations peoples are mobilizing as we have seen in the Idle No More movement and the more recent Enbridge and Trans Mountain protests. Last summer, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in a landmark decision that the Tsilhqot'in have title over their territory. This development has created more uncertainty than ever and it has never been a more important time in British Columbia's history to rethink how we can work together.

Minister John Rustad had it right when he stated in question period:

We said last September in the all chiefs meeting that we wanted to find a new path. We wanted to look at new ways to work with First Nations. We were at a signpost in the road, and we had a choice as to the path that we could take. Over the last number of months we've been thinking about our relationships with Nations, how we can work with First Nations differently. We've come to the realization that the B.C. treaty process has been very successful for the Nations that have made it through, but we need to be thinking about how we can revitalize it, how we can move forward. We plan to engage with the principals around those discussions, with the First Nations Summit and with the federal government, to talk about what we can do, with treaty, to revitalize it. It's an important discussion. It's critical for the future with First Nations as well as for the Crown. It's an important discussion to go through that is unfettered and to be able to come up with the right path forward.

If it’s time to do things differently, I suggest that making decisions behind the closed doors of Cabinet and blind-siding your colleagues, the First Nations Summit and Mr. Abbott is not a very good way to start. In fact, there is nothing different about that approach at all. Government has been unilaterally and arbitrarily making decisions about First Nations since the relationship began in the 19th century.

Making the announcement with few details and then being unavailable for questions is not acceptable. First Nations are in the middle of negotiations and have a lot at stake here. Do they not have the right to know what you are up to? And what about the rest of the province? The provincial government owes it to all British Columbians who have invested 22 years and over $600 million in the treaty process to be open and transparent about your in-camera decisions.

Minister Rustad: if you have hatched a new plan, we want to know about it. You just reneged on your previous plans with Abbott at the last minute, so how can we depend on your decisions? We can’t. We have a trust issue here.

New government plans need to be the outcome of a collaborative planning process in which First Nations have played an integral part. Anything less, Minister Rustad, is completely unacceptable.

It is time for government to get a handle on this mess. The fundamental issue in B.C. is land title, as we learned last summer with the Supreme Court’s Tsilhqot'in decision. Title issues will not be solved by signing business deals and partnership ventures alone. 

Minister Rustad, the “new and different” direction you are claiming your government is on, is not new at all. Your announcement is paramount to blatant disregard for First Nations and frankly, that is as old as it gets. We are all tired of that approach. Do you really think that top-down decisions about First Nations is going to work? Because if you do, you are badly misguided. A new approach must start with collaboration.

What is really disappointing here is that George Abbott was willing to take a collaborative approach and First Nations were ready and willing to work with him. Perhaps what we are really witnessing is not a plan but rather chaos and a government in a tailspin. Let me suggest, Minister, that there are many qualified, thoughtful, experienced First Nations leaders in this province who could help you figure this one out.

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