—— By Brenna Owen/ The Canadian Press

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, a move one Indigenous leader describes as a step back for reconciliation.

Terry Teegee, regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, said Wednesday that he knows the province wants to make the changes to the Land Act, as part of its work to align B.C. laws with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

But Teegee said there has been mounting pressure from people strongly opposed to the plan, including political rivals of the NDP government.

The backlash and backpedalling have “taken us back in terms of reconciliation,” he said in an interview shortly after the province’s announcement.

“It’s disappointing to say the least.”

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

Cullen said 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 said 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 said 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 course, and Cullen said 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,” he said in the statement.

BC United Leader Kevin Falcon issued a statement earlier this month saying his party could not “support giving veto power to five per cent of the population with impacts to over 95 per cent of public land,” referring to First Nations people.

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, they aimed to provide “durability” in public land decisions to “help unlock B.C.’s economic potential,” it says.

The government said the amendments would update the Land Act to “legally recognize” the ability to create shared decision-making agreements with First Nations, something that has already been done with the Environmental Assessment Act and the Forest and Range Practices Act.

Teegee said the changes would have created “space” to allow First Nations and the B.C. government to negotiate agreements around shared decision-making.

“That’s all it was, is just beginning to create that process,” he said.

“This wasn’t any veto power.”

Teegee pointed to landmark cases in which Canada’s High Court ruled that Indigenous Peoples must be consulted about decisions in their territories.

“Far too often we end up in court,” he said.

“And then the judge says, ‘You, the government, you the First Nations have to go back to the table to negotiate something.’ So, we end up in the same place.”

The B.C. government’s proposed amendments would have helped avoid those court battles and provide certainty for resource industries, Teegee said.

Teegee said he expects the province will come up with another “iteration” of the proposal “because it’s gonna happen, there’s just no two ways about it.”

The statement from Cullen similarly said opponents misleading the public about the proposal “wish to cling to an approach that leads only to the division, court battles and uncertainty that have held us back.”

Falcon issued a statement Wednesday 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.

Keerit Jutla, president of the Vancouver-based Association for Mineral Exploration, said the group and its members support the province’s commitment to implementing the declaration, but the way it introduced the Land Act changes “fostered an environment of distrust and uncertainty.”

“Our engagement with Minister Cullen was done to ensure that any changes made to the Land Act must be done in a way that bring stability and predictability to the mineral exploration industry,” Jutla said in a statement.

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