VICTORIA – An admitted bureaucratic blunder by British Columbia’s government that incensed First Nations at a liquefied natural gas summit called for an immediate “chief-to-chief” meeting to patch things up, says Premier Christy Clark.
Clark said she quickly rearranged her schedule before an Asian junket last April to get to Fort Nelson for what she considered a necessary overture in the ever-evolving, always-sensitive relationship with First Nations.
The personal touch was part of an ongoing government-attitude adjustment on First Nations relations, as the links between aboriginals and natural resources grow stronger, especially since last week’s Supreme Court of Canada ruling which makes it easier for First Nations to establish title over lands.
Clark, in an interview with The Canadian Press, said she needed to get up to Fort Nelson to apologize to the chief and council for the gaff, which the government reversed within 24 hours.
She said she needed to show her government is serious about taking the small steps needed to build and strengthen important relationships that represent the glue of B.C.’s social, cultural and economic well-being, as her Liberals embark on developing an LNG industry, much of which is to be located near or on traditional aboriginal territories.
“I wanted to sit down chief to chief with Sharleen Gale and really find a way through that,” Clark said.
“It was a mistake government made. She heads up a nation of about 900 people, and I represent a province of about 4.5 million people, but nonetheless, those chief-to-chief meetings are important, and if we are going to get there on LNG and include First Nations in that and make sure First Nations benefit, it requires an attention to detail that perhaps we haven’t had before.”
Without notice, the government exempted about 99 per cent of the natural gas produced in the province from the automatic environmental-review process, but reversed the plan the next day after a First Nations’ backlash.
Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs president Stewart Phillip called the B.C. government’s plan a “stunningly stupid move.” Fort Nelson First Nation Chief Sharleen Gale showed government officials the door as the aboriginal LNG conference was about to start. Escorted from the conference to the sounds of a traditional aboriginal honour song were Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation Minister John Rustad and Natural Gas Development Minister Rich Coleman.
Rustad said he called the premier’s office the moment the doors closed behind him.
Clark said it’s important to recognize First Nations’ roles in B.C., which is why her government acknowledges aboriginal territories on news releases or starts off public events with ceremonial prayers.
Ceremonies at the legislature almost always acknowledge the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations on whose traditional lands the legislature stands.
Clark recently named Musqueam leader Wade Grant an adviser. She said she views Grant as her relationship guide, as the government moves towards economic and social agreements focused on LNG.
“Wade is there to help make sure we can find our way to solution,” said Clark. “Relationships matter. We need to make sure we have a trusting relationship first and Wade is a part of doing that.”
Development of LNG across B.C.’s north represents what Clark says is a huge economic opportunity for First Nations and the province, but she views industrial development as one of the key drivers of forging ties between aboriginals and non-aboriginals.
The aboriginal community has supported Grant’s appointment, but leaders say there’s still much work to be done.
“Sometimes I would say they are doing fairly well,” said chief treaty commissioner Sophie Pierre. “They want to include First Nations in decisions that are being made. Other times, they just kind of go and do things that don’t really support relationship building.”
She called the original Fort Nelson gas meeting a “fiasco.”
Pierre, whose mandate involves moving forward treaty negotiations between First Nations and the B.C. and federal governments, said she senses Clark’s Liberals are looking to build relationships as they develop the north’s resources.
“I believe they really would like to consult, and I think they really do understand that in order for this province to really benefit and to be able to move ahead, everyone’s got to benefit,” she said.
Former Vancouver Island chief Judith Sayers said Clark’s relationship building appears to be focused on strengthening ties with First Nations who are rich in natural gas and LNG potential, while others are left with little attention.
“They are trying to enter into agreements with First Nations where they want development, but if you’re a First Nation that doesn’t have those things in your area, then you’re way out in left field,” she said. “Seriously. I think they need to work with every First Nation in B.C., not just picking and choosing.”