British Columbia Promises Reconciliation and Indigenous Human Rights and Then Raids Wet’suwet’en

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Alert Bay, British Columbia, school, 1885. The federal government has estimated that over 150,000 students attended Canada’s residential schools. Library and Archives Canada, George Dawson, PA-037934.
Alert Bay, British Columbia, school, 1885. The federal government has estimated that over 150,000 students attended Canada’s residential schools. Library and Archives Canada, George Dawson, PA-037934.

VICTORIA – Indigenous – Days before the British Columbia government sent the RCMP into Wet’suwet’en raiding and arresting 15 people, including 2 journalists, the province promised better relations with the Indigenous people.

The BC government in a statement issued on November 17 states it has introduced two bills that further uphold Indigenous human rights and advance reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.

“Our government is committed to meaningful reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples and combatting racism and discrimination, both of which are crucial to building a better B.C. for everyone,” says David Eby, Attorney General. “These two legislative amendments represent important steps to implement the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act and ensure B.C. laws are interpreted using the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a guide.”

On Wednesday, November 17, 2021, Eby tabled Bill 18, which adds Indigenous identity as a protected ground against discrimination in the B.C. Human Rights Code. He also tabled Bill 29, which amends the Interpretation Act to make it clear that all provincial laws uphold, and do not diminish, the rights of Indigenous people protected under section 35 of the Canadian Constitution. This is known as a universal non-derogation clause.

The amendments to the Interpretation Act, developed in consultation and co-operation with Indigenous representative organizations, also add an interpretive direction that all provincial acts and regulations must be read so as to be consistent with the UN Declaration.

“We know that the long-standing impacts of colonialism and systemic racism continue to affect Indigenous communities to this day,” said Murray Rankin, Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation. “These legislative amendments add further protections to the rights of Indigenous Peoples in B.C. and help advance reconciliation in our province.”

Currently the B.C. Human Rights Code provides protection from discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, ancestry, place of origin and religion. While the BC Human Rights Tribunal has interpreted these grounds to encompass Indigenous identity, these amendments will make the protection explicit by adding “Indigenous identity” as a protected ground.

“Despite the significant human rights issues impacting Indigenous Peoples in British Columbia, it is clear that Indigenous people carry an abiding sense of exclusion from the very system that is supposed to serve them,” said Kasari Govender, B.C.’s human rights commissioner. “Alongside Indigenous leadership and the Human Rights Tribunal, my office has called for the addition of Indigenous identity as an explicitly protected ground to B.C.’s Human Rights Code. Today’s announcement is one important step toward transforming this system to make it more inclusive and accessible to Indigenous Peoples.”

The provincial government’s obligation under the Declaration Act to align laws with the UN Declaration in consultation and co-operation with Indigenous Peoples was at the forefront as Bills 18 and 29 were developed.

“The UN Declaration sets out the minimum standards for the survival and dignity of Indigenous Peoples,” said Kukpi7 Judy Wilson, Secretary-Treasurer, Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC). “Indigenous Peoples are facing major threats to the survival of our peoples and our way of life. In many areas of law and policy this has not been fully understood, leaving us exposed to incredible risk in the face of health pandemics, climate change, removal of our peoples from our traditional territories and waters, and the lingering discrimination and sexism faced by Indigenous women and girls, LGBTQ2S+.

“UBCIC supports the new reforms brought in today, but we know we have to double down on the hard work to make real progress and switch from simply promoting the rights of Indigenous Peoples, to implementing the rights of Indigenous Peoples every day in all areas of life in British Columbia.”

Both legislative amendments were proposed in the draft action plan, which was developed under the Declaration Act after a year of consultation with Indigenous Peoples and released in June 2021 for further input. The final action plan is expected to be released in 2022.

The purpose of the Interpretation Act is to provide guidance and assistance for the interpretation of laws where their meaning is not clear. The act applies to every piece of legislation unless the legislation notes otherwise.

Terry Teegee, Regional Chief, BC Assembly of First Nations said, “I am pleased that we are now beginning to see movement on the immense work that is underway to transform B.C.’s laws, regulations and policies so that they align with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The new amendments to the Interpretation Act will build a working pathway and create further advancements toward relationship-building, trust and reconciliation. I look forward to working with the Province as we move through these technical hurdles and meaningfully advance the themes as identified in the draft Action Plan.”

The Regional Chief has remained publicly silent on the ongoing land fight in Wet’suwet’en.

Cheryl Casimer, First Nations Summit Political Executive said, “The Interpretation Act amendments introduced today are a critical step in supporting meaningful implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act. We look forward to continued work with B.C. in our collective and ongoing efforts to take all measures necessary to ensure all new and existing laws and regulations in B.C. are consistent with the Declaration Act. This will require joint and strategic work to audit and update laws and regulations to bring them into alignment with Indigenous human rights standards. In particular, the critical work to eradicate all forms of racism and discrimination against Indigenous Peoples is particularly pressing.”

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, Aki-Kwe, professor of law, Peter Allard School of Law, UBC, and director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre commented, “The legislative changes introduced today build on the previous collaborative work with First Nations and the government from 2018, and bring further progressive shifts to the laws and policies of British Columbia. With these, the recognition of the rights of Indigenous Peoples can be hardwired into the way we interpret all laws and policies. As well, the addition of Indigenous identity as a protected ground against discrimination is a necessary step. This change was one of the recommendations from the review of discrimination against Indigenous Peoples in health care, which was completed nearly one year ago with the release of the In Plain Sight report. In British Columbia, discrimination against Indigenous Peoples based on prejudices and stereotypes must be eliminated and active steps to promote this are necessary. I am supportive of these thoughtful and meaningful changes.”