Campbell flip flops on approach to First Nations

United States presidential candidate John Kerry was denounced for flip flopping during the last US election. Surprisingly Gordon Campbell’s recent about-face on Aboriginal issues wasn’t exposed in the media as a flip flop. Although it remains to be seen whether Campbell’s government intends to walk their talk, his U-turn shows that sometimes changing your position can be enlightened public policy.

Think back to the 2001 election campaign when Gordon Campbell’s Liberals promised a referendum on the treaty process in British Columbia. The referendum was perceived by First Nations as one of the most hostile anti-native actions taken by any modern government in BC.

The 2002 pleblicite brought much derision on the Liberal government. Opponents, led by native groups and the church, called the plebiscite “racist,” “immoral,” “amateurish,” and “stupid.”

Veteran pollster, Angus Reid, called the referendum “one of the most amateurish, one-sided attempts to gauge the public will that I have seen in my professional career.”

Academics called it a “mockery of democracy” and native leaders fearful that it would spark anti-native racism in the province, called for a boycott, encouraging voters to spoil their ballots or send blank ballots to native bands for disposal.

And most British Columbians agreed. Only a little over 30% of the mail-in ballots were returned. And many used the ballots to express their opposition. Ballots were burned ceremoniously. Others were turned into paper airplanes, cut into snowflakes, or even used as snot rags and toilet paper.

Fast forward four years to 2005 and marvel at the new priority the Premier gave to Aboriginal reconciliation in his comments at the swearing in of the BC Liberals’ new cabinet on June 16.

In what can only be described as a flip-flop of epic proportions Campbell said the government will forge new relationships with First Nations, based on reconciliation, recognition and respect for Aboriginal rights and title.

Campbell went on to describe the new priority native issues would have in his government, saying:

  • A new Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, headed by Tom Christensen, was formed to advance this priority.
  • “In every ministry and every sector we will foster new working partnerships with First Nations that will move us beyond the barriers of the past to new horizons of hope for every British Columbian.”
  • “The future will belong to all British Columbians, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, alike, as we light the way together for Canada.”

The magnitude of the reversal is particularly significant given that we just completed an election campaign during which the new relationship the government was contemplating with First Nations was not disclosed.

This, unfortunately, does not bode well for expectations of an open accountable government. A reversal in policy of this magnitude–while welcomed–should not be withheld from public debate. Interestingly enough it has been reported that when Deputy Ministers were briefed on the ongoing negotiations, they were told not to tell their Ministers.

Despite the secrecy, native leaders involved in the negotiations welcomed the Premier’s comments at the cabinet swearing in. They view Campbell’s public statement as an endorsement of a similar position he has been putting to them in private.

As reported in the Prince George Citizen, They also view the public pledge, and creation of the aboriginal ministry, as follow-through on a “new relationship” document hammered out just prior to the May 17 election.

The potentially historic five-page New Relationship document–which neither government nor First Nations has formally signed–talks about a new government-to-government relationship, shared decision-making about land and resources, a joint approach to consultation as well as revenue and benefit sharing.

Campbell’s recent public statements and the New Relationship agreement may herald an about face in how the BC government engages First Nations particularly on land and resource issues. However, getting the words right is only the first step. Changing how dirt ministries and tenure holders engage with First Nations on a daily basis in regions throughout BC is a much bigger challenge.

Turning the rhetoric into reality is often difficult. And although optimistic, Aboriginal leaders are not nave nabout the challenge.

Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs and one of the leaders involved in the recent negotiations, agreed the government’s change of tack is historically significant, but cautioned that implementing it at the community level is going to be a struggle.

“It’s going to represent a tremendous challenge to ensure that the direction of the government at the highest levels is conveyed down through the ministries to regional managers and so on, before there’s an actual shift in legal and policy framework on the ground,” said Phillip.

Shawn Atleo, BC regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations and also involved in developing the new agreement, agreed that it’s going to take persistence to ensure follow through on issues that affect First Nations on the ground.

“Whether it’s mining, whether it’s in the water, foreshore area, whether it’s forestry–our people have to have a say,” said Atleo.

However some First Nations leaders are skeptical of Campbell’s resolve. Stellat’en chief Patrick Michell said he’s cynical of the claim of a new relationship, saying he believes it’s “more smoke.”

Regardless of their perspective on government’s new commitment, First Nations understand that ongoing pressure will be necessary to advance their Title and Rights. While high-level agreements can provide a framework for resolving the land question, it will take more lawsuits, direct action and financial interventions to keep the government’s attention focused and create incentives for change.

Dogwood Initiative will keep you informed as events unfold.

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