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VIEW: Liberals need a new relationship with First Nations, starting with trust

This week Premier Christy Clark and her cabinet will sit down with B.C.'s First Nations leaders. For leaders who were promised better by this premier, this meeting has been a long time coming.

The premier made it a leadership commitment to hold an annual meeting with aboriginal leaders, and made a show of addressing the First Nations Summit when she became leader in 2011. But after that, she turned her back on her promise until now.

For years, First Nations in British Columbia have seen the same pattern from the BC Liberals: big promises and elaborate photo ops, but little real action.

Again and again, the BC Liberals have said that developing a real relationship is a priority. Then, the government's focus shifts elsewhere and promises are forgotten.

The relationship between First Nations and the B.C. Liberals began even before they were in government, when Liberal MLAs went to court in an attempt to have the historic Nisga'a Treaty declared unconstitutional.

That relationship continued to spiral with the divisive referendum on aboriginal rights and self-government that the BC Liberal government held in 2002, when Christy Clark was serving as deputy premier. The referendum did nothing but destroy trust.

Yet even Gordon Campbell held annual meetings between First Nations and the Liberal cabinet until, in 2005, he committed his government to forging a New Relationship with First Nations.

Today, that New Relationship is a distant memory, and Premier Clark's version of this relationship is all about saying the right thing, but doing whatever she wants.

Even before she was premier, Christy Clark showed that she had no intention of building a real relationship with First Nations.

During her leadership race she threw her support behind the Prosperity Mine project, despite strong opposition from the Tsilhqot'in and Xeni Gwet'in nations, and despite the mine's rejection by the federal assessment process. Even after she became premier, she continued to ignore First Nations' opposition and argue for the project.

This pattern has continued with her weak position on the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline. Despite strong opposition from many First  Nations, and despite the project's few benefits and high risks to B.C., the premier has barely hidden her government's support, giving sole project approval away to the federal government and leaving B.C. without  a real voice.

The government's frequent attempts to blatantly circumvent First Nations rights have been even more destructive.

In April, without notice or consultation, the BC Liberals quietly  eliminated environmental assessments for ski resorts, and for sweet  natural gas processing plants in the province. After First Nations leaders, along with many supporters, expressed outrage at this decision, the government was forced to rescind the changes just days later.

And just months after this flip-flop, the historic Tsilhqot'in decision put the Liberals' years of ambivalence towards First Nations rights on display. In 2007 a decision by the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that aboriginal title had been proven by the Tsilhqot'in but could not be declared. The judge in the case urged the government to move forward in good faith and negotiate with the Tsilhqot'in. Instead, the BC Liberals wasted tax dollars and created uncertainty by fighting this decision, bringing their case to the Supreme Court of Canada where it was rejected in June.

When Premier Clark and her cabinet meet with First Nations leaders this  week, they need to not only say the right things, but also do the right things. First Nations leaders who are attending this meeting in good faith expect that, as do British Columbians.

What needs to start now, at that table, is a real relationship between First Nations and the provincial government that is based on trust, respect and recognition.

It would be wise for the premier and cabinet to start by reviewing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Because although a  real relationship with First Nations is essential to unleashing British Columbia's resource wealth, this relationship is about far more than resource development. It is about human rights.

It is time to learn from our mistakes -- and there have been many -- and start today to build trust, respect and recognition with First Nations leaders.

MLA Scott Fraser is the New Democrat spokesperson for Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation.

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