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B.C. scraps proposed changes to Land Act amid consultation, controversy

VICTORIA — The British Columbia government is scrapping a plan that was to allow shared decision-making with First Nations about the use of public land, which was part of the province's work to align its laws with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

A statement from Nathan Cullen, B.C.'s minister of water, land and resource stewardship, says the province has decided not to proceed with proposed amendments to the Land Act after holding a series of meetings with stakeholders.

Cullen says he spoke with more than 650 people representing sectors including mining, forestry, oil and gas, tourism, hunting and agriculture, and the "vast majority" told him they want to be part of making reconciliation work.

But he says officials also heard they need to "take the time to further engage with people and demonstrate the real benefits of shared decision-making in action."

The minister says some people "have gone to extremes to knowingly mislead the public" about the proposed changes and many at the meetings were "surprised" to learn the claims were not true, adding there would have been "no impacts to tenures, renewals, private properties or access to Crown land."

Still, the province is reversing the changes, and Cullen says officials "want to get this right and move forward together."

"We will continue to engage with people and businesses, and do the work to show how working together, First Nations and non-First Nations, can help bring stability and predictability, and move us all forward," says the statement issued Wednesday.

The plan had sparked backlash, with BC United Leader Kevin Falcon issuing a statement this month saying his party "cannot support giving veto power to five per cent of the population with impacts to over 95 per cent of public land."

That followed a statement from B.C. Conservative Leader John Rustad calling the government's plan "an assault on ... private property rights."

The provincial web page for the now-discarded proposal says the changes would not have provided First Nations with "veto" power. Rather, it says they aimed to provide "durability" in public land decisions to "help unlock B.C.'s economic potential."

Cullen's statement says those misleading the public about the plan "wish to cling to an approach that leads only to the division, court battles and uncertainty that have held us back."

Reacting on Wednesday, Falcon issued a statement saying the pause "does not mark the end of the NDP's hidden agenda, as their own statement suggests they plan to resume these changes at the next opportunity."

The B.C. government passed legislation in 2019 requiring the province to align its laws with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The declaration requires governments to obtain free, prior and informed consent before taking actions that affect Indigenous Peoples and their lands, and B.C.'s law set provisions for the province to negotiate agreements with First Nations to establish shared, consent-based decision-making in their territories.

The Supreme Court of Canada has already established the duty to consult, which means lawmakers must have dialogue with Indigenous Peoples about proposed decisions that could negatively affect their rights and title; but consultation does not guarantee or equate to the standard of free, prior and informed consent.

The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs had issued a statement on Feb. 1 saying its leadership was concerned about "inaccurate and unhelpful" reactions to the government's plan.

Those reactions relied on "outdated, mistaken, and regressive views relating to the rights of First Nations," it said, calling the proposed changes "a critical next step" for the province in fulfilling its commitments under the 2019 Declaration Act.

Contrary to comments by Falcon, Rustad and others, the union said the proposed changes would not have granted First Nations "veto" power" in B.C.

Rather, they would make space for the implementation of First Nations' governance rights related to land and resource development in their territories — rights that it said "have been largely ignored by colonial governments for the last century and a half."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 21, 2024.

The Canadian Press