Friday, June 26, 2009

'Seismic change' for First Nations needs close look

I have no idea what to make of Gordon Campbell's proposed Recognition and Reconciliation Act. There's just not enough information.
The Liberals think it's huge, in a good way.
Some critics - business and First Nations - think it's huge, in a worrying way.
The initiative was born in quiet talks between a few First Nations leaders and the premier's office. The only public document from the government is a discussion paper of less than five pages, plus a map showing the province divided into 23 "sovereign indigenous nations."
It's thin gruel to explain a proposal billed as bringing "seismic change" to the relationship with First Nations.
The First Nations' leadership has started limited consultations in a handful of communities.
But there has been no apparent process for talking to business, municipalities or the non-native public. No public hearings are planned. The legislature's aboriginal affairs committee, inactive since 2001, hasn't been the chance to consider the changes.
Broadly, the act would bring about three sweeping changes.
First, the government would recognize aboriginal title and rights. The province now requires First Nations to prove they have occupied or used territory over generations before it accepts their claims. Under the act, title could be acknowledged without those tests.
Second, the provincial government would accept a First Nations' role in decisions on land and resource use and revenue sharing. A government-to-government partnership would be in effect.
Third, in return, First Nations would make it easier for the government - and industry - to deal with them. Now, the government deals with 203 councils and bands. The act envisions a shift to 20 to 30 "sovereign indigenous nations" that could speak for aboriginals within a region.
The discussion paper includes a map that shows the province carved up into 23 sovereign indigenous nations. The Secwepemc nation, for example, would stretch from Kamloops to Williams Lake to Golden (and into Alberta).
The discussion paper sets out a three-stage approach to implementing the new relationship. The initial level offers a little more joint decision-making then the status quo. The farther First Nations move toward the "indigenous nation" model, the greater the commitment to their right to shared decision-making, a claim on resource revenues and government-to-government relations.
The new act would override all other provincial land and resource legislation, the government says. But it would not apply to private land or current Crown tenures.
The aim is laudable. After 17 years and some $1.5 billion, the treaty process has produced few results. Life in most First Nations is still substandard by economic and social measures. It's hard to defend sticking with the same approach.
But the concerns about the act - in part because of the secrecy - are piling up. Municipalities, especially regional districts, worry they'll lose planning authority to the new indigenous nations. Companies wonder if the nations' share of resource revenues will come from the provincial government's current take, or result in higher payments. The whole notion of a new form of government, with unclear powers, worries some.
At the same time, some First Nations are rejecting the act. They argue the form of title it conveys is too weak and falls short of the standard set in court rulings.
And they're suspicious of the new form of government too, worried about giving up the local authority of a band or tribal council for an as-yet undefined sovereign indigenous nation.
The government hoped to pass the act in the spring, but abandoned the plan at the last minute in the face of concerns. Campbell says it's still a priority.
But this isn't the kind of change to be made without consultation and debate about the impacts.
The best option would be to introduce the bill as soon as possible and put off the debate and vote until the spring, allowing all British Columbians a chance to consider and discuss the implications of this "seismic change."
Footnote: The act never became an election issue, in part because the New Democrats are - at least broadly - sympathetic to the direction the government is going. That increases the onus on First Nations communities, municipalities, business, MLAs and individuals to make sure the act gets a thorough review.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Liberals heading back into 2001-style change, cuts

It's looking liken the Liberals are ready to launch their third term as they did their first - with a full-tilt overhaul of government, conducted on so many fronts and so quickly that critics are left behind.
Speculation, of course. Gordon Campbell and company are not chatty about their intentions.
But the signs are there. In 2001, the Liberals blindly cut taxes by 25 per cent and then set out to shrink government to make up the $1.2-billion in lost revenue.
This time, the shortfall will be much greater. Instead of tax cuts, overly optimistic revenue projections will be the cause. Economic growth, natural gas prices, housing starts - the budget over-estimated them all.
Campbell still says the deficit this year will be close to the $495 million in the budget. That number relied on spending cuts in eight of 19 ministries.
Now another $1 billion or more in savings are needed.
It sets the stage for a repeat of the 18 months following the 2001, when the Liberals rolled out massive change.
In health, for example, the government created five regional health authorities and a provincial authority for specialized care.
The core review was hunting for anything government could stop doing.
And the Liberals were preparing a destructive treaty referendum, which they almost immediately repudiated.
Now, the health authorities are being pushed to find up to $320 million in spending cuts. That's before the next round of cost control to deal with the faulty budget numbers. Another re-org is also rumoured. And Kevin Falcon is the new health minister. Falcon is underestimated; his willingness to say what he thinks should get more credit. But he brings a bulldozer history to a ministry where problems are often best faced with a scalpel.
And once again, something much like the core review is under way. The main order of business for new ministers, said Campbell, is looking for savings. Rich Coleman has cancelled, at least so far, a program that allowed poor and disabled children to go to summer camp to save about $365,000. Shameful, and an indication of how deep the coming cuts will go.
Instead of a referendum aimed, hopelessly and irrelevantly, at curtailing First Nation rights, Campbell is embarked on a dramatic - "seismic" - effort to recognize them and enshrine co-government and shared decision-making and revenue.
It's an effective tactic. If you want to make big changes in any setting, create a crisis. People become more willing to accept disruption, lost services and haste. Those opposed to any policy are overwhelmed by the flood of changes.
For example, the coming Recognition and Reconciliation Act, redefining relations with First Nations, would be a tough sell in normal times. (I'll look at it a subsequent column.)
For everyone - First Nations, business, non-aboriginals, municipalities - the act means big changes. And aboriginal, business, municipal representatives are nervous about this deal, basically reached behind closed doors.
But, as with the forgotten treaty referendum, the government is pressing ahead.
There are a few big differences between now and 2001. The fiscal pressures haven't been created by tax cuts; the economic is real.
There aren't just two opposition MLAs this time to try and keep track of the sweeping changes. The New Democrats have a chance to help make sure the public gets a chance to consider the impact of cuts and changes. That didn't happen in the Liberals' first years.
Nor do the Liberals have the same mandate. About 46 per cent of voters supported the party, down from 58 per cent in 2001. A majority of voters wanted another party in power.
But our system has somehow turned into a winner-takes-all event. We elect, more or less, a dictator for four years and then get to decide how we feel about the results.
Expect wild times, much more like the Liberals' first years after the 2001 election than their second term.
Footnote: Campbell has promised a revised budget Sept. 1. The next financial news will come in mid-July, when the auditor general releases the final numbers for the fiscal year that ended on March 31.