British Columbia

B.C. Indigenous leaders disappointed by lack of focus on reconciliation during election campaign

During an election campaign that has paid scant attention to Indigenous issues, First Nations leaders in British Columbia are urging the province's politicians not to put reconciliation on the backburner.

'It can't take a back seat. It needs to remain a priority,' says chief of Heiltsuk Nation

Chief Leah George-Wilson of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation is one of three Indigenous leaders in B.C. who want to see more attention paid to reconciliation during the election. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

First Nations leaders in British Columbia are urging the province's politicians not to put reconciliation on the backburner this election campaign.

"It all comes down to the [United Nations] Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act," said Tsleil-Waututh Chief Leah George-Wilson, referencing landmark legislation passed unanimously last year that requires B.C. to align its laws with the standards of the UN declaration.

The 46 articles of UNDRIP affirm the rights of Indigenous people to live in dignity, maintain their culture and participate in government decision making, among other things. 

Last November, B.C. became the first government in North America to pass legislation to implement UNDRIP, which Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission describes as the "framework for reconciliation."

The legislation promised an action plan to ensure the government follows through on its commitment. George-Wilson said it's crucial that Indigenous communities are involved in that plan.

Marilyn Slett, Chief of the Heiltsuk Tribal Council in Bella Bella, says it's understandable that the pandemic has affected the progress of reconciliation in B.C. but she wants the three parties contesting the election not to lose sight of it.

"It can't take a back seat," she told Stephen Quinn, host of CBC's The Early Edition, on Wednesday. "It needs to remain a priority."

She emphasized the importance of treating First Nations as equal governing partners.

"Everything stems from having that relationship in place, having it based on mutual respect for both governments and taking into account our priorities and our needs going forward." 

Underwhelmed by platforms

While UNDRIP makes an appearance in all three of the major parties' platforms, both Slett and George-Wilson were underwhelmed by commitments to reconciliation.

The B.C. NDP's platform promises to increase First Nations involvement in key decisions on "land and resource use allocation," and establish an office to ensure new legislation and policies align with UNDRIP.

The Greens platform stresses the "need to double down on the urgency of the action plan," and promises both adequate resources dedicated to the action plan and a collaborative relationship with Indigenous communities as it's implemented. 

Though the B.C. Liberals have promised to work to resolve long-standing land rights issues, the only explicit mention of UNDRIP in the party's platform involves finding clarity on how it might impact land-use decisions, the right to self determination and existing case law regarding title held by Indigenous people.

MMIWG mention?

Meanwhile, the Union of B.C. Indigenous Chiefs released a letter to all party leaders on Wednesday expressing their disappointment that the calls for justice from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls were left out of all parties' platforms. 

The Indigenous leaders were similarly disappointed by what they saw at Tuesday's leaders' debate, particularly the answers the NDP and Liberal leaders gave when asked about white privilege.

NDP Leader John Horgan spoke of playing lacrosse with Indigenous young people and suggested, "I did not see colour." He apologized for the remarks immediately following the debate.

Lydia Hwitsum, a member of the political council on the First Nations Summit and a former federal Green Party candidate, criticized Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson for offering "platitudes" when he said everyone should be treated equally without, she said, detailing how his government would try and make that a reality.

"If you're not acknowledging the level of inequities, then that's a real concern for me," said Hwitsum, who credited Green Leader Sonia Furstenau for her response which acknowledged deep-seated racial inequality in B.C.

Chief Slett agrees with Hwitsum.

"It's a lot more than playing lacrosse with us or delivering Indigenous babies," she said, referencing anecdotes shared by each of the male party leaders. "We need to get to the root of these issues, and we need that coming from the top of British Columbia's leaders."

Listen to the full interview here:

With files from The Early Edition