Politics

Did John Horgan’s office help shape First Nation response to protests?

Opinion: However proposed statements got changed, they served the then-premier’s political purposes

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VICTORIA — During the long standoff over old-growth logging at Fairy Creek, Premier John Horgan often reminded protesters that the local First Nation had asked them to leave.

He quoted a statement from the Pacheedaht First Nation discouraging “third party activism” on its traditional territory and asking to be “left in peace.”

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The plea had special meaning for Horgan because Fairy Creek was within the boundaries of Langford-Juan de Fuca, the riding he represented in the legislature.

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Horgan’s office had advance knowledge of the Pacheedaht statement on the Fairy Creek protests.

The premier’s staff may even have had a hand in strengthening the wording of the statement, judging from the recent release of a document obtained under freedom of information laws.

One reason for suspecting the premier’s office is because the New Democrats fought long and hard against the release of the document.

The full story of the long-delayed release is set out in an article in this month’s issue of the Walrus magazine by B.C.-based freelance reporter Jimmy Thomson.

Shortly after the Pacheedaht statement was released in April 2021, Thomson filed an FOI request for any correspondence between the government and the First Nation before the release of the statement.

He got back an initial release of material confirming that the New Democrats had known in advance that the statement was coming and had co-ordinated with the First Nation on its release.

But one document was blanked out completely: a draft version, provided to an official in the premier’s office of the statement the Pacheedaht planned to release.

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The reporter appealed for release of the redacted document to Information Commissioner Michael McEvoy.

The commissioner’s office tried to mediate the dispute, but the government wouldn’t budge.

Instead, backed by government lawyers (Thomson represented himself), the premier’s office dragged the issue through two rounds of hearings before the office of the information commissioner.

Both times the New Democrats lost. Both times they were ordered to release the document.

Finally in November of this year, they coughed it up, 2½ years after the reporter filed his initial application.

With the draft version of the statement in hand, it was finally possible to do a comparison between what the First Nation planned to say and what it actually did say following the back-and-forth with the premier’s office.

The draft directed some sharp language at the province.

“No treaty has ever been concluded between the Crown and the Pacheedaht at all, and in particular regarding lands, waters, airspace, resources, governance over taxation,” said the text dated April 7, 2021, and provided to the premier’s office on April 8.

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The final statement released to the public on April 12 downplayed the failings of the Crown and credited the province with commitments to “suspend and defer third party forestry activities within specific areas identified by Pacheedaht.”

The draft statement had concluded with a relatively mild rebuke regarding outside interference in Indigenous management of forest resources: “Pacheedaht is not seeking and does not welcome or support unsolicited involvement or interference from others.”

The final statement closed with stronger language: “We do not welcome or support unsolicited involvement or interference by others in our territory, including third party activism. Pacheedaht needs to be left in peace to engage in our community-led stewardship planning process so that we can determine our own way forward as a strong and independent nation.”

The April 12 statement was signed by Pacheedaht hereditary Chief Frank Queesto Jones and by elected Chief Councillor Jeff Jones.

The New Democrats have lately refused to say whether the premier’s office helped stiffen the language in the final statement. “The province would not speak to details of government-to-government discussions” with the Pacheedaht.

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However the revised wording suited Horgan’s political purposes and he lost no time capitalizing on it to tell the protesters to butt out.

“I was grateful to see both hereditary Chief Queesto Jones and elected Chief Jeff Jones speak quite forcefully to people who are creating dissent within their communities, saying that they would prefer that they be left alone to manage these issues in the interest of the people of the territory,” the premier told reporters April 13.

“I think that’s an appropriate request by the people who have rights and title. If there are those who claim that they are standing up for Indigenous rights, they’re certainly not doing that. They’re disregarding the requests of not just the elected, but hereditary leadership as well.”

The Pacheedaht statement had a discouraging impact on the protests, as the Walrus article notes, quoting organizers and supporters alike. Not likely would the tamer draft, the one shared with the premier’s office, have had the same damaging effect.

By delaying its release until Horgan was gone from office and Fairy Creek had faded as an issue, the NDP’s strategy of delay and litigate had done its job.

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All that remains is another example of the lengths to which this secretive, controlling government will go to keep the public in the dark about its coverups and manipulations.

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