The B.C. government is about to become the first in North America to begin formal recognition of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.
UNDRIP has become an international rallying cry for Indigenous people to leave behind colonial rule and achieve “free, prior and informed consent” for resource development and other activity in their traditional territories.
Overlapping territorial claims dominate B.C., which unlike the rest of Canada is not subject to historic treaties. And the federal government is responsible for reserves that were established across the country, including B.C.
“We’re leading in Canada, in North America and the Western Hemisphere,” B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser said in an interview with Black Press.
“It’s one of the key recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action dealing with the aftermath of the residential school system, recognizing in law the rights of Indigenous peoples,” Fraser said. “It’s been described as generational. Reconciliation doesn’t have an end-date. That’s not what it’s about. Human rights are indigenous rights too.”
Fraser is emphatic about the suggestion that UNDRIP’s key phrase, “free, prior and informed consent,” establishes a veto.
“There is no veto in the UN declaration and there is none contemplated in the legislation,” he said.
The province has already moved ahead with key aspects of UNDRIP, including changes to environmental assessment laws to incorporate Indigenous input, public school curriculum and changes to children and families laws that involve state intervention in child care.
The B.C. legislature is also debating a new law providing a share of B.C. Lottery Corp. gambling revenues to the more than 200 Indigenous communities in the province.
B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson is skeptical about the NDP’s decision to pioneer the implementation of UNDRIP.
“The challenge for B.C. is we have 203 different first nations, many with overlapping claims to the landscape, and to aboriginal rights and title,” Wilkinson said in an interview. “And that’s a slow process of reconciliation that made great progress under the B.C. Liberals with (former minister) John Rustad leading the way. And now we see the NDP backing off to a kind of theoretical UN-driven approach, and it will be a real challenge to see if that will work in B.C.”
Wilkinson, a lawyer who has also worked as a medical doctor in northern B.C., noted that B.C. has already ventured into funding on-reserve housing projects, which are federal jurisdiction.
“It’s debatable within the laws of Canada, given that section 35 of the Charter deals with aboriginal rights, and that the federal government has a fiduciary duty for aboriginal peoples and what are known as Indian reserves,” Wilkinson said. “The province has a totally different jurisdiction, but we have an NDP government that’s very keen to solve the world’s problems all by itself.”