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(David Parkins for the globe and mail)
(David Parkins for the globe and mail)

British Columbians Who Matter

Breaking through the First Nations wall Add to ...

In 1990, British Columbia’s Social Credit government executed a stunning about-face by joining the Nisga’a land-claim talks. In that one move, it abandoned more than a century of provincial policy that deemed treaty-making a federal responsibility. And it was largely because of the efforts of a little-known bureaucrat.

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The history books will show premier Bill Vander Zalm and his native affairs minister Jack Weisgerber first came to the table on the province’s behalf. But it was Eric Denhoff who brought British Columbia out of the 1800s through the skillful arts of the mandarin.

The former Alberta newspaper reporter arrived in Victoria in 1987 to take a job with the native affairs ministry. He found a province in deadlock over land claims and resource development, simmering with anger and distrust on both sides.

“When I took the job under Vander Zalm, it was a firing offence to meet with any First Nations on the topic of treaty-making,” recalls Mr. Denhoff in a recent interview.

But he saw an opportunity – Mr. Vander Zalm, who had been deeply moved by a visit to an impoverished First Nations community, wanted to do something to improve the circumstances of the province’s native population. Mr. Denhoff was supposed to work within a narrow scope, to look for economic development opportunities.

“It was apparent the real problem was that here in B.C., because we don’t have treaties, there was no relationship,” Mr. Denhoff said. Pressure was building for a change – the province was losing legal battles in court over aboriginal rights and title – but there was little political appetite to reach out.

So Mr. Denhoff began a campaign to persuade the premier and his minister that they needed to lead a recalcitrant cabinet and caucus toward the treaty table.

“My sense was, if you could get Vander Zalm and Weisgerber and the caucus into rooms with the really bright and engaging [First Nations] leadership, they would naturally want to do a deal with each other.”

Mr. Vander Zalm soon agreed to lead a task force on native affairs, travelling to far-flung communities that had never before hosted a B.C. premier.

Mr. Denhoff, who by now had ascended to deputy minister for native affairs, did the organizing, and Mr. Vander Zalm doggedly put in the time.

Mr. Weisgerber recalls how he and the premier picked up the trail laid by his deputy.

“What we found, almost without exception, was that the First Nations were so angry because B.C. wouldn’t engage in treaty making,” Mr. Weisgerber said in an interview. “You couldn’t get a conversation going on economic initiatives because they were so frustrated.”

Whenever they were travelling, the deputy would ensure that Mr. Vander Zalm was sitting next to the most persuasive First Nations leaders, Mr. Weisgerber recalled. “That’s where a huge amount of progress was made. Vander Zalm really started to understand how deep the convictions were and why they felt that way.

“So the B.C. government changed its 125-year policy and started treaty-making. It was the single biggest achievement for him, for myself, and for the government on progress on First Nations.” For his part, Mr. Denhoff credits the “shrewd” tactics of the premier and Mr. Weisgerber in overcoming the deep-rooted opposition within cabinet, caucus and industry.

Mr. Weisgerber, the MLA for Peace River South, wasn’t a natural champion for the cause. “He took huge risks, he wasn’t from some cappuccino-sucking, concrete condo-dwelling liberal riding,” Mr. Denhoff noted. “But then it required risk-taking: The status quo gave us the first hundred years.”

But today, almost 25 years after that breakthrough, the treaty process in B.C. is in need of a kick-start.

The B.C. government under Premier Christy Clark has perhaps the biggest hurdle to clear since Mr. Vander Zalm grappled with the treaty question.

“They have a plateful of major infrastructure projects that require deals with First Nations,” Mr. Denhoff noted. The legal landscape is more complex, and the federal government is showing little interest in moving forward. But to build pipelines and mines and liquefied natural gas plants, a commitment to reconciliation is needed, he said.

“The question is, how much time can the new administration devote to these issues? The answer is lots, because they have to.”

Follow on Twitter: @justine_hunter

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