Minister de Jong's spin on growing Aboriginal unrest

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DI20.jpg The growing unity and resolve of First Nations in BC has Gordon Campbell’s government nervous. While the government’s rhetoric on Aboriginal issues remains well scripted and rich in catch phrases, the reality is that relations are deteriorating quickly. Unless the Campbell government changes tack quickly, it will be a long, hot summer and fall.

The throne speech claimed that Campbell’s government was “Bringing Out The Best In Partnership With First Nations.” However, there is little in the Crown’s approach to Aboriginal relations that can be called partnership. Rather, that approach can be characterized as unilateral government action to undermine First Nation legal advances (by changing legislation and policy), combined with attempts to pressure impoverished First Nations into signing draconian accommodation agreements (more on this below).

Despite the misleading publicity, this approach is facing growing Aboriginal opposition. On May 20, 2004 an unprecedented new alliance of First Nations from across BC joined a caravan to Victoria to participate in the Moving Forward in Unity events sponsored by the Title and Rights Alliance. The Alliance is implementing a far-reaching legal, political and financial strategy to challenge the province’s quest for certainty.

One of the events in Victoria was a march and rally at the legislature. Over 2,500 people participated in the legislative action.

Moments before the marchers arrived, Forest Minister de Jong called reporters into his office for an impromptu scrum, in which the Minister attacked the participating First Nations.

What follows is a transcript of his remarks with annotations

As you will see de Jong’s statements are filled with falsehoods, misstatements, half-truths and distortions. The only thing his remarks make clear is that the new Alliance has gotten his attention.

SCRUM MAY 20, 2004 [in progress]

Forest Conference 030325 - de Jong 03.jpgMike de Jong, Minister of Forestry: Well, just a couple of things. We haven’t spoken since I got back from Ottawa, and if anyone wants to talk about the softwood lumber situation, we can talk about that.

But I think the first thing I wanted to alert everyone to, because I’m told we’re going to have some guests here today, some first nations arriving…. I want everyone to be aware that despite what some people are trying to say, we have signed agreements with over 50 first nations. In fact, there’s another one today with the Bonaparte First Nation for upwards of nine million cubic metres of timber, over $50 million in revenue sharing.

DI20.jpg[This was Minister de Jong’s first distortion. In fact, the Bonaparte FRA agreement had been signed and posted to the MOF website in April. On the day of the rally the info on the MOF website was changed to May 20th and a press release was sent out once again announcing the agreement. Ironically, Chief Mike Retasket of the Bonaparte was among those rallying on the lawn. His Band had little choice, in the short term, to sign the agreement, but no one in his community feels this agreement resolves their concerns about the land and the government’s management of it.–Will Horter]

I have heard from representatives, like Chief Phillip Stewart [sic–he means Chief Stewart Phillip], who are suggesting, somehow, that the government is unprepared to deal in good faith with first nations. Well, 50 first nations have concluded otherwise, and those agreements have been signed. The benefits are flowing, and I think it’s sad that there are people who seem more content to continue to engage in inflammatory statements, than actually getting down to the tough work involved in moving forward, and that’s what 50 first nations have actually done.

DI20.jpg [Minister de Jong is using the Liberal party’s old tactic of marginalising opposition. The protesters were not a fringe element. In fact, leaders from virtually every First Nation organization in BC stood up in Victoria on May 20 and denounced the Crown’s failure to deal in good faith with Aboriginal People. The Minister’s attempt to demonize Chief Phillip is another one of his attempts to divide and conquer First Nations.

His reference to the 50 leaders that have signed agreements is another such attempt. Almost half of the leaders that signed these agreements marched in support of the Alliance, have financially contributed to the growing Alliance and are pursuing legal and financial actions in co-operation with the Alliance. Many of these leaders stated during the Victoria events that the “trinkets and beads” offered in these agreements do not buy Aboriginal acquiescence.

Most leaders made it clear that they are still waiting for the Crown to “get down to the tough work involved in moving forward” on resolving Title issues.–Will]

Reporter: How many first nations are there in B.C.?

de Jong: Well, almost 150. DI20.jpg[Actually 197–Will]

Reporter: So you’ve signed agreements with a third; so two-thirds don’t have agreements, obviously. They have grievances with the government.

de Jong: I mean, these are the agreements that have been signed with first nations. They provide for timber. They provide for revenue sharing, upwards of $53 million so far.

They don’t, as some have suggested – and you may hear this afternoon – in any way ask first nations to surrender any rights. They are five-year agreements. They respect the fact that there rights being asserted and being negotiated at treaty tables.

As I say, it takes courage on the part of first nations who have over the last six months negotiated these agreements, and others seem comfortable lobbying criticisms and accusations. What they should be doing, in my view, is: sitting down, if they’re sincere in wanting to improve the lives of their people, and taking advantage of agreements that many first nations – very soon it will be a majority of first nations – believe are in the best interests of their people.

DI20.jpg [The spin begins.

  • Distortion: No rights are surrendered, but the FRAs require the signatory to agree they have been accommodated in relation to a broad range of forestry issues, thereby impeding attempts to assert rights and challenge status-quo operations. In other words, it requires signatories to lay down most of the tools they could use to assert their rights
  • Half-truth:There is no true revenue-sharing. Rather, there is a per capita formula of a certain amount of dollars per band member. This has nothing to do with the volume or value of wood removed from the First Nation’s territory, or the effect of its removal on the nation’s traditional activities.
  • Mis-statement: It is an insult for de Jong to scold Alliance leaders about their lack of “courage … to sit down and
    negotiate,” when his government has refused to sit down and consult about–let alone negotiate–any of the major forestry and land use legislation or other decisions with them.

Reporter: This is a pretty broad coalition, though, because of the first nations that are coming down here. You’re sort of dismissing them in terms of…. But it’s a pretty coalition, isn’t it, of people who are saying there’s a problem with how you guys are doing things?

de Jong: I don’t know. We’ll see later. It seems to be the same old crew. It seems to be a group who have always found it more attractive to yell and scream and shout instead of doing what is, admittedly, difficult work: sitting down and negotiating agreements. I can go through band after band who have said to me: You know, in two and a half years we’ve gotten further with this government in terms of genuinely creating economic opportunities for our people and getting genuinely involved in forestry than with any government in the past.

To suggest, as some people are, that the government isn’t interested in effecting that economic involvement on the part of first nations and forestry is just BS.

DI20.jpg[Minister de Jong is the one spouting BS, not the Alliance supporters. Despite de Jong’s spin, it is not the same old crew. It is an unprecedented alliance of First Nations from across the political spectrum. The Title and Rights Alliance, has brought together for the first time those involved in treaty negotiations, those who reject the treaty process, those involved in litigation, and those who already have treaties and are trying to get the Crown to honour the terms of the treaties.

In relation to the agreements, the Crown is only offering timber and money because they are responding to legal obligations created by the courts that were just being decided when the previous government left power. The government is trying to do the bare minimum to prevent further litigation]

Reporter
: Can you name some of these bands so maybe we can talk to them and see…

de Jong: Well, I’ll give you a list. It’s on the document here that’s…

Reporter: How many more agreements are pending?

de Jong: Well, we…

Reporter: You said that soon it’s going to be a majority, so I’m just wondering how many are pending?

de Jong: Well, we have about another dozen that are in the process of being finalized, and we’re working from there. It’s …. In fact, we’re going much quicker than even we hoped for. When we started this exercise six months ago, we hoped there would be take-up on the part of first nations who wanted to take advantage of the tenure opportunities and the revenue dollars, and in fact, as I say, as of today 50 of them have.

Reporter: Minister, I see more communications people in your office today than I usually see at this kind of thing, and we don’t often see you take that first-out-of-the block seat. It seems that you’re here in advance of a large first nations rally on the steps of the Legislature. Why are you doing this? This is a change for your government.

DI20.jpg[Indeed, by going on the offensive de Jong not only alienated even more First Nations, he also sparked broader interest from the press.]

de Jong: Well, maybe. I’ll tell you this: I find it curious that people would be making fundamentally inaccurate accusations. One of the things that I have heard from Chief Phillip Stewart [sic] is that by signing one of these agreements, as 50 first nations already have, that they are surrendering aboriginal rights. Wrong. Dead wrong.

DI20.jpg[Minister de Jong’s statements about not surrendering title and rights are pure spin–distortion and sophistry at its worst. The only person “dead wrong,” and the only people gullible enough to believe him are reporters without knowledge of Aboriginal law.

The intention of these accommodation agreements is to limit First Nations’ ability to challenge the status quo. In fact, as the Ministry of Forests’ own policy on accommodationmakes clear, the Crown’s objective in addressing “asserted aboriginal rights and title” is not to honorably address them, but rather, to “create certainty on Crown lands and promote economic development.]

Read the agreement. You don’t have to sign the agreement. If you don’t want to do the agreement; don’t do the agreement. That’s fine. But if you’re going to criticize, if you’re going to be critical, at least be accurate. Get away from this rhetoric. There’s been enough rhetoric. For a hundred years there’s been rhetoric. People are allowed to protest, and they’re allowed to voice their opposition of their concerns, but they should do it from an informed basis. I think what you’re seeing and hearing today is my frustration that that expression of opposition isn’t based on fact.

DI20.jpg [The Minister underestimates the broad support for unity and the role that Ed John, Guujaaw, Justa Monk and now Liz Logan have in guiding the growing Alliance. His attempt to single out Chief Phillip, just one of five members of the Alliance’s Steering Committee, is to try to divide the leadership. The inaccuracies are de Jong’s.]

Reporter: Is it also a reflection that’s pre-emptive…? This strike this morning – is it reflective of how worried you are that these voices are being heard?

DI20.jpg[Of course the reason he is trying to preempt the Alliance is that the Liberals are nervous. But what did this reporter expect him to say in response to the question?]

de Jong: I am thrilled actually with the progress that we’re making. It’s beyond my wildest dreams that we would have this many agreements this quickly. And I don’t think people should get away with disseminating false information. I think people need to have the facts, and then they can decide.

You know what? If a first nation takes the approach that these agreements are insufficient or not to their liking, fine. I guess we’ll go to court. This is our attempt to demonstrate that we genuinely want to accommodate, consult, accommodate, and share revenue and resources with first nations. If some people think it is insufficient, fine, we’ll go to court. We feel pretty confident that what we’ve done – the first government in the country to actually adopt this path – that it will withstand any kind of scrutiny.

DI20.jpg[Another distortion. The point of the accommodation agreements is to weaken the signatory First Nation’s ability to go to court. Most of the accommodation agreements have an express term that the agreement is voided if the First Nation litigates. In addition, if the nation was to go to court, the terms of the agreement where the leader indicates that the First nation has been accommodated would severely impair the groups chance at success.

It is nothing short of disingenuous for the Minister to say, “if you don’t like it … take us to court,” as that is exactly why the agreements were drafted the way they are–to undermine the signatory’s chances of successful litigation.]

But the criticism should be factual, not fanciful, not based in rhetoric around accusations of bad faith. To do so, suggests that 50 first nations somehow don’t have the in
telligence to properly negotiate, and they do; they have negotiated hard. I mean, talk to…. The question was: who should we talk to? Talk to Art [Sterritt] from the Gitgaa’t] First Nation up north – a tough negotiator. What he said – and I thought it was agreement – was that these agreements are like buying a new suit. Try it on; see if it fits. If it doesn’t fit, take it off. It’s a five-year agreement. That, I think, is a much healthier attitude, than to simply say: it’s all BC, and the government’s trying to screw us again – which, unfortunately, is what you tend to hear from people who don’t have, apparently, the interest or the leadership required to sit down and negotiate.

DI20.jpg [The problem for leaders who signed such agreements is that once you agree that you have been accommodated, it will be difficult to later say you haven’t, thus undermining your ability to challenge forestry decisions you have agreed to as a term of the agreement.]

Reporter: Do you think there’s some first nations who just don’t want to come to the table?

de Jong: Yeah, I think for some first nations it’s much easier just to fight and hurl words of abuse. It’s just an easier way to lead. It’s easier to pick an external enemy and say, “Those guys don’t care about this,” when the evidence is very much to the contrary. Yeah, I think there are some first nations and some first nations leaders, unfortunately, who are mired in the old ways of confrontation.

Happily, there are in increasing numbers first nations and leaders who are saying no, let’s find a new way; let’s actually work together to try and find a better way and employment for our people. That’s reflected in 50 signed agreements over the last six months.

Reporter: But does that indicate those 50 first nations support your government or their concerns over rights and title have been fully addressed? I mean, we were just talking about forest revenue sharing deals.

de Jong: Yeah. No. I think it is less a case of supporting one government or one party. I think those are first nations who have concluded, rightly, that it is to the advantage of their peoples, to be involved directly in economic activity, and these are agreements that facilitate that. So I don’t think it’s a question of supporting politicians or supporting governments. It’s a matter of doing what’s right for the people that they represent and for people who want to be involved in forestry. What we tend to be seeing from another group is, I think, concern, concern that, in increasing numbers, first nations are moving away from confrontation. For those who embrace confrontation, that’s very troublesome.

Reporter: Minister, could you describe for me what are those agreements and to which extent they relate or do not relate to the treaties?

de Jong: I will. They are agreements that embody four key points. First, they are limited-term agreements; they are for five years. They include a license to harvest timber, for the first nation, of various amounts. They include a revenue-share component, money that the first nations get to spend as they wish. They include, as well, a protocol for ongoing consultation on operational and administrative decisions. And what we ask for from the first nations is acknowledgment that their asserted interest in the traditional territory has been accommodated for the duration of the agreements.

DI20.jpg [The Minister’s comments on consultation are a good examples of a half-truth. Despite de Jong’s assurances, accommodation agreements will have a big impact on consultation. They implement consultation processes that fail to meet minimum legal requirements. By signing these agreements, signatories agree that the Province has “developed an adequate consultation and interim workable accommodation process.” However, the consultation process described in FRAs falls far short of the government duties to consult. For example, these agreements:

  • reduce or remove the Crown’s obligations to share information with signatory group;
  • undermine Aboriginal interest by limiting them to mere stakeholders in decsions about how much logging will occur annually within their territory; and
  • limit consultation to site-specific impacts.
  • Reporter: So they don’t relate or they relate [inaudible] to the treaty negotiations?
  • de Jong: They are not treaties. They do not…. Where’s my…? There’s the clause. It’s not a treaty. It does not define, amend, affirm, deny or limit aboriginal rights. It doesn’t require first nations to surrender any asserted aboriginal rights. What I find frustrating is that there are people out there suggesting exactly the opposite when it’s just not true.
  • [More sophistry from de Jong. The accommodation agreements place serious limitations on the ability of groups to exercise and defend Title and Rights during the term of the agreement.
  • In fact, in most FRAs, signatory bands must agree not to go to court or otherwise challenge a broad set of forestry decisions, and must accept limitations on exercising Title or Rights on land in a way that would interfere with “provincially authorized” forest development activities. Does that sound like surrendering rights?]
  • Reporter: But can a treaty be signed within that five years?
  • de Jong: Oh, yes. And there is…. For those bands that are within the treaty process, that’s obviously the hope. These agreements are available to bands who are not in the treaty process. These are economic agreements.
  • Reporter: Minister, I’d like to know: with the timber that is allocated to the first nation, is it in excess of what is already available in the province, or is it part of what the province is [inaudible], able to produce every year?
  • de Jong: It’s the latter, and I think, more to your point, it is, in part, why we are engaged in the timber reallocation process, the 20 per cent take-back. That’s where these volumes ultimately come from, because you’re right; it has to be contained within the overall sustainable cut.
  • DI20.jpg [Sustainable cut? Despite numerous government studies that shows the rate of logging must drop to protect wildlife, biodiversity, water quality and maintain economically viable volumes into perpetuity, this government keeps raising the rate further above sustainable levels.]

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