Vaughn Palmer: The fine print of moving forward on pipeline flows with uncertainty

VICTORIA — When Premier John Horgan appointed his cabinet in the summer of 2017, he gave each of the 22 ministers an unprecedented assignment in terms of their dealings with Indigenous people.

“As part of our commitment to true, lasting reconciliation with First Nations, our government will be fully adopting and implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP),” the mandate letters from the premier read in part.

“As minister, you are responsible for moving forward on the calls to action and reviewing policies, programs and legislation to determine how to bring the principles of the declaration into action.”

So began the Horgan government’s controversial and risky venture into the uncharted territory of the UN declaration.

Controversial because Horgan endorsed the UN declaration when he was in Opposition, at a time when the B.C. Liberal government said the guarantee of “free, prior and informed consent,” meant a “de facto” veto for First Nations.

Risky because despite the NDP insistence that the move would mean greater “certainty” for land use and development, no one knew how the declaration would play out in practice and law, or with First Nations, the courts and the public.

Then last fall the Horgan government raised the stakes when it introduced the enabling legislation for the commitment to the UN declaration.

The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act was brief, committing the government to “take all measures necessary to ensure the laws of  B.C. are consistent with the declaration.”

To get there, the government has to prepare and implement an action plan in consultation with First Nations and report back annually on progress made.

For all the earlier controversy over the UN declaration, the New Democrats achieved a remarkable degree of consensus when the legislation passed the house unanimously.

B.C. thus became the first jurisdiction in the country to formally enshrine the UN declaration in framework legislation, albeit with the proviso that much work remained to be done.

Among those praising the legislation was Namoks — who also goes by the name John Ridsdale — one of the hereditary leaders of the Wet’suwet’en people.

“This is a great step forward, the doors are open,” he said in a statement still posted on the B.C. government website. “Utilizing our traditional/hereditary government is the way to positively move forward together.”

His reference to “traditional/hereditary government” would assume greater significance as the year turned.

At the end of December, the B.C. Supreme Court issued an injunction that would put Namoks and Horgan on a collision course.

The injunction ordered an end to efforts by some hereditary chiefs, allies of Namoks, to block construction of the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory.

Horgan was out of the country when the decision came down. By the time he got back from vacation, “the train had left the station” and the showdown was underway.

After the passage of the UNDRIP legislation, the fates have not chosen a more contentious place for the first standoff between the NDP government and a First Nation.

The permitting for the pipeline predates the NDP time in office, though Horgan has endorsed both it and the LNG terminal now under construction at the end of the line.

The Wet’suwet’en community was divided over the project, with elected leaders and some hereditary chiefs supportive, and a handful of hereditary chiefs opposed.

“I was certainly aware that the Wet’suwet’en leadership was not happy with the plan,” Horgan conceded recently. He also insisted that provincial representatives have been meeting regularly with the Wet’suwet’en to “try to resolve governance questions.”

But as Horgan also conceded with some frustration this week, those efforts have so far borne no fruit.

The premier stands accused of picking and choosing which clauses in the UN declaration to respect, though he insists his legislation was never intended to be applied to a project whose approval predates his time in office.

Then late this week the province’s independent environmental assessment office issued an order regarding the most contentious section of the pipeline route.

The Unist’ot’en (Dark Horse) house of the Wet’suwet’en  First Nation has constructed and expanded a healing centre in the right of way for the pipeline.

The order gives the Unist’ot’en and the pipeline company 30 days to engage and consult on some unresolved issues regarding the impact of construction on an 18-kilometre-long stretch that includes the healing centre. In the interim, no construction is allowed, though site preparation can continue.

The healing centre has been expanded since the original certificate of approval was issued on the project.

But such are the regulatory hurdles for would-be builders in B.C. that the pipeline company now has to update its findings in light of the revised structure.

Nevertheless, Coastal GasLink welcomed the directive, noting only that to date the Unist’ot’en have refused to meet to discuss the outstanding issues.

The Unist’ot’en hailed the move as a victory while the government characterized it as more in the nature of a last chance 30-day extension.

“This is a process,” a somewhat frustrated Horgan told reporters this week. “A hundred and fifty years of colonization will not be eliminated by passage of a piece of provincial legislation. It will be eliminated by people of goodwill, working together to ensure that the prosperity that we want for ourselves is shared by everybody.”

One can hope. But for now, the uncertainty continues.


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