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The B.C. government has scrapped its plans to amend the Land Act in the spring legislative session, changes that would have allowed joint decision-making with Indigenous communities about public land, after a hasty public consultation process prompted a widespread backlash.

“This touched a nerve,” said Nathan Cullen, Minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship, who announced the policy retreat on Wednesday after a cabinet meeting. “The path that we are on is the path that we will maintain. The pace at which we do it is an important issue that was raised by hunting and fishing organizations, by resource groups – and we listened.”

The Land Act governs access and use of public land, which accounts for 94 per cent of the province, and there are roughly 40,000 active tenures, permits and licences for activities and infrastructure on it, such as forestry and transmission towers. The proposed amendments would have created a legal mechanism to allow British Columbia and First Nations to establish joint statutory authority over new projects on public land.

In January, the province posted a public engagement forum online, and then reached out to some of the major stakeholders that rely on Crown land, such as the forest industry and ranchers, to outline its intent. However, the proposed changes were presented with little opportunity for feedback, with the amendments expected to be in force by late spring – an unusually short span of time to write and enact legislation.

Mr. Cullen said he takes “full accountability” for the botched rollout of the consultation process, which he said allowed space for misinformation because the province offered little detail about its plans. But he angrily denounced criticism of the proposed changes, saying some opposition politicians stirred up anti-Indigenous sentiment.

“The dog-whistle politics was abhorrent and I hope it stops,” he said, pointing to remarks by BC United Leader Kevin Falcon, who argued the NDP intended to give veto power over 95 per cent of the land base to the 5 per cent of the population who are Indigenous.

In a statement, Mr. Falcon said Wednesday the government reversed because of public exposure of its “extreme ideological agenda” and warned that the NDP will simply bring back the changes at the next opportunity.

British Columbians will go to the polls by Oct. 19, and pulling the proposed amendments from the spring session makes it unlikely any changes can be made before the election. Mr. Cullen said he will now return to the drawing board, consulting with stakeholders on what a public consultation process should look like before he considers drafting new legislation.

“This decision gives us the space and the time to actually have a conversation,” he said.

BC Green Party house leader Adam Olsen, a member of the Tsartlip First Nation, told reporters the way the government introduced the proposed changes, and the way the BC United party opposed it, led to a divisive and hurtful political debate that has done “tremendous damage to reconciliation.”

He said conflicts over the land base required sensitivity, and the government’s effort to rush the amendments through before the fall election was poorly done. “The timing was horrible,” he told reporters. “I think it is important to acknowledge that conflict over land is not a moment in time. There has been conflict over land right back before we were a province. It needed to be brought forward with that sensitivity at the heart of it.”

The quiet introduction of the public consultation sparked alarm among industry and the outdoor recreation sector about what the changes could mean. In a bid to salvage the process, Mr. Cullen spent the first half of February trying to reset the consultation process, meeting with more than 650 representatives of stakeholder groups from mining to adventure tourism.

While the government did not provide details of the proposed amendments, experts in aboriginal law had expressed caution about the potential for a significant, unprecedented changes to the governance and regulatory regime over Crown land.

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