BY TERRY TEEGEE
Regional Chief, BC Assembly of First Nations
It’s been 12 years since the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People was passed at the UN. Back then, the Government of Canada, along with the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand opposed the Declaration. They worked against it, continued to oppose it, and only in 2016 did Canada finally remove its objection to the Declaration.
It’s also been 12 years, to the week, that Takla Nation, my Nation, won our fight to stop Amazay Lake from becoming a tailings pond for a mine. The project had been approved without any meaningful consultation. And it would have destroyed a pristine mountain lake that is habitat for innumerable fish and other aquatic animals.
We’ve come a long way in 12 years.
Back then, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives were fighting hard to turn back the clock on Indigenous rights. And resource developers were continuing to go about business as usual, ignoring Indigenous peoples and our rights.
Now the Government of British Columbia has introduced the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act to implement the UN Declaration. The same one that Canada so famously opposed 12 years ago. The same one that says Indigenous peoples have the same human rights as everyone else.
As the Regional Chief of the BC Assembly of First Nations, I have worked with John Horgan’s government to build this legislation. So have many other groups, including the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, and the First Nations Summit. We were all present when the Declaration Bill was introduced; now it’s on its way to third reading and a final vote, and we are hoping for continued support from all parties, and all British Columbians. This legislation gives us a seat at the table. We have willing partners at the province. And British Columbians understand that, together, we can move forward with reconciliation.
Reconciliation isn’t just about understanding past injustices. It’s about agreeing to the pathway forward. First Nations in B.C. continue to have our children taken from us at far higher rates than the average population; only eight per cent of children in B.C. are Indigenous, but they make up 55 per cent of children in care. The same occurs in the prison system. We are only five per cent of the total population of the province, but 30 per cent of male and 47 per cent of female inmates in B.C. correctional facilities are Indigenous. This legislation will open the way to addressing these discrepancies by ensuring that our people are treated on equal terms as the rest of British Columbia.
Of course the best way for our peoples to achieve justice is to be able to determine our own futures. That means our governance systems are respected, but also that we can share in our province’s prosperity with other British Columbians. This legislation will set up a process so that there is predictability in how business is carried out in B.C. That’s why the BC Federation of Labour and the BC Business Council — two organizations that are often opposed to each other — both support the legislation. It puts all British Columbians, whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous, on equal footing. It makes sure that Indigenous people are partners in our shared prosperity. And it ensures that we don’t have to fight tooth and nail to protect our shared inheritance, like Amazay Lake.
Some people will claim that this legislation gives First Nations people some special power. It does nothing of the sort. This legislation simply recognizes that we have the same rights as other British Columbians, which means that when legislation or resource projects affect our communities and our people, we will have a say. It means we will be involved in resource projects from the start, which is what we have always asked for.
The decision-making process that this legislation will put in place means that my people will not have to go to court to fight another project that will poison our land and water. When the project is proposed, we will be a part of how the project is approved. And everyone will save time, money, and frustration by avoiding costly court challenges.
My Nation, Takla, is already having huge success in partnership with the Province and Forestry companies. We have our own Forestry Best Management Practices, and the forestry companies operating in our territory know that they will have better results when they cooperate with us on development. It is in this spirit of cooperation that the province is introducing the legislation to implement the UN Declaration.
Over the past 12 years there has been a huge shift in how Indigenous and non-Indigenous governments, and people, work together. I know that this legislation is not some kind of silver bullet. We will have to work together on new legislation, and amending existing laws, to ensure that there is predictability when it comes to resource development.
And we need all parties involved, because human rights are not a partisan issue. But I do see that all the people of British Columbia are now walking down the same path, and I look forward to more hard work in the years and decades to come as we face our future together.