British Columbia·Analysis

From champion to target: B.C.'s premier faces a complicated road ahead to reconciliation

Indigenous rights marked a pivotal point in both the final days of the fall session and the opening days of the spring session at the B.C. legislature — but with entirely opposite tones.

Wet'suwet'en protests mark John Horgan's first major test of province's historic Indigenous rights legislation

Protesters in support of Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs protested this week outside the B.C. legislature in Victoria. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

Indigenous rights marked a pivotal point in both the final days of the fall session and the opening days of the spring session at the B.C. legislature — but with entirely opposite tones.

Last November, the NDP walked out of the building on arguably its highest note since forming government. The crowning achievement: becoming the first jurisdiction in the country to pass legislation implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). 

It was the common thread weaving together a rare display of unity between all parties and First Nations leaders, too. Optimism overshadowed partisanship. It was the start of a new path forward, the reset of a delicate relationship.

Three months later, "UNDRIP!" still echoed through the legislature. But this time in anger. The chants were coming from outside as demonstrators surrounded the building on all sides, the wood smoke from their days-long ceremonial fires permeating the hallways.

The contrast was stark. The moment, unforgettable, as the government proceeded to lay out its agenda for the session ahead against a backdrop of opponents whose strength in numbers was not anticipated the session before. 

Wet'suwet'en hereditary Chief Na'moks says resource companies should consult with hereditary leaders when pursuing benefit agreements with people on their land. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

The political turning point had come weeks earlier when Premier John Horgan, while touring northern B.C., declined a face-to-face meeting with five hereditary chiefs who oppose the Coastal GasLink project, a natural gas pipeline slated to run through Wet'suwet'en territory to the coast.

"It really bothered me that he was not that far away and yet somehow could not take the time to come and speak with us," said Chief Na'moks.

Citing other commitments, Horgan's office instead proposed a phone call that would focus on 'de-escalation and on safety for all.' But in the end, that would not suffice.

"We want to show the respect back, too," Na'moks said. "If you're going to have decent communication with anybody, it's best to be looking eye to eye." 

UNDRIP legislation put to the test

When the NDP made history implementing UNDRIP, its intentions were clear: to align all provincial laws and policies with internationally recognized human rights of Indigenous people. A process that would take decades, the government said. 

As the premier stood before reporters Wednesday to address the 'unprecedented' protests a day earlier, he knew he was facing the first real test of legislation he so proudly championed.

"I know you'll have many questions about how we will proceed on the issues of rights and title, and what this means to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples," Horgan said .

And so there were. He was asked about the NDP's stance while in opposition years ago, when his party insisted hereditary chiefs were custodians of the land — not elected band councils. Has his position changed? 

"No," replied the premier. "The Delgamuukw decision made it abundantly clear that there was a governance structure in place on Wet'suwet'en territory. What it did not make clear is what that meant going forward. That was not resolved."

B.C. Premier John Horgan speaks to media for the first time since hundreds of protesters disrupted the government's throne speech proceedings on Tuesday. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

He was pressed about it again. His response more defensive this time.

"I didn't create that complex government structure; it existed when we arrived, it existed had we not arrived — and to suggest that somehow the language we used two, three, four years ago has somehow made this situation more explosive is just not fair and it's not true."

Horgan used those three words — complex governance structure — repeatedly, something he said was not fully understood by all who rallied en masse outside the legislature. He said there was a broad misunderstanding of what hereditary leadership is. 

For the Wet'suwet'en, that governance structure has been put in the spotlight by the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

The company has signed agreements with all 20 elected First Nation councils along its path. But the hereditary clan chiefs, who are leaders under the traditional form of governance, say the project has no authority to run through the 22,000 square kilometres of unceded territory without their consent.

'I think it's up to them'

B.C.'s UNDRIP legislation says resource developments require the "free, prior and informed consent" of affected Indigenous peoples. It does not grant First Nations veto power, but does promise "redress and restitution" when consent is not granted.

The NDP has made it clear it's not pulling provincial support for the project — and Horgan says any possible resolution will be left in the hands of the Wet'suwet'en.

"I think it's up to them — and I've heard this repeatedly from Wet'suwet'en people who want to see prosperity and economic development in their territory — I've heard them say repeatedly that we need to come together as Wet'suwet'en and figure that out." 

The premier has reached a political fork in the road. As leader of a government that wholeheartedly backs the LNG industry, he's staying on the path of economic development and siding with what he calls the overwhelming majority.

"I've spoken with countless leaders of Indigenous communities around British Columbia who are excited about a change in approach to reconciliation, about a change in approach to how we work together for a brighter future, and I'm going to focus on those people," said Horgan. 

Minister focuses on 'unity building'

Meanwhile, Minister of Indigenous Relations Scott Fraser is in overdrive trying to keep communications afloat between the province and Wet'suwet'en leaders — and also within the nation itself.

He pointed to other First Nations along the pipeline route that have reconciled hereditary and elected systems. But he said that has not happened with the Wet'suwet'en; a situation he's trying to help by 'unity building'.

"The process we've embarked upon is about rights and title, and working on bringing together the communities within Wet'suwet'en who are not in consensus on this project and this issue," he told reporters Wednesday.

It comes exactly one week after he spearheaded talks meant to lower the temperature. They wound up at a stalemate instead.

Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs said they had agreed to seven days of negotiations with the provincial government in hopes of reaching a peaceful resolution that would avoid RCMP enforcement of an injunction. But those discussions broke down after just two days.

Green Party interim leader Adam Olsen, a member of the Tsartlip First Nation, takes a moment of reflection before being sworn in as an MLA in 2017. (Richard Zussman/CBC News)

As for the B.C. Greens, interim leader Adam Olsen — who's First Nations himself — called the ongoing protests a reflection of larger challenges faced "as we navigate reconciliation and economic development." 

And then, in the very last line of his party's press release, put the onus back on the province.

"It's more important than ever that this government — through their actions — offer a pathway forward."

And for this government, it appears the pathway forward was penned into the throne speech under the subsection 'Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.'

The NDP's greatest hope at a positive way through this can be found on page 16, paragraph 5: "The work has only just begun. The next step is an action plan, which government will develop in collaboration with Indigenous peoples."

That very speech — delivered inside the chamber as protests reached a critical boiling point outside — also says, "Reconciliation ... is a matter of rights, respect, and justice. It's a journey we are on together."

A journey steered by a government trying to navigate a growing wave of dissension, while at the same time upholding reconciliation as a banner priority.


Provincial Affairs Reporter covering the B.C. Legislature. Anything political: