Why Minister Rustad Should Resign

Seemingly out of nowhere, George Abbott, the highly respected former Liberal Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, was abruptly dumped last week from becoming chief commissioner of the BC Treaty Commission. In October, just six months earlier Abbott had accepted an invitation of Minister John Rustad to head up British Columbia’s Treaty negotiation process. He was supposed to begin next Wednesday when Sophie Pierre’s term expired on April 1st.

What is so bizarre about this recent turn of events is that both the federal government and the First Nation Summit had already approved Abbott’s appointment. In a strongly worded press release, the First Nations Summit blasted the government for their decision just days before the new commissioner was to start working:

“The Province’s blatant disregard for agreement among the Principals and processes already undertaken is unacceptable. This situation raises questions about our ability to rely upon agreements made among the Principals and the provincial government’s commitment to treaty negotiations in BC and to achieving reconciliation with First Nations”.

Obviously it came as a shock to some of the Premier’s own cabinet ministers too. On March 20, Health Minister Terry Lake  was quoted in Kamloops This Week as stating he was surprised by the decision to dump Abbott. He was further quoted as saying “I understand he was being considered,”and “I haven’t been an intimate part of those discussions.”

What’s even more more unusual is that Minister Lake is also a member of the cabinet’s Priorities and Planning Committee, commonly referred to as the inner cabinet. This committee, chaired by the Premier, identifies the broad direction of government, including its priority policies and programs. If anyone in cabinet should know what is going on, it should be Minister Lake.

In a statement issued by government, John Rustad, Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, commented on the rationale for suddenly no longer supporting Abbott.  “I have also heard from many First Nations that the treaty process, mandates and negotiations take far too long and they are looking for a better way.”

An obvious question is which First Nations is the Minister referring to. And when did Minister Rustad start hearing from them?

But it doesn’t end there. In response to questions in the legislature on Monday, Minister Rustad stated:

“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.”

So if in fact the Minister was already thinking of a new path in September, why did he nominate Abbott to be the commissioner in October? The logic is perplexing.

It might be argued that in light of the landmark Tsilhqot’in Supreme Court of Canada decision, the first to grant aboriginal title , the government decided to focus more on economic partnerships rather than the treaty process itself. In fact, Rustad alludes to this in a response during question period on Monday where he states:

“The Tsilhqot’in decision has set the stage for thinking about how we can do things different in the province of British Columbia and how we need to shape relationships.

But we have, over the last two years, signed close to 150 new agreements. We’re now up to 300 agreements between First Nations and the province of British Columbia, furthering that reconciliation — many of those new agreements just in the last year alone.”

But here again, why would Rustad approach George Abbott in October, more than three months after the June 26, 2014 Supreme Court decision?

Perhaps we should be looking to the real power brokers in the BC government — those working on the LNG file. These are the members of the Cabinet Working Group on Liquified Natural Gas. This committee is chaired by Premier Clark with Minister Coleman serving as Vice Chair. Ministers Bennett, de Jong and Polak also serve on the committee.

We know that this government is  desperate to fulfill its irresponsible, and unfounded election promise of hope, wrapped in hyperbole, for wealth and prosperity for all British Columbians from a hypothetical LNG industry that may or may not materialize sometime in the future.  Perhaps the government is desperate to provide industry certainty by focusing on economic and  resource negotiations instead of treaty negotiations with First Nations. If this is indeed the case, you certainly wouldn’t need a highly respected, efficient and thoughtful deal-maker in the form of George Abbott to distract from the governments goals.  And so, George Abbott gets thrown under the bus with no consultation and despite the protestations of the First Nations Summit.

This fiasco makes one thing clear to me. John Rustad should resign.

He does not have the confidence of the upper echelons of the government or he would not have recommended then withdrew support for George Abbott. He does not have the confidence of the First Nation Summit who were blindsided by the last minute decision. And he does not have the confidence of the opposition in the legislature. Most regrettably, the message that this whole fiasco sends to First Nations is that you cannot trust the word of the government. Sadly, this is a message that they have heard loud and clear for far too many decades. And here I thought that we were taking serious steps toward reconciliation.

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