VICTORIA — British Columbia has become the first province in Canada to introduce legislation to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, mandating the government to bring its laws and policies into harmony with the principles of the declaration.
The legislation does not set a timeline for achieving its goals, but the minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation said the bill “is about ending discrimination and conflict in our province, and instead ensuring more economic justice and fairness.”
“Let’s make history,” Scott Fraser told the legislature Thursday.
Fraser said the legislation is modelled on a federal bill that died on the Senate order paper when Parliament adjourned for Monday’s election.
The declaration requires governments to obtain “free and informed consent” from Indigenous groups before approving any project affecting their lands or resources, but Fraser said neither the legislation nor the declaration includes wording that grants a veto over resource development projects.
The province also said it does not create any new rights for Indigenous Peoples but rather upholds those established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed by Canada in 1948.
Indigenous leaders addressed concerns about a possible veto in speeches to the legislature.
Terry Teegee, regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, said making history is not for the faint of heart.
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“Some people will oppose this law because of their fears about what an era of mutual consent means,” he said.
“I want to say strongly and clearly here: this declaration law is not about providing any government with veto rights.”
Consent is about a process to achieve agreement, he said.
“Consent is the future. Most simply put, it’s about coming together as governments, as people seeking to find common ground.”
Cheryl Casimer of the First Nations Summit said she was pleased to bear witness to the province acting on its commitment to implement the declaration.
“Do you hear it? The sky did not fall,” she quipped, to laughter and applause.
The declaration contains 46 articles, including that Indigenous Peoples have the right to self-determination, which means they can determine their political status and pursue economic, social and cultural development.
Another article calls for the establishment of an independent process to recognize and adjudicate Indigenous Peoples’ rights pertaining to their lands and resources. The declaration also grants Indigenous groups the right to redress or compensation for traditional lands that have been taken, used or damaged without their free, prior and informed consent.
It’s unclear what the declaration will mean practically in B.C., which has almost no treaty settlements with its over 200 First Nations.
Doing business in the province has long been more complex than in other jurisdictions because of the lack of treaties, said Greg D’Avignon, president and CEO of the Business Council of B.C.
The hope is that over time, as the province updates its laws to incorporate the declaration, there will be a clearer path for First Nations and industry to work together, he said.
Michael Goehring, president and CEO of the Mining Association of B.C., said his group was hopeful that the legislation would advance reconciliation and lead to greater certainty on the land base.
“How this legislation is implemented is very important,” he added. “Mining is a foundational industry to the B.C. economy. It provides tens of thousands of jobs and tons of investment. It’s critical that we remain a competitive jurisdiction.”
The province has said the legislation was drafted following consultation with a wide range of groups and organizations, including Indigenous, business and government leaders.
Premier John Horgan said the past is littered with broken promises for Indigenous Peoples, but the law can bring a new future.
“This bill is important because Indigenous rights are human rights,” he said.
“We all want to live in a province where the standard of living for Indigenous Peoples is the same as every other community in the province.”
Several environmental groups issued statements supporting the legislation. Sierra Club B.C. said recognizing Indigenous rights in law will help avoid conflict and costly lawsuits, and be good for jobs and the environment.
The Assembly of First Nations praised B.C. for leading the way and urged the Canadian government to do the same.
“Implementing the UN Declaration through legislation is a positive step for peace, progress and prosperity,” said National Chief Perry Bellegarde in a statement. “This will create greater economic stability and prosperity, because it’s clear that ignoring First Nations rights is the cause of instability and uncertainty.”
With files from Laura Kane in Vancouver
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 24, 2019.