2016 Year in Review: 2016 a year of challenges and progress for B.C. First Nations

While First Nations issues have been front and centre in relation to resource development in B.C. for everyone, the issues of grinding poverty seem to affect only First Nations. 

The socio-economic disparity that indigenous peoples face is a major driver for the advancement of aboriginal rights in Canada. First Nations activism increased in 2016, with court challenges launched against all major projects in B.C.  Indeed, it is now a normal part of the regulatory process in Canada to see legal challenges.

With the election of a new federal government, expectations and levels of impatience were high. Many federal commitments have not been realized: from adequate child welfare funding as found by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling, to the federal government’s commitment to the United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous people, to the launch of the missing and murdered indigenous women’s inquiry and comprehensive Oceans Protection Plan. 

Progress has been slow, and controversial decisions have been made on major projects that started in the Stephen Harper era, including liquefied natural gas (LNG) and oil. 

Not all commitments have been realized, and not all expectations have been met through recent approvals. It turns out a nation-to-nation relationship will take more than a year to sort out. And while chatter on social media suggested the chiefs of Canada would walk out on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a December address in Ottawa at the Assembly of First Nations special assembly, he instead got a standing ovation, likely in part because of an announcement related to language funding, but also because of his statements about continued support to live up to government commitments. 

In spite of this widely covered turbulence, there have been many bright spots in First Nation communities. 

They include successes in economic development, new approaches to environmental assessments, and many economic projects and agreements created – something not always widely covered. The government of B.C. has adopted a keen focus on working on economic agreements with First Nations, particularly in the LNG sector. It has reached more than 60 LNG-related agreements so far, covering 90% of First Nations affected by LNG projects. 

Other B.C. government initiatives to highlight include the repatriation of First Nation artifacts, funding for clean-energy projects and a child welfare review by Grand Chief Ed John. 

However, it is concerning that there has been less work in relation to initiatives dealing with full reconciliation of aboriginal and Crown title. And while the Tsilhqot’in and B.C. signed a historic accord dealing with the implementation of the William Case, under which the Tsilhqot’in won aboriginal title to part of their territory, the BC Treaty Commission’s chief commissioner position remains vacant. Furthermore there is no recent explanation of B.C. goals for reconciliation with First Nations.  

A real bright spot in 2016 was seeing the first First Nation woman, Melanie Mark, elected into the B.C. legislature. 

In 2017, we will see several First Nation candidates running for all three major political parties in the upcoming provincial election. Everyone will be waiting to see how the 2017 election will affect B.C., especially its First Nations. Once the election is over, hopefully there will be enough runway for both federal and provincial governments to put their minds to the longer goal of reconciliation. In the absence of reconciliation, First Nation issues will continue to dominate economic prospects in B.C. 

Ultimately, a jointly developed path forward to reconciliation between government and First Nations is needed. The current uncertainty not only is bad economically for all, but also comes with a real cost that will ultimately harm our children. We shouldn’t leave the next generation with the burden of resolving these long-outstanding issues. •

Kim Baird is a former Tsawwassen First Nation chief.