Politics

B.C. NDP backs away from Land Act, blames opposition, critics

Opinion: “I take full responsibility for how that was handled,” acknowledged the provincial minister of water, land and resource stewardship.

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VICTORIA — Cabinet minister Nathan Cullen briefly took the blame at a news conference Wednesday for the botched and now abandoned consultations on changes to the Land Act.

“I take full responsibility for how that was handled,” acknowledged the provincial minister of water, land and resource stewardship, when prompted by a question from a reporter.

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The mea culpa did not appear in the text of the news release where Cullen announced that the government plan to amend the Act was being put on hold.

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What did appear was a self-serving account of the humdinger of a job Cullen had been doing on the consultations.

“From the very beginning of this process, I promised that we would listen and take the time to get any changes right,” he boasted.

No, he did not do that from the very beginning. Rather, in January he launched a consultation process on amending the Land Act to enable co-management of Crown Land with the province’s 200 First Nations.

He did not tell the public he was doing it.

Only after the secretive consultations were reported in The Vancouver Sun and elsewhere did Cullen say that he wished he had been more proactive in involving the public.

Even then, the minister only stepped-up consultations with the resource development community and other stakeholders. Public involvement was still confined to written feedback on the Engage B.C. website.

Cullen’s news release went on to tout his consultations “with over 650 representatives of stakeholder groups representing tens of thousands of British Columbians.”

They were on side with the government’s good intentions, apparently: “The vast majority have told us they want reconciliation to work, and they want to be partners in this work to create opportunity for First Nations, businesses and all communities through working together.”

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So why was he backing off if things were going so well? Because they also told him “we need to take the time to further engage with people and demonstrate the real benefits of shared decision-making in action.

“We want to get this right and move forward together,” said Cullen, finally getting to the news of the day. “For that reason, our government has decided not to proceed with proposed amendments to the Land Act.”

The public will approve of the pause, judging from an opinion poll released last week by the independent Angus Reid Institute.

Those polled were mostly in the dark about the exercise, understandably confused about the government’s intentions, and wanted the New Democrats to slow down and explain themselves.

Had Cullen left it at that, he might have managed a credible exit from a mess that was largely of his own making.

But he couldn’t resist taking a partisan swipe at his critics in the B.C. United and B.C. Conservative parties.

“Some figures have gone to extremes to knowingly mislead the public about what the proposed legislation would do,” he said via the news release. “They have sought to divide communities and spread hurt and distrust. They wish to cling to an approach that leads only to the division, court battles and uncertainty that have held us back.”

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Cullen expanded on those comments with reporters, accusing the Opposition parties of playing “dog whistle politics.” They were spreading misinformation about how the changes would affect existing tenures on and access to Crown Land and provide a veto for Indigenous nations.

Considering the government’s secretive approach, it is hardly surprising that people were suspicious about its intentions. And with Cullen insisting that the amendments were not yet drafted, critics were of course speculating about what they might say.

Adam Olsen, the house leader for the Greens, followed Cullen at the news conference and provided a welcome balance.

He agreed that some of the comments from some of the critics were “despicable.”

Yet he did not let Cullen and the New Democrats off the hook for having created the opportunity for those critics.

Olsen faulted the “curious” decision to launch a public consultation about the fate of Crown land in an election year. Curiouser still to have done it without telling the public.

He speculated that the New Democrats had perhaps assumed they could use their legislative majority to squelch any opposition. Or they may have thought there would be little controversy because the house had passed earlier legislation with respect to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

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But as Olsen went on to emphasize, this was the Land Act, and land has been a fundamental matter of dispute in B.C. since before the province got its name.

By plunging into the process without preparing the public, the New Democrats “put First Nations in the middle unnecessarily,” said Olsen.

The New Democrats were feeling sorry for themselves. But the Indigenous people were bearing the brunt of the public outrage.

The government, as he sees it, must start again to rebuild trust with a process of deep engagement, respectful of history and all communities.

Cullen, for his part, vowed to start again “on the path we are on.”

Not right away. But soon enough if the New Democrats win the election.

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