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Failure of native reconciliation plan is outgoing B.C. Premier's greatest regret

Outgoing B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell sits behind the “Leadership Desk” at his office in Victoria. The hand-crafted red cedar desk, created in the form of a bentwood box and adorned with First Nation's iconography, was designed by internationally-known B.C. artist Arthur Vickers.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Gordon Campbell's hoped-for legacy - reconciliation with the province's native tribes - fell apart in the summer of 2009. As he packs up his office after 27 years in public life, including almost a decade as Premier of British Columbia, Mr. Campbell says the failure of his ambitious Recognition and Reconciliation Act will stand as his greatest regret.

"We got so close to doing something that was really great," Mr. Campbell said in an interview as he wraps up his final days in the Premier's office. He plans to take his time deciding what life after politics will look like, but he has already reached out to aboriginal leaders to say he would like to help advance reconciliation.

The proposed land-claims law was touted in the spring of 2009 as a "seismic shift" for the province, the product of intense negotiations between the Premier and his senior staff with a triumvirate of the province's top aboriginal leaders.

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It aimed to end confrontation and uncertainty over the 90 per cent of the province that remains in legal limbo because of unresolved land claims. The law would recognize aboriginal title - a first in Canada - and set out rules for sharing the resources of the land. But it met with strong opposition, first from resource companies and later from aboriginal communities.

Mr. Campbell said he was prepared to move ahead - despite reservations from Ottawa and his own caucus - but he said both the business community and the tribes got cold feet.

"I do regret we weren't able to find a way to move that forward because I think everyone would have benefitted from that."

The B.C. Liberal party membership will decide on his successor on Feb. 26 and he will formally hand over the keys of office, likely in mid-March, when the new premier is sworn in.

Ed John, grand chief of the First Nations Summit, welcomed Mr. Campbell's offer to help advance native issues. "He started off fighting us but he ended up as a completely different individual, helping us with quality-of-life issues in our communities," he said. He said he hopes the next premier will pick up Mr. Campbell's commitment to find a way to resolve aboriginal rights ands title without resorting to the courts.

Mr. Campbell is still premier but has already started to disengage from his political career. The leadership campaign to replace him? "I haven't paid a whole lot of attention … I'm not going to be politically active and I'm not going to be watching over their shoulder."

He said he is in no hurry to choose his next move.

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"It's one of the most interesting things, to watch time to do this," he said, spreading his arms.

"Somebody said to me the other day, 'I want you to do this' and I said 'No, I'm going to work out.' " A famous workaholic, the notion of carving out the time to go to the gym is clearly a revelation to Mr. Campbell.

Another recent discovery is his ability to, for the first time, babysit his grandchildren. He said his family has paid a price for his long political career. "I missed as much as they have given up," he said.

But in all that time, his wife Nancy only once questioned his involvement in public life.

"I don't remember what caused it but I remember the day," he said. "There was something in the newspaper. … She was sitting in the chair in our old study and there were tears running down her face and I said, 'What's the matter?' And she said, 'Why is it we are doing this again?' "

Twenty-seven years in politics brings a large accumulation of stuff - papers and gifts and memorabilia. Mr. Campbell will leave some behind, including the stunning carved desk that anchors his office, a present from artist Arthur Vickers.

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He's looking forward to sifting through the things that do leave with him. Hundreds of T-shirts, jackets and vests. Enough carved native paddles to outfit a war canoe. He's certain he'll keep a pair of the iconic red mittens from the 2010 Winter Olympic games, and a burled wood bowl that brings back his slogan, "Wood is good."

Two of his treasures require no storage: His native names. From the Nuu-chah-nulth, he is Chamatook, "the one who is able to do the right thing and bring harmony." In the Haida language he is Nang Kaadlljuu, "the person who leads the people of B.C."

A personal legacy - from his drunk-driving incident in 2003 - is his pledge to give up alcohol. Now that he's no longer in public life, he could abandon that but he says he won't. "I've always had to answer to myself on that one."

Walking out of his last Question Period session as premier, Mr. Campbell met reporters outside the House with a grin on Thursday afternoon. "Free at last, free at last," he chanted.

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