Saturday, November 25, 2006

NDP makes most of brief session

You can see why the Liberals didn't want a fall session of the legislature.
Barely minutes into what they hoped would be a one-day sitting to appoint a new Child and Youth Representative, Solicitor General John Les was facing tough questions. The New Democrats were accusing him - with evidence in hand - of misleading the legislature and the public when he claimed last year that all child deaths in the province were being properly investigated.
And NDP leader Carole James offered up evidence that she said showed a government attempt to get around the freedom of information act. The government attempted to cover up facts that contradicted Les' earlier claims about child-
death reviews.
Both charges are the latest events in a scandal the Liberals hoped they had put behind them. After months of denials and stonewalling, the Liberals admitted last year that bungling and cost-cutting had led to the abandonment of hundreds of incomplete reviews into the deaths of B.C. children. The failures were among the raft of problems in the children and families ministry that led to the appointment of Ted Hughes as an independent commissioner to investigate. His scathing report included a call for the creation of the new Child and Youth Representative position.
Throughout the scandal Les continued to insist that the problems were limited and things were back on track. All child deaths since 2003 were being properly investigated, he said, and the Coroners Service had the authority and money to do the work.
But the NDP had done a freedom of information request. It turned up memos from the Coroners Service sent to Les months before he offered the reassurances, saying the coroner couldn't investigate all child deaths. It didn't have the authority to collect evidence, the Coroners Service said. New legislation was "urgently needed." This before Les claimed the service had all the authority it needed to investigate any child's death.
The coroner said 40 per cent of child deaths weren't even reported to his office. Les claimed every child's death was reviewed.
And an internal review from the extremely diligent manager of child death reviews summarized the situation in mid-2005. "No research has been conducted in relation to child deaths ... no education or prevention initiatives have taken place. ... The actual formation of multidisciplinary child-death review teams has not yet taken place." Les acknowledged none of that.
Wait, as they say on the late-night infomercials for miracle vegetable choppers, there's more.
Because when the NDP got the big freedom of information package, a hand-written note from the top executive in Les' ministry was tucked in the pages.
The deputy minister was reviewing the material to be released to the NDP under the freedom of information law, which is in itself kind of alarming. The law provides for open government. The ministry CEO shouldn't really need to vet all the material released under the legislation.
The deputy minister wasn't happy. Wait a minute, he noted. Some of the information makes it seem the coroner didn't have enough money to do child death reviews. Some of the material to be released "contradicts what we have said to this point. . . . Suggest [this section] be severed," he wrote in his note to staff.
Les tried to explain the comments away, unconvincingly. The government is allowed to keep advice to cabinet ministers secret, he said, and his deputy was suggesting the material qualified. No big deal.
Except the deputy minister didn't write a note saying the material should be secret because it was advice to cabinet. He said it should be concealed because it contradicted what the government had told the public.
The New Democrats have managed to keep the legislature going for two days so far and can probably manage another two before the Child and Youth Representative is approved and everyone goes back home.
That likely can't come soon enough for the Liberals.
Footnote: Almost lost in all this is the appointment of Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond as child and youth representative. She appears an excellent choice - aboriginal, a provincial court judge in Saskatchewan with an excellent academic background, a good record on the bench and an interest in child and youth issues. She starts work in February in the important new role as the advocate for children and families and watchdog over the ministry.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Governments pay First Nations for legislature land, at last

VICTORIA - It's reassuring to know that local First Nations won't be hammering a big 'For Sale' sign into the lawn in front of the B.C. legislature.
The Songhees and Esquimalt bands filed a lawsuit in 2001 arguing that the big stone building sits on property that belongs to them.
And now the provincial and federal governments have agreed, promising $31.5 million to compensate the bands for their lost property. Instead of being sheepish or resentful, the politicians turned the deal into a Saturday morning celebration at the legislature. (Though they did choose to unveil the agreement while Premier Gordon Campbell was half-a-world away in China.)
When the two First Nations launched the legal action in 2001 it was mostly seen as part of the backlash over Campbell's divisive and pointless plan for a referendum on treaty principles.
But in fact they had a good claim.
By the time the Vancouver Island colony was set up in 1849 the British government had decided to recognize the principle of aboriginal ownership throughout the empire. It wanted local representatives to reach agreements showing clearly that natives had agreed to surrender land and been compensated.
So James Douglas, the colony's governor and the regional manager for the Hudson's Bay Company, set out to sign treaties. The deals offered the natives money to give up title to vast tracts of land and also set out areas they would continue to own.
In 1850 Douglas reached one of those deals with the predecessors of the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations was one of those agreements. Under he agreement they were to continue to own their village sites, which included the nice piece of waterfront property across the harbour from Fort Victoria. The land was marked on colonial maps as a reserve. (The treaty push only lasted a few years. The British government didn't see enough pressure for development to justify acquiring more land.)
But when Douglas and colonial officials started looked for a site for a legislature in the late-1850s, the reserve caught their eyes. Part of the appeal was that the government wouldn't have to pay; it could just take the land.
And it did.
It's a familiar story. Even when treaties were reached with First Nations, governments and business were often quick to take bits needed for a new community or a highway - or a legislature. It was faster, easier and cheaper than buying property from non-natives. The practice continued at least through the 1940s in B.C.
But the courts have said a deal is a deal. If you take someone's property, you owe them compensation, even if they don't find out about the loss for a century.
All in all it's encouraging that the governments have accepted this claim and reached a settlement. That's a big change.
In 2001 Campbell and the Liberals were still arguing that the Nisga'a treaty should be declared invalid because it gave too much power to the First Nation.
They were planning a referendum to seek support for treaty principles that would have made agreements impossible.
Now five years later the referendum results have been tossed in the dustbin, the Liberals laud the benefits of the Nisga'a treaty and Campbell is championing a New Relationship with First Nations.
The federal government's shift is just as dramatic. It has routinely stalled and stonewalled similar cases for decades.
Partly, the Songhees and Esquimalt bands probably have the International Olympic Committee to thank for the settlement. The governments knew that in 2010 the world media would have jumped all over a story that showed B.C.'s legislature was built on land taken illegally from First Nations.
But the settlement likely also indicates that the provincial government is looking for ways to right old wrongs and remove barriers to the new relationship.
Clearing up the cloud over the province's legislature is another useful step.
Footnote: The ceremony came the day after Aboriginal Affairs Minister Mike de Jong jumped into a dispute between local First Nations and a developer who wanted to destroy a cave they say is sacred. De Jong helped reach a two-week truce, saving the governments from some embarrassment on what was supposed to be a good-news day.