Liberals' relations with first nations suffer another setback
- Liberals' relations with first nations suffer another setback
Thursday, May 01, 2008
VICTORIA - The day began with news of a showdown between the B.C. Liberals and first nations over legislation establishing new regional authorities for aboriginal children and families.
"I am shocked, dismayed and deeply disappointed," said Stewart Philip, leader of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, in a letter to government that was also distributed to the Opposition and the news media.
"Quite frankly, your politically expedient actions may well have 'poisoned the well' of our future relationship," declared Phillip, no stranger to militant language. He wasn't alone. The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council weighed in with an expression of "disappointment and dismay."
The regional authorities would supposedly bring control of social programs for children and families closer to the native community, which accounts for more than half the children in government care.
But as the council noted in its letter this week, the Liberals had sworn not to proceed on the enabling legislation without the full involvement of first nations. They'd sought "viable alternatives" to the proposed model for the regional authorities. They'd even invited the council to "meet and consult" on May 8.
The council had agreed -- only to discover that the enabling legislation would be tabled a full week before the consultations.
What would be the point of attending the meeting?
Doug Kelly from the Sto:Lo Tribal Council got to the nub of objections from the native community.
The legislation, in his reading of what the government was proposing, failed to recognize "first nations' jurisdiction over our most fundamental and valuable resource -- our children and families."
Plus, the Liberals were moving unilaterally. "I urge you to cancel your plans," Kelly wrote in an e-mail to Tom Christensen, minister for children and family development.
Christensen did cancel, and in the most embarrassing possible circumstances.
The legislation was drafted, printed and scheduled for tabling in the legislature Wednesday afternoon.
Several first nations leaders -- chosen from among those who supported the move to regional authorities -- had been invited to witness the introduction of the bill. They were in the capital when the decision was made to pull it.
It fell to Christensen to convey the news to them, along with appropriate apologies and regrets.
The reaction, I gather, was bitter, angry and emotional. Those present were keen to get on with it, and the last-minute bailout was devastating.
Christensen shared in their sense of dismay. Regional authorities were a key initiative of the ministry, something it had been working on for six years. He's already presided over several setbacks in almost two years as minister. He didn't need another.
"I'm certainly very disappointed," Christensen said in an interview with my colleague Jonathan Fowlie of The Vancouver Sun.
"But I do on balance think it's better that we clarify any misunderstandings and that we move forward in a way that can be broadly supported."
Christensen promised "we will be redoubling our efforts." But moving forward won't be easy.
The government had already set Wednesday as the last possible date for introduction of bills in a spring session top-heavy with legislation.
Thus, the bill can't be restored to the order paper before the house reaches the scheduled May 29 adjournment, government house leader Mike de Jong confirmed.
Nor are the Liberals likely to hold a fall session of the legislature. After that, the next opportunity won't arise until after the May 2009 provincial election.
So Christensen and his ministry were doubly embarrassed. In the interview, he struggled to explain what had gone wrong.,
"What we found was that there was some very significant opposition to the introduction of the legislation at this time," he said.
But as to the nature of that opposition, he insisted there was no basis for presuming an attempt by Victoria to impose its vision on first nations.
The regional authorities would be an option "for those first nations who chose that as the option they wanted," Christensen said.
"We didn't have any intent of forcing anybody to be served by a particular authority or to participate in an authority. It was very much intended to be a voluntary approach."
But that never got communicated to the first nations leaders whose protests drove his legislation into limbo.
A common theme in those protests was that native leaders had conveyed their concerns about the legislation to ministry officials -- including deputy minister Leslie du Toit -- in unmistakable terms.
Somehow, those concerns never got passed far enough up the line to prevent the Liberals from bringing forward the legislation and inviting some natives to witness its presentation in the legislature.
Communications breakdown? Brinksmanship? Incompetence?
Somebody in the government has a lot of explaining to do.
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]