Skip to main content

B.C. Premier Christy Clark has had an epiphany on aboriginal title: It does exist, without question or dispute.

Ms. Clark formally acknowledged aboriginal title when her cabinet sat down with the province's chiefs last week.

The unprecedented meeting took more than two years to organize, but the Premier's approach to the land question in B.C. has evolved dramatically in that time.

"The Supreme Court of Canada has said aboriginal title exists in this country, and in my government we embrace that decision," Ms. Clark told the gathering last Thursday. "We see title as creating opportunities to make joint decisions, in true partnership."

Until now Ms. Clark has shown little interest in grappling with the province's 150-year-old land question as a whole. She sought to sidestep the treaty process and focus on one-off, economic deals with native leaders who were willing to do business.

"Lots of First Nations are fed up with waiting for economic development. And frankly so am I," Ms. Clark said in an interview in November, 2011.

"We have to find other ways of getting there sooner." Her approach yielded progress on some economic development projects, notably around the liquefied-natural-gas file, but did not address the broader question of rights and, importantly, reconciliation.

The Premier's new view was shaped by a judgment of the Supreme Court of Canada on June 26 of this year. The B.C. government fought the Tsilhqot'in Nation, a small community of 400 people in the remote Nemaiah Valley west of Williams Lake, every inch of the way in the courts.

But the landmark decision found that native Canadians still own their ancestral lands, unless they signed away their ownership in treaties with government.

It took the summer for the Premier to absorb the clarity that the nation's highest court has provided. On Sept. 4, she met with the Tsilhqot'in chiefs in her Vancouver offices. It was a pivotal meeting where she was impressed by the "gracious winners" who offered to help her move forward.

So, now, the Clark government recognizes what the provincial government spent more than 25 years in court trying to deny.

What that means in practical terms, however, is not yet clear.

Gordon Campbell, as premier, also reached a point where he decided the province had to recognize that aboriginal rights and title exist. His solution was ambitious, but hasty. The Recognition and Reconciliation Act would have overridden provincial laws dating back to 1859, when the colonial government first proclaimed that British Columbia was unoccupied and all lands and resources belonged to the Crown.

The R&R Act, as it was known in its brief life, was promised in the B.C. government's Throne Speech in February of 2009, pledging the same things that Ms. Clark is now talking about, joint decision-making and revenue-sharing. The plan was conceived without industry or public input.

Just weeks later, Mr. Campbell abandoned his plan after a backlash from his caucus, pressed by the business community that warned the law would grant First Nations "a veto over every aspect of resource development in B.C."

Ms. Clark is being cautious, not wanting to incite that alarm again.

By acknowledging title, she earned goodwill from the chiefs in the room, but she has not defined what that means for the vast majority of First Nations who have not secured a treaty in B.C., or for the resource industries that rely on the land base.

Grand Chief Ed John of the First Nations Summit was instrumental in putting together the R&R Act. He has also learned lessons from that failed initiative. On Thursday, while he was meeting with the Premier and other chiefs, he could hear aboriginal protesters outside of the room. "There are drums of protest in the corporate boardrooms as well – that is the group that killed Gordon Campbell's initiative," he said later, in an interview. "I think this Premier is conscious of that."

Ms. Clark is fond of bold measures, but in this matter, she does not wish to get ahead of public opinion. She will lead only when industry, the public and First Nations are ready for it.