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What’s Next for the Historic Haida Agreement?

BC United and the Conservative party plan tough scrutiny in the legislature.

Andrew MacLeod 25 Apr 2024The Tyee

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s legislative bureau chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on X or reach him at .

As an agreement to recognize the Haida Nation’s Aboriginal title throughout Haida Gwaii was celebrated in the B.C. legislature Monday, BC United cautioned that the party plans to carefully scrutinize and fully debate the bill.

Council of the Haida Nation president Gaagwiis, Jason Alsop, said he hopes parties won’t use the agreement as a political weapon ahead of the provincial election.

It’s an important step forward, he said, and for the opposition, part of the process will be “accepting the truth that it’s Haida title land and... we need to get on with figuring things out together.”

Michael Lee, BC United’s critic for Indigenous relations and reconciliation, spoke for the official Opposition in the legislature.

“I congratulate the Haida Nation for reaching this stage, but I hope you’ll appreciate the role that we need to continue to play in the next stages of this review of this bill,” he said.

Lee referred to a statement he and BC United Leader Kevin Falcon made on March 22 calling for a pause on the process and warning that the Haida agreement signalled “a dramatic departure from constitutional frameworks and established jurisprudence.”

Clarity is needed “so that all British Columbians can feel like they’re being brought along in this pathway towards reconciliation,” said Lee, particularly since the legislation “is being held up by this government as a future path for other nations.”

Haida Gwaii includes some 200 islands making up around 10,000 square kilometres about 100 kilometres west of the northern coast of central British Columbia. The islands have been home to the Haida for at least 13,000 years, but subject to colonial rule for about the last 150.

The provincial government introduced the Haida Nation Recognition Amendment Act, 2024, on Monday, saying that along with recognizing the Haida’s Aboriginal title to Haida Gwaii and providing for a staged transition to Haida jurisdiction, it maintains private property rights and existing government services and infrastructure.

It’s a step in a process that goes back to at least 2002 when the Council of the Haida Nation filed a title claim in the Supreme Court of British Columbia. That has never been heard, though speakers noted the Haida Nation’s attempts to have their title recognized go back much further than that.

Many past and current elected and hereditary Haida leaders were at the legislature for the introduction of the bill. So were Robert Phillips and Cheryl Casimer from the First Nations Summit, Heiltsuk Chief Marilyn Slett, Squamish Nation council chairperson Khelsilem, former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould and environmental icon David Suzuki.

Drumming and singing filled the chamber. Elder Mary Ann Thomas from the Esquimalt Nation welcomed the Haida, saying, “We’re all here to walk together.”

Most speeches stressed the importance of the day.

“Today and what is to come here is about honouring and recognizing the truth of Haida history and our relationship with Haida Gwaii — our deep and ancient relationship with Haida Gwaii — and the truth about British Columbia and its history with Haida Nation and Haida Gwaii,” Gaagwiis said in the legislature.

“We had never ceded, surrendered or in any way given up our title to the land,” he said. “Our people have asserted our sovereignty against the threats to Haida Gwaii, against colonial occupation, since the very beginning of the Crown trying to assert their sovereignty upon us, to great sacrifice of many who put themselves on the line and risk themselves and their families.”

Recognizing that Haida Gwaii is Haida land brings hope of learning “from the mistakes of this colonial experience together and to draw upon Haida culture and values to heal, to make things right, and take the best of what we all have to offer from our collective experience,” Gaagwiis said.

“With this bill, we can face the truth head-on and instil hope that we can face the troubles of this world together based on respect and not fear, that we can heal our relationships with each other and the land and the waters, that we can change our behaviours as humans, change the systems that are harming this Earth and each other, and have hope, that as a result of our collective efforts, that these supernatural forces would take some pity on us.”

He encouraged MLAs to support the bill and to reflect on their own history, heritage, culture and relationship with colonization. “Look deep within at that experience and find that place, whether it was in Hong Kong or India or Ireland or wherever it was that you’d come from,” he said. “There are some things that need to be looked back on.”

Premier David Eby called it “the honour of my career” to be involved in the recognition of Haida title.

He and Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Murray Rankin were in Skidegate on Haida Gwaii last week to sign the Gaayhllxid/Gíihlagalgang “Rising Tide” Haida Title Lands Agreement between the province and the Haida. While there they visited the community’s museum, which includes Haida artifacts and hunting remains from 10,000 years ago.

“To be a representative of a government dating from about 150 years ago talking to a government of a people that have been in Haida Gwaii since time immemorial really put things in perspective for me,” Eby said.

“This agreement will raise all boats,” he said. “It will improve the lives of the Haida people. It will improve the lives of everybody on Haida Gwaii. It will improve the prosperity of our entire province, and it is an international example of how we can get things done and how we can move forward differently. I know that this will be an inspiration to Indigenous people around the world.”

BC Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau spoke about hope and pride and stressed that Haida title has always existed.

“We celebrate the province for bringing this legislation forward, and most importantly, we celebrate and honour the hard work and dedication of the Haida Nation,” she said. “They have stewarded their lands and waters for millennia and have fought for their inherent rights to continue to do so in the future. We look forward to seeing the next steps.”

And though his comments would be more critical a day later, Conservative Leader John Rustad, a former BC Liberal minister of Aboriginal relations and reconciliation, said in the legislature that he supports title.

“This is a path that we need to do to be able to bring predictability, certainty for Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike,” Rustad said, adding that economic reconciliation is key. “The vision of being able to provide for your children and your grandchildren, for them to be able to have the future that you want for them, is something I think that we all share, all peoples in this province share.”

Though he had some questions, Rustad said, the bill is an important step and he supports it. Congratulating the Haida, he added, “I look forward, quite frankly, to making sure that, as this process goes forward, the interests of all people in British Columbia are taken into consideration, so that true reconciliation can be achieved.”

Rustad had a different message when he posted to X on Tuesday.

“The Eby NDP is undermining YOUR private property rights,” he wrote. “The Haida deal means First Nations title could end up being applied to ALL private property in B.C. This is a mess.”

In an accompanying video he called the bill an “unbelievable precedent” and warned that acknowledging that Aboriginal title may exist under private property could lead to trillions of dollars being needed to compensate First Nations for the Crown having alienated that title.

Rustad raised similar concerns during question period in the legislature Tuesday morning, and Minister Rankin responded that while treaties often involve compensation, that was not part of Monday’s bill and won’t be a consequence of it.

In his speech Monday, BC United’s Lee recognized the occasion was historic and said Falcon understands the importance of reconciliation with the Haida Nation, but said the opposition had only just seen Bill 25, the Haida Nation Recognition Amendment Act, 2024, when it was introduced in the legislature and that they hadn’t had a chance to fully review it.

“The premier has referred to this in his comments here in this house and in the public about how this may well represent a new model,” Lee said. “It’s not a treaty. Clearly, that’s what it says in the agreement. It’s more than just an agreement. I think it’s more than an incremental step, which may be a good thing, of course.”

He said the government has a duty to balance the interests of the Haida with those of other British Columbians. “Our role in the official Opposition is to ensure that they’re doing that,” he said, noting there are only a few weeks left in the legislative session. “We need to ensure we have the time... to address this bill.”

On Wednesday Lee and Falcon released a joint statement calling on the government to delay passing the bill until after the election scheduled for October.

“We have considerable concerns regarding the current NDP government’s approach with Bill 25, which not only introduces more uncertainty but also risks escalating conflicts,” their statement said. “Bill 25 exemplifies the NDP’s pattern of enacting major legislative changes without sufficient consultation and transparency, undermining public trust and the principles of good governance.”

Responding to media questions Monday afternoon, Eby said there are moments in the legislature that transcend partisan politics and that the bill was the product of successive governments working together towards recognizing Haida title.

The government would likely have lost if it fought the Haida in court and would have been ordered to negotiate, said Eby. “So why don’t we sit down with Haida now and figure it out now?” he asked. “I feel like that perspective should be a perspective that’s shared among every political party in B.C.”

He said he was disappointed by the opposition response, but hopeful that by the time the bill comes for a vote, “all the parties stand and recognize the work that’s happened for many, many years among many governments to recognize Haida title and recognize the work that we have to do with the Haida to ensure that we’re moving forward in a good way.”

Eby said that while other Indigenous nations may be looking at the agreement with the Haida as a model, there were some reasons it made particular sense for the Haida and Haida Gwaii. The Council of the Haida Nation has existed for 50 years and there are no overlapping claims on the islands, he said.

“There is overwhelming goodwill and support on Haida Gwaii for this work among local governments, among businesses, among the Haida people,” he said, adding that it was supported by more than 95 per cent of Haida people.

Gaagwiis said the agreement is a way to work things out together and that “as a sovereign people, as our own nation,” the Haida Nation can honour people’s homes and private land interests.

“These fears around [the] unknown, or trying to use legal avenues or fear of the courts, that’s part of colonization,” Gaagwiis said. “Those are the tools used to protect people’s personal interests who maybe benefit the most. And so we’ve got to peel away those things and really look at it.”

The Haida Nation is committed to peaceful coexistence, he said. “We all see each other at the grocery store and the soccer games and at the schools and we all live together, so we want to make sure things are done in a good way with respect and that we have to live with these decisions for the rest of our lives.”

He said he hopes the agreement “isn’t used as a political tool heading into an election,” but that whatever happens in the campaign ahead of October’s vote, “politicians in Victoria will come and go and change, and on Haida Gwaii, we’ll be there living together.”  [Tyee]

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