Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Two bills introduced in the British Columbia legislature on Nov. 17 illustrate the province is heading in the right direction, say two First Nations leaders.
However, both BC Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Terry Teegee and Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs president Grand Chief Stewart Phillip say more political will is needed to move the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples forward at a faster pace.
Attorney General David Eby tabled Bill 18 which adds Indigenous identity as a protected ground against discrimination in the BC Human Rights Code, and Bill 29, which amends the Interpretation Act to make it clear that all provincial laws uphold, and do not diminish, the rights of Indigenous people protected under section 35 of the Canadian Constitution. This is known as a universal non-derogation clause.
“These are small incremental steps. There are others coming up but what we’re looking for two years after Bill 41 has passed is more substantial movement. These are all good. But it’s too small. We need more substance, more movement and alignment of laws,” said Teegee.
In 2019, BC passed Bill 41, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (DRIPA). BC became the first jurisdiction to pass legislation aimed at implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
DRIPA sets out two mechanisms to implement UNDRIP: changing legislation to make all laws consistent with UNDRIP; and joint decision making or consent prior to decisions on the use of statutory powers.
An assessment of DRIPA undertaken by the Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous-led think tank, in its 2020 special report wasn’t flattering.
“…We’re still waiting to see whether it will be integrated into the environmental regulatory processes. Judging by the poor integration of FPIC (free, prior and informed consent) into the Impact Assessment Act, we may not hold our breath. However, this is a critical containment of UNDRIP law if not amended,” wrote researcher Shiri Pasternak. The Impact Assessment Act outlines a process for assessing the impacts of major projects and projects.
The BC government faced criticism when in 2020, Premier John Horgan said “free and informed consent” did not apply to the Coastal GasLink project which was already in the works prior to the passage of DRIPA. Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs said the project did not have their consent and protests broke out in opposition to the line. They continue today.
“Our document, our legislation, our declaration is forward looking. It’s not retrospective. We believe it will open up opportunities not just for Indigenous people but for all British Columbians,” said Horgan at the time.
A year later, Phillip sees these new bills as being helpful in re-establishing jurisdiction and sovereignty and building on both the UN declaration and DRIPA.
“I think the government of BC has been quite progressive as opposed … to the government of Alberta, which is absolutely hostile toward the UN declaration, as well as Saskatchewan and other regions across this country,” said Phillip.
The purpose of the Interpretation Act is to provide guidance and assistance for the interpretation of laws where their meaning is not clear. The Act applies to every piece of legislation unless noted otherwise by the legislation, says the government in a news release.
Adding Indigenous identity to the BC Human Rights Code was recommended in a report to the BC Human Rights Tribunal, as well as a report on the BC health care system, both made in 2020.
In Plain Sight: Addressing Indigenous specific racism and discrimination in BC Health Care was penned by Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond. She noted that “discriminatory behaviour on the basis of race or Indigenous identity is a ground of a care quality complaint” and must be included as a “protected ground from discrimination.”
Currently the BC Human Rights Code provides protection from discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, ancestry, place of origin and religion. The BC Human Rights Tribunal has interpreted these grounds to encompass Indigenous identity, says the government.
“We know that the long-standing impacts of colonialism and systemic racism continue to affect Indigenous communities to this day,” said Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Murray Rankin.
Phillip says he has seen a shift in behaviour by British Columbians.
“We have a lot of friends and allies in British Columbia and I would suggest we have greater support than we have opposition. I think the opposition, the racism that’s still part of our daily reality, is slowly being marginalized,” he said.
As for continuing to move forward, Teegee says there needs to be “significant change” and even though there is a core working group, it will depend on the political will of the legislature.
“The premier, the ministers, their leadership, they have some political will to implement it. But I think moreover is to realize what that will take, and we’ve been trying to convey that to them, that there needs to be significant change. Not skirting around the edges. I think the more we get on to them on that, I think perhaps maybe there will be change in the near future,” he said.
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.