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NDP calls for hearings on aboriginal law Add to ...

The NDP is calling for travelling public hearings on a wide-ranging law that would rewrite the province's relationship with aboriginal peoples, saying widespread consultation is needed to build support for the landmark legislation.

"People fill in their own answers if they don't get that information," said NDP Leader Carole James, echoing the points she made in a letter sent to Premier Gordon Campbell yesterday that urged him to proceed with public hearings.

The Opposition Leader is proposing that the existing legislative committee on aboriginal affairs hold the hearings, starting after the legislature reconvenes in late August.

Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation Minister George Abbott did not reject the proposal out of hand, saying that hearings are "premature" now but that they may eventually prove to be useful.

There are already widespread consultations within aboriginal communities, centred on the proposal to coalesce the province's 203 bands into 30 "indigenous nations," but the government has not set up a parallel process for the entire province.

Native leaders are criticizing the NDP push for public hearings on the Recognition and Reconciliation Act, saying such a move would be incendiary.

"It would only serve to fan the flames of an already volatile issue. It would greatly polarize the matter," said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, articulating the position of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, which says it represents about two-fifths of the province's aboriginal bands.

Mr. Phillip said he and other native leaders are worried that public hearings could become a platform for ill-informed and divisive opposition to the act. Until there is actual legislation to discuss, any public consultation would be counterproductive, he said.

The proposed legislation - so far described publicly only in a five-page overview - would rewrite how British Columbia interacts with aboriginal bands, setting new standards for shared decision making, recognizing aboriginal title and eventually setting up a system for apportioning revenue from natural resource development.

When the overview was first circulated in the spring, there was an immediate backlash from the business community, prompting the government to shelve the initiative until after the May election. The day after the May 12 vote, Mr. Campbell said the act was a top priority for the Liberals, going on to note that his government would continue to have conversations with those in the business community who have concerns.

Despite the Premier's avowal, Mr. Phillip said he believes that the act is "rapidly fading" from the government's priorities.

Yesterday, Mr. Abbott said public hearings may be useful once aboriginal bands have reached a consensus on the desirability of setting up the 30 indigenous nations.

The specifics of the act - including the mechanics of sharing resource revenue - will depend on the outcome of those discussions, he said.

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