Speaking to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act

Oct 31, 2019 | 41-4, Bills, Blog, Governance, Video | 2 comments

British Columbia is the first jurisdiction in Canada poised to legislate the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Changing the relationships with Indigenous people in British Columbia was a priority of the BC Greens in the 2017 provincial election. It is a shared priority with our BC NDP colleagues and prominently featured in the Confidence and Supply Agreement we signed with them that has produced a stable minority government in our province for more than two years.

I raise my hands to Premier John Horgan, Hon. Scott Fraser (Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation), Jessica Wood (Assistant Deputy Minister) and Don Bain (Special Advisor) for their incredible effort. I raise my hands to everyone in the Ministry, including Deputy Minister Doug Caul, for making this critical moment in the history of our province happen.
I deeply appreciate Minister Fraser and his team for consulting with me throughout this process and truly valuing my input. This is how minority government’s work well!

I had the honour of speaking to Bill 41 at second reading and being part of this historic occasion.


My name is SȾHENEP. I’m the son of TSAYWESUT and Silvia Olsen, the grandson of ZIȻOT and TELQUILUM. We’re from W̱JOȽEȽP, which is Tsartlip village, in W̱SÁNEĆ territory, just north of here, on the Salish Sea. I want to acknowledge today our Lekwungen relatives, on whose territory we do this work day in and day out. Normally, we do acknowledge this as traditional territory, but today I just want to say that we live and work here in the Lekwungen territory. They are still here. So while they have traditionally been here, they also are still here.

It’s with mixed emotions that I stand in this chamber today. It’s 2019, and there have not been many days like this one in the history of this territory that was formerly the colony and that now we know as the province of British Columbia.

This day is the result of a lot of work, and those workers who have brought us this day should be uplifted and wrapped in a blanket, like we do so often in ceremony — in potlatch or in other ceremony. However, I also have a deep sadness within me that for the past 200 years, this territory that we know as British Columbia and the people in this House of governance have created some of the most grotesque and despicable racist policy.

It’s an oft occurrence that I walk the halls of this building with a sense of awe, as the history represented in the echoes of the footsteps bounces off the walls. My name is one of very few among those in the history of this province signed into that register of representatives elected to this House of governance. And it’s in that context that I’m honoured to be able to stand in this place, humbled to be able to stand in this place, and take my place in the debate.

Like I said, there have been very few days like this one in the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, or anywhere in Canada for that matter. Few are the days in which legislation has been introduced that upholds the basic human rights of Indigenous peoples. It is a sad reality of a colonial story of our province and our country that, in fact, the opposite is true.

What has been debated and passed into law in Legislative Assemblies in our country is the oppression of basic human rights of Indigenous peoples. The laws created by institutions such as this one have been designed to structure and impose a colonial reality on Indigenous peoples. They are designs that break up complex Indigenous systems of governance, like the potlatch. It is evil systems that have been established to steal Indigenous children from their families and send them to residential schools or to non-Indigenous families, an era that we’ve colloquialized as the Sixties Scoop.

The result of these policies has desecrated our grandmothers, our mothers, our aunties, our sisters, our nieces and our daughters. These rules have created a society that needs a commission to study missing and murdered Indigenous women, a society that deliberately stole their dignity, their identity, and undermined every aspect of our sacred relationships with our powerful matriarchs.

The rules kept Indigenous people from voting, stopped us from hiring lawyers and protecting ourselves, and restricted our ability to apply for timber harvesting rights because they changed the rules to only allow eligible voters to hold them.

It’s an act in legislation that institutionalized segregation, apartheid, through the reserve system that still exists today. Even as these relationships change, we still use these boundaries of reserves and fight in our communities between elected and hereditary leaders through the lens of these colonial impositions. These rules remain on the books. The Indian Act is still alive and well in this country.

One of the common demands for people today is that I or we do not hold them accountable for what their grandparents did. Well, I don’t. We are all accountable for what we know and how we act on that knowledge. The legacies of those laws are everywhere in our society. They are the crisis in our child care, the crippling poverty, desperation, moulding houses, poisonous water, suicide.

At the same time as we acknowledge these atrocities — atrocities that are genocidal — until this moment today, we can almost find no laws that undo the colonial legacy. We see almost no laws that replace those laws with respect to Indigenous self-determination and the inherent right of self-governance.

But today we are changing that. Today is a day that generations of Indigenous people in this province have fought to see happen. The work that I have the honour of doing today is the work of many hundreds of our ancestors, our S¸ELELW̱ÁÁN, who fought through the inhumane treatment to lay the groundwork for this moment.

I feel today that even though this moment is a monumental step forward, it’s only one step. I must acknowledge all our community leaders whose sweat and tears and whose blood was spilled so that I can be here now. It’s the Chilcotin Chiefs who were unjustly killed 154 years ago. It’s the Chiefs of the Interior tribes who petitioned Prime Minister Laurier in 1910 with a true message of reconciliation: “These people wish to be partners with us in our country. We must, therefore, be the same as brothers to them and live as one family. We will share equally in everything, half and half, in land, water and timber. What is ours will be theirs. What is theirs will be ours. We will help each other be great and good.”

It’s the peoples on Vancouver Island, my ancestors, who, at the very beginning of settlement by Europeans, signed treaties with Governor Douglas, the Douglas treaties, to ensure that our rights were respected. It’s the waves of leaders who journeyed to Ottawa and to Victoria and made the case and fought for change.

It’s the knitters who sat in Victoria and Vancouver airports making toques and socks and vests and sweaters to pay for their leaders to go and endlessly lobby government.

I raise my hands to our matriarchs and our elders, the young and the old, who have kept our cultures vibrant, powerful, alive and beautiful. I raise my hands to our knowledge-keepers and our linguists who have preserved our language so our generations might know who they are as diverse peoples in these lands and on these waters. This is a day that’s in honour of you, a testament to your resilience, your patience, your wisdom, your courage, your SĆȺ — your work.

There will be some who fear this legislation. I understand, because with change comes fear. There will be others that fearmonger, some who take no time to understand the legislation but rally around ignorance inspired by vested interests. Some may even stand in this place and make ridiculous statements. They’ll ask absurd questions like, “What is free, prior and informed consent?” pretending that they’re actually seeking truth and reconciliation.

The only thing we should fear is the failure of making these critical changes. It’s the failure to face and address the colonial legacy that challenges our society today — these laws, policies and practices that have caused the uncertainty over land and resources that has immobilized us in this province for decades. It is the failure to address the colonial legacy in our social structures and institutions that is causing the intergenerational harms to countless children, families and communities. It’s the failure to address the colonial legacy that ends up in court battles costing us billions of dollars, lost time, incredible waste — a culture of conflict that has stymied economic growth and investment in our province. Worse yet, it has cost us our dignity, our integrity, our decency and our self-respect.

It is for this reason that in 2015, the truth and reconciliation call to action No. 43 said that governments, including the provinces, must adopt and implement the United Nations declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples as a “framework for reconciliation”. This framework is a critical guide to help us forward and move us out of the dysfunctional patterns, the cycles of despair, and accelerate the work, the acts, of reconciliation.

Some voices in this House would have us believe the UNDRIP is imposed on us by the United Nations. They undermine it. They’re ignorant of it. I believe it’s intentional. It’s important that this debate be based on truthfulness, on fact. The UNDRIP is a product of decades of deliberation, a feat of deliberative democracy undertaken by states including Canada, including some of our very own Indigenous leaders in this province and also Indigenous peoples from around the world.

This document is a statement of long-established human rights norms, including those in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the context of Indigenous peoples. These norms are not new. Despite what some of the voices in this place would like British Columbians to believe, these are norms that we have long upheld and defended as Canadians. These are central to who we are, and upholding them now is to honour the highest ideals and values.

The opposite is also true. To diminish them now, to undermine them now, is to stoop to the lowest places. Those who are inspiring the opposition to the implementation of the UNDRIP are not looking out for the best interests of British Columbians or Canadians. Instead, they’re looking out for and defending the interests of multinational corporations that wish to continue to liquidate our natural resources, hollow out our rural and remote communities and leave us nothing.

There is nothing to fear in this legislation. It is the embrace of the best about British Columbia and Canada. It is the embrace of each other — friends, family, neighbours. The adoption of this legislation does not result in greater justice and peace overnight. This legislation is just the beginning.

There are some common myths, urban legends, whispers and rumours spread that have developed out of a lack of understanding of the UNDRIP or just pure malintent. I’ll devote a few minutes to debunking these myths.

First, let’s look at the biggest of them: consent. I find it really interesting that in 2019, when obtaining and maintaining consent is so important in every aspect of our society, there still is a question as to whether achieving free, prior and informed consent is not necessary when it’s an Indigenous person or government that we are dealing with. There are some in this place that have argued that.

Probably the most egregious aspect of this is that people who know better still stand in this place and in prominent offices in our society and act as if consent is not part of Canadian law — part of the legal debate that has evolved over the past 60 years on Indigenous issues in our country. It is discussed in numerous ways in our Supreme Court and in many cases, including Haida and Chilcotin.

It seems completely lost, again, on people who should know better that this is at the very centre, a founding principle, of the common-law understanding of the relationship between the Crown and Indigenous people. Going back to the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the Crown had to gain the consent of Indigenous people, and it disallowed the settlement of lands without treaties.

Another myth which has been designed to wedge British Columbians against one another is the confusion created by the deliberate defining of consent as veto. Again, these flames have been fanned by members of this assembly who have irresponsibly stood and stared into the camera and acted like they sincerely don’t understand.

Let me speak clearly. Consent is not a veto over resource development. No rights are absolute. It’s the case for our charter, it’s the case for section 35 of our constitution, and it’s the case for the UNDRIP. Article 46(2) in the UNDRIP says as much. Of course, it benefits the fearmongers and the special interests that they represent to ignore the facts and just make up their own.

Consent is a commitment to working together and acting in good faith from the very beginning of a process. Again, let’s remember that it’s 2019, and it’s important that we begin any process with an understanding that it is consensual and that we check in regularly to make sure that we are maintaining consent. A consensus approach is one in which the focus is on ensuring every effort is made — as the UN special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous people, James Anaya, says — to achieve mutually acceptable arrangements.

A third myth to be busted is that, all of a sudden, a bunch of new rights will be created. This is one of the most interesting for those who oppose this to try to rationalize. For the first time in the history of this province and in the history of Canada, this legislation is going to affirm human rights — norms that have been long established, but in an Indigenous context. They are human rights that Canadians have been supporting and advocating for decades. They are the rights that are established in our very own charter.

Finally, I must address the myth that this legislation is going to create uncertainty. I find this one to be truly mind-boggling, because what has industry been complaining about? The uncertainty of the current situation. The current relationship creates uncertainty. This legislation lays out the framework for government to chart a path through the uncertainty, creating certainty. Indeed, the challenge of uncertainty is created not by respecting Indigenous rights, but by denying them, against the advice of our own Supreme Court.

We have seen a very expensive, in terms of direct cost and loss to potential investment, culture of conflict grow out of a lack of recognition of Indigenous rights. This is the result of forcing these arguments to the courts for Indigenous people to, again and again, prove their humanity. The current situation has not created clarity. It has created a murky, costly, frustrating and deeply unfair situation that, as I referenced above, should be clear, going back to the 18th century.

As the former Minister of Justice and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould stated in a speech to the B.C. Business Council back in 2018: “The uncertainty that we all experience today — Indigenous peoples, industry, governments and the Crown — whether…in relation to pipelines or any…number of other projects, has its roots directly in the history of denial and division.” It is clearly time for us to move beyond the resource colony mentality, the desperate attempt to liquidate the resources from these lands and waters that were enabled by the convenient doctrine of discovery and terra nullius for the benefit of multinational corporations, starting with the Hudson’s Bay Company.

I must raise my hands to the Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation. I raise my hand to his team, Jessica Wood and her team and Don Bain in the Premier’s office, who have helped negotiate these often-turbulent waters, navigating us to this critical moment.

The adoption of the United Nations declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples was a key plank in the B.C. Green 2017 platform. It’s an issue we shared with our colleagues in the B.C. NDP as a key principle in redefining the relationships in our province. As a result, this legislation became a central feature in our confidence and supply agreement with government.

The minister recognized and acknowledged that this was an important piece of policy work for me personally and understood and respected that from day one. I really deeply appreciate that. This is an important example of how this House should work. It’s an excellent example of how all elected people from all parts of this House can work together productively. Even, perhaps, when I was impatient, hoping for the legislation in previous sessions, the minister and his team continued to persist, acknowledging the numerous stakeholders that needed to be addressed if this legislation were to make it to this stage and eventually be successful in this place.

From the minister and his deputy minister through all the people working in the ministry, the work that is being realized here today is just the beginning. There is a legal and moral need for government to dig in and do the difficult work of recognizing Indigenous rights in this province. Today we begin surveying the terrain upon which we blaze a new trail. Today we mark the beginning of a new journey.

We raise our hands to an inclusive process that has been done hand in hand with Indigenous leaders in British Columbia. It’s a process that’s included industry and labour. This legislation is never intended to answer all the questions — rather, provide us a way forward together. It’s a step toward meaningful reconciliation. It begins an important alignment of all the other laws and embraces the challenge rather than excuses inaction.

This legislation puts us on the right path, and it gives us the right heading. It’s pointed to a good destination, building on a good foundation. The next step is to use this framework to transform our relationships with each other. It starts with putting together an action plan that meets the objectives of the declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples. It’s work that we must all do together. It’s work that all members of this Legislature, all political parties and of all backgrounds must do together. HÍSW̱ḴE SIÁM.

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  1. Briony Penn

    Thank you Adam. I hope every MLA really listened.

  2. Aaron Baxter

    A well considered, inspiring and deeply moving speech Adam. May the Province adopt the proposed legislation into law as foundation toward ensuring the qualities of fairness and respect become the new standard and basis on which we may all move forward together in the work of true reconciliation.
    With respect and gratitude ~ Hych’ka

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