I was amused by outgoing BC Attorney General Geoff Plant’s recent characterization of Haida leader Guujaaw as an alien from another planet. I’m sure it was unintentional, but in a few words Mr. Plant captured the essence of his government’s attitude towards First Nations, and towards the environment, and of its respect for the courts and the law.
Plant’s quip — racist and insulting as it was — should be analyzed, because it provides some illumination on how this government thinks about the world. Or more specifically, about British Columbians and First Nations.
During an open line talk show on CKNW on March 23 Attorney General Geoff Plant said, When I hear Guujaaw I think he’s on a different planet,
Mr. Plant is right. Guujaaw does live on a different planet from Mr. Plant and his Liberal colleagues.
By his actions Guujaaw has demonstrated that on his planet the future of the planet matters. On Guujaaw’s planet governments are expected to respect the law and follow the direction of the courts. On Guujaaw’s planet the concerns of his neighbors matter, regardless of their race. On Guujaaw’s planet ecological integrity, protecting the web of life that nurtures the salmon, the raven, and the Haida, is more important than enriching himself. On Guujaaw’s planet honour matters, and leaders negotiate in good faith and fulfill their agreements.
None of these descriptions appear to apply on Planet Liberal where Mr. Plant and his Liberal colleagues devise their schemes. On Planet Liberal only the economy matters. And in their trickle-down view, only the concerns of the wealthy well-connected few are relevant. Everyone else is a special interest with insistent First Nations and rural residents to be ignored or possibly bought off.
Despite the rhetoric, on the Liberals’ planet any show of concern for future generations and ecological integrity is obstructionist, and short-term economic profit takes precedence over virtually anything else. Their record indicates they haven’t seen a big mine, coalbed methane proposal, pipeline, oilfield, resort development or casino that they didn’t like, regardless of its impact on land, water or the local community.
And surprisingly on Mr. Plant’s planet, court decisions are only important if they support the government’s position. If not, they are to be ignored or undermined by amending legislation.
And Guujaaw is not alone on his planet. This conflict in planetary views is why First Nations and rural communities on Haida Gwaii and elsewhere are beginning to stand up and oppose this government’s policies. It’s why the majority of the non-native residents of Haida Gwaii support the Haida in their struggle to regain control of their resources and manage them sustainably.
The current uprising on Haida Gwaii results not only from divergent world views. It has historical roots fertilized by broken promises and dishonourable conduct by Mr. Plant’s government and its predecessors.
Back in the mid-1990s, the Haida launched a challenge to the BC government’s decision to grant and replace the tree farm licence then held by MacMillan Bloedel, which Weyerhaeuser took over in 2000 and now wants to sell along with some private lands to Brascan as part of the proposed $1.2 Billion deal..
The Haida challenged the governments approval, Although they initially lost in the lower court, the Haida appeal was successful at the BC Court of Appeal–the highest court in BC–which ruled that the Crown had an obligation to consult the Haida before tenure was transferred.
The Court of Appeals also ruled that the failure to consult and accommodate First Nations like the Haida could make the tenure invalid and that the duty to consult and accommodate affected First Nations was extended to third-party tenure holder like Weyerhaeuser. This sent shock waves through government and the resource industry. Investment certainty in BC suddenly became corporate risk.
The BC government’s response was to ignore the Court. Soon after the decision Skeena Cellulose’s tenure was sold to New Skeena. Despite the Haida ruling, Mr. Plant’s government did nothing to engage First Nations. So the six nations affected by the deal sued. The courts upheld the earlier decision and slapped Mr. Plant’s wrists, reprimanding the Crown.
After facing a string of loses in the court, did Mr. Plant do the honourable thing and implement laws and policies that would involve First Nations in tenure decisions as directed to by the courts?
Instead, his government did the exact opposite. They amended laws and policies to remove the requirement that the Forest Minister approve tenure transfers and hold public hearings in affected communities. This made it procedurally more difficult (and more expensive) for First Nations like the Haida to legally challenge tenure transfers.
Related amendments allowed the Forest Minister to remove private lands from tree farm licences thus eliminating virtually all effective regulation of forestry practices on them. This enabled this government to privatize almost 90,000 hectares of forest lands on Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii to–you guessed it–Weyerhaeuser who just happened to among the Liberal Parties largest donor having donated $448,093 since 1996.
Last fall the Supreme Court of Canada heard the Crown and Weyerhaeuser’s appeal of the Haida’s victory. The Supreme Court found for the Haida ruling that the Crown had a duty to consult with First Nations like the Haida about strategic decision like tenure. The Court grounded this duty in the honour of the Crown.
The highest court didn’t consider the issue of whether the Crown’s failure to consult affected First Nations could invalidate tenure, so the Court of Appeals ruling stands on that issue.
While the Supreme Court let Weyerhaeuser and other third parties off the hook, saying only the Crown had duties, the potential liabilities now attached to tenure decisions that don’t involve First Nations creates vulnerabilities that could interfere with companies rights to operate.
So what did Mr. Plant’s government do?
Once again, nothing. It didn’t amend it laws to comply with the Supreme Court’s direction. It didn’t change its consultation policy. It didn’t engage the Haida and other First Nations in meaningful negotiations.
Instead, it continued business as usual leaving important decisions about who gets to operate on unceded lands to the market and corporate executives. The proof of this inaction is the letter the Deputy Minister of Forests recently sent to Guujaaw indicating that the Crown had no authority under its revised laws to intervene in Brascan’s proposed takeover of Weyerhaeuser’ coastal holdings. The government’s intransigence helped trigger the current uprising.
It is not surprising that Mr. Plant’s quip about Guujaaw’s planet of origin followed an on-air discussion of the Haida’s growing claims of jurisdiction. It is his government’s ongoing unilateral actions on land and resource issues and its refusal to sit down and attempt to reconcile the competing jurisdictions that has led to the uprising on Haida Gwaii and the lawsuits by the Hupacasath, Gitanyow, Haida and Okanagan nations. It is the failure to address the Land Question that has also led to blockades in Kingcome Inlet, the Peace region, and in the Stikine-Iskut area.
Opposition from First Nations and communities is growing as people realize that their elected officials live on another planet. Opposition is growing as people realize that their local resources and economies are increasingly being managed for the benefit of corporations, shareholders and government revenues, and their local interests and rights are being sacrificed.
Mr. Plant’s patronizing comment about Guujaaw is just the latest attempt by representatives of this government to demonize and isolate First Nations leaders that act independently, assert constitutionally protected rights, and refuse to sign agreements that allow the status quo or
new development to continue in exchange for small sums of money.
This cavalier treatment of First Nations like the Haida, Hupacasath and Gitanyow about resource issues is a dangerous tactic to play for a government gearing up for an election. It is especially risky, when the Liberal party is grounded on how they have improved the economy.
If First Nations’ challenges of tenure continue to increase, then Mr. Plant’s government may have sabotaged certainty related to land issues for many years to come. Corporate aversion to risk and the consequent investment withdrawal will be exactly the opposite of the results Mr. Plant’s government was hoping for.
Come May 17th voters will have a say in whose planet they want to live and whether Planet Liberal gets another 4 years. Until then lots can happen. First Nations and community members from Haida Gwaii are leading the way. Who in the rest of BC will follow?