Storm of protest rages outside sunny B.C. throne speech

Indoors, this was the picture: Things are great and getting greater in British Columbia. Just wait.

Outdoors, this was the picture: Things are awful and getting awfully worse. Just wait.

The lieutenant-governor, Janet Austin, is called upon by tradition to read the government’s speech from the throne in the provincial legislature. She is a great public speaker, but she had extra time to rehearse Tuesday because demonstrations had tied up strategic points in Victoria and cancelled some of the associated pomp and ceremony she was to attend in reopening the chamber for the next session.

There couldn’t have been a stronger portrait of the public division on resource development and Indigenous rights if you designed a film set and scripted a screenplay. We have seen this movie before, of course, and we will definitely see it again.

The throne speech spoke of an economy that has kept its snap, of efforts to narrow the income gap and of likely new measures to provide social service relief for those with mental health challenges and for low-income parents. There were hints – usually, hints are all you get in one of these speeches – of post-secondary investments, MRI units all over the place, additional protection for renters, and pursuit of legislation to provide paid leave for those fleeing domestic violence.

For a government in mid-term, the reprise of accomplishments and the rather frugal offerings is par for the course. Next week’s budget is bound to be a bit of a nothingburger, too, unless there is an election coming soon instead of the fall 2021 scheduled date.

Which does not mean there aren’t immediate considerations about. Take, for instance, the scene quickly within earshot as the MLAs settled into the legislature for its resumption.

The government of John Horgan has spoken clearly about a long-term commitment to a respectful process of development that includes fulfilment of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Just not now – but later.

Now, the premier said, there needs to the “rule of law” to run a liquefied natural gas pipeline through Wet’suwet’en land, even if eight of nine hereditary chiefs oppose. The elected chiefs and a solid constituency of the band support the project.

Tuesday’s show of support for the dissenting chiefs was arguably the most tangible and agile act of defiance in provincial memory.

The premier has his hands full for the first time on the job. He has been largely a happy-go-lucky first minister for two-and-a-half years, but Mr. Chuckles now has to avoid becoming Mr. Knuckles.

His caucus has spoken over the years in rather wide-ranging ways on the vague matter of hereditary chief hierarchy, but not so Horgan in recent weeks. He is firm that the project will proceed, that UNDRIP is for decisions to come and not decisions already made.

He has ruled out meeting the hereditary leaders and risked the electoral wrath of some of his supporters by staking his government on this and other energy projects not necessarily foundational elements of an NDP playbook. He is clearly gambling that the BC Green Party cannot capitalize on the opening, knowing that the BC Liberals cannot suddenly oppose what they have long supported.

It may well be that the protests Tuesday and to come are vested in economic naivety that overlooks how those same projects will sustain prosperity to pay for the very social services his supporters want. In the heat of this moment, that doesn’t appear to matter.

The outbreak is taking on a very different, troubling shape for the government, and the premier has to prevent Tuesday’s demonstrations from taking larger hold and creating a more serious schism in the province.

British Columbia prides itself on leading the country, not just in the economy but in the effort at reconciliation. Austin, speaking ceremonially for Horgan, noted this effort will take “generations.”

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.