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Premier John Horgan holds a press conference to announce Indigenous human rights will be recognized in B.C. with Bill 41, at the provincial Legislature in Victoria, on Oct. 24, 2019. The government said the legislation will create a framework for shaping policies, and provide a road map for industries seeking to conduct business in Indigenous territories.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

British Columbia will conduct a sweeping review of provincial laws to protect human rights for Indigenous people, seeking reconciliation by providing greater influence to First Nations over lawmaking – including resource development.

The province introduced legislation on Thursday to ensure all provincial laws and policies align with internationally recognized human rights of Indigenous people, the start of a process that is expected to take decades. The proposed law, Bill 41, was drafted in consultation with Indigenous leaders, and was hailed as a landmark for reconciliation in Canada.

Bill 41 commits the province to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states that resource developments require the “free, prior and informed consent” of affected Indigenous peoples. The bill would not grant First Nations veto power over resource development, but does promise redress and restitution when consent is not granted.

First Nations leaders and other dignitaries packed the Legislature on Thursday to witness the introduction.

“The legislation to be introduced today recognizes and adopts the declaration as an important foundation for a balanced, human rights-based framework for recognition, restitution, redress, revitalization and reconciliation,” Grand Chief Ed John of the First Nations Summit told the House. “Be brave,” he advised MLAs. “Change does require courage.”

The government said the legislation will create a framework for shaping policies from child welfare to the environmental assessment process, and provide a road map for industries seeking to conduct business in Indigenous territories.

“And I’m very excited about putting to rest the notion that there’s a veto involved here,” Premier John Horgan told reporters after the bill’s introduction. “It’s about having certainty, and the first order of business is to ensure that the people who inhabit the lands and have inherent rights and title to those landscapes are full participants in a discussions about development.”

The legal commitment to UNDRIP is expected to be the first of its kind in Canada. A federal private members’ bill passed in the House of Commons in 2016 died in the Senate. Mr. Horgan said he hopes to see unanimous support in the B.C. Legislature to enact Bill 41 this fall.

The difficult work begins once the legislation is passed.

It has been a dozen years since the United Nations set out the minimum human rights of Indigenous peoples. But some of the wording – including the section on consent from affected Indigenous peoples for development – gave many political leaders pause. UNDRIP also proposes that Indigenous peoples have the right to redress – including “just, fair and equitable compensation” when their lands and resources are taken or damaged without their consent.

Bill 41 runs just three pages – not including the reproduction of UNDRIP’s 46 articles – and it does not define consent or redress. Instead, it requires the province, in consultation with Indigenous communities, to develop an action plan that will determine how UNDRIP is implemented. The government will be required to provide annual, public reports on progress.

Greg D’Avignon, president of the Business Council of B.C., welcomed Bill 41 and said his members have obtained consent from First Nations in hundreds of instances. Now, he said, the province is shouldering more responsibility. “This starts the process of enabling economic reconciliation, with the kinds of supports that the province should have been providing for decades.”

In the the House on Thursday, newly elected Independent MP Jody Wilson-Raybould, and former MP Romeo Saganash, the author of the federal UNDRIP bill, sat in the public gallery as a Lekwungen dancer performed a cleansing dance in bare feet on the red carpet.

Although Bill 41 is scant on details, a key feature is that the province can collaborate with Indigenous groups as they choose to define themselves – such as governments of hereditary leaders – rather than dealing only with federally defined Indian Act bands and Treaty nations.

While British Columbia has thousands of statutes that could come under review, Indigenous communities will determine the priorities.

Environmental groups have forged alliances with many B.C. First Nations to fight major developments, including the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. A number of those groups welcomed Bill 41 on Thursday: “There cannot be environmental justice here without justice for Indigenous peoples,” said Torrance Coste of the Wilderness Committee.

Cheryl Casimer, a political executive with the First Nations Summit, spoke in her Ktunaxa language in the House before she turned her message to those who feared the implications of UNDRIP. “Do you hear it? The sky did not fall,” she said.

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