Opponents of the Coastal GasLink pipeline hung Canadian flags upside down on the lawn of the B.C. Legislature earlier this month, with the words “Reconciliation is Dead” scrawled across them.
If B.C. will not cancel the pipeline as a result of opposition from hereditary leaders of the Wet’suwet’en, the message implies, then the province doesn’t genuinely support reconciliation with Indigenous people.
Yet, Indigenous leaders will still be sitting down this week with B.C. government officials, to work on implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Because outside of this conflict, there is still progress being made.
Just days before the anti-pipeline demonstration at the legislature, Housing Minister Selina Robinson was in the Okanagan, joining members of the Westbank First Nation for a groundbreaking ceremony for on-reserve housing.
On-reserve housing is supposed to be a federal responsibility, but there are not enough homes on reserve, many are in shocking levels of disrepair and the problem is only growing: Indigenous peoples are the fastest-growing segment of the Canadian population.
“When I am on reserves and I see the housing that the federal government committed to building and maintaining, I am embarrassed as a Canadian,” Ms. Robinson said in an interview. “It is the federal government’s responsibility, and they frankly have not been living up to that commitment.”
But she could have done nothing, as other provinces, and other ministers before her, have done. Instead, shortly after she was named to cabinet in the summer of 2017, Ms. Robinson made a pitch to her cabinet colleagues to tread in federal jurisdiction.
“I was bracing myself, I expected members of cabinet to push back,” she recalled. Instead, she won approval for a $550-million plan (over 10 years) to build 1,750 homes for Indigenous peoples, whether they live on or off reserve. The 17 new homes being built on Westbank land are part of the first series of projects largely funded through the B.C. Indigenous Housing Fund.
Ms. Robinson doesn’t think this lets Ottawa off the hook – there is far more to be done. But she wanted to tackle affordable housing needs, and this was an undeniable need. And this is, for her, an act of reconciliation.
Westbank Chief Christopher Derickson said B.C. deserves applause for stepping in and working to remedy the untenable housing conditions that Indigenous people on reserve sometimes face. “When you have governments arguing over jurisdiction or pointing fingers at who should be doing something, it is the people that are at the bottom, who are waiting for those services, that suffer,” he said in an interview.
His community can’t build new homes fast enough to meet demand, and the new units will help reduce the waiting list of Westbank members who want to come home. And, the Westbank are partners in the project, satisfying his concerns that the government would insist on control. “We will continue to have control and autonomy over our affairs.”
Mr. Derickson doesn’t believe the dispute over Coastal GasLink spells the death knell for reconciliation: He said that it has taken years of hard work to start this process, and it will take many more years to accomplish. “It’s beyond the scope of any one group, frankly, to dismiss the work that’s been done," he said. "I think the fact that we’re still talking about this, demonstrates that reconciliation is not dead.”
It was just last fall that some of B.C.’s most prominent Indigenous leaders gathered in the legislature to celebrate the introduction of UNDRIP, hailed as a landmark for reconciliation in Canada. The law requires the province to conduct a sweeping review of its laws to protect human rights for Indigenous people, seeking reconciliation by providing greater influence to First Nations over lawmaking. The law says B.C. will need to seek the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous communities on resource development – for future projects.
Terry Teegee, regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations in B.C., is part of the team developing the action plan that will bring UNDRIP into force. “It’s not dead,” he said. “We have a meeting on Monday.”
Mr. Teegee sees the fight over Coastal GasLink as a galvanizing force because it shows how much the province needs a new framework to avoid such conflicts in the future.
“It makes it more urgent that we get this work done as soon as we can," he said in an interview. “At the end of the day, after the protests are done and the roadblocks come down and the legal verdicts are in, we all end up at the same place, where we need to have dialogue with the federal and provincial governments.”