By Dirk Meissner
THE CANADIAN PRESS
VICTORIA-British Columbia’s new premier has placed First Nations issues near the top of his government’s to-do list, committing his cabinet to transforming stalled treaty talks and negotiating revenue-sharing agreements.
The priority shift prompted a “hallelujah” Tuesday from one Indigenous leader.
John Horgan issued letters to each of his 22 cabinet ministers Monday, reminding them of his government’s promise to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the calls to action of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“As minister, you are responsible for moving forward on the calls to action and reviewing policies, programs, and legislation to determine how to bring the principles of the declaration into action in British Columbia,” said Horgan’s mandate letter to each minister.
One First Nations leader said he’s eagerly anticipating working with the New Democrats following years of road blocks under the former Liberal government.
“When I became aware of this matter in terms of the ministerial letters, my first reaction was hallelujah,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.“Personally, I’m very excited, which is something that doesn’t happen to me very often.”
Phillip said he welcomes change after seeing the priorities set out in Horgan’s letters.
“Clearly, the B.C. NDP and the B.C. Green party government is absolutely everything the former B.C. Liberal government was not,”
The premier has tasked Scott Fraser, the new minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation, with transforming the treaty process to respect case law such as the Tsilhqot’in decision.
In June 2014, a unanimous decision from the Supreme Court of Canada granted the Tsilhqot’in title to more than 1,750 square kilometres of land in the remote Nemiah Valley in B.C.’s Chilcotin region. The ruling made them the first aboriginal band in Canada to win title to their territory.
Fraser must also negotiate opportunities for First Nations to share revenues from B.C.’s gaming industry, pegged at almost $3 billion in 2014.
Cheryl Casimer, a spokeswoman for the First Nations Summit, said the former Liberal government flatly rejected past attempts by First Nations to negotiate a share of gaming dollars.
“It’s high time,” she said. “Every province in the country does that but not B.C. That was one of the issues we continually brought forward with the (former) premier.”
Fraser, who spent 12 years as the New Democrats’ critic for Indigenous issues, said he wants to implement a modern treaty process that adheres to recent court decisions on Indigenous issues.
“It needs to evolve,” Fraser said. “It hasn’t kept up with court cases and land-mark decisions.”
The B.C. treaty negotiation process has spent hundreds of millions of dollars and achieved five final treaty agreements since the early 1990s. There are more than 200 First Nations in B.C., and most do not have treaties.
Michael Prince, a social policy expert at the University of Victoria, said Fraser has built deep relations with First Nations leaders and communities over the years and he is capable of bringing people together.
“He gets this,” said Prince. “This is a man who brings a quiet strength and wisdom to this.”