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Skeena candidates talk Indigenous issues

Residential schools, Coastal GasLink Pipeline, and rights and title among issues addressed
Independent candidate Martin Holzbauer, BC NDP candidate Nicole Halbauer, and incumbent BC Liberal candidate Ellis Ross. (Jake Wray/Clare Rayment/Black Press)

Indigenous issues in B.C. and the Skeena electoral district are important and complex. The historical treatment of Indigenous peoples has resulted in socioeconomic inequality, over-representation in the correctional system and other social and health impacts that reverberate through generations.

Very few treaties have been signed in B.C. and when the Province joined confederation it did not recognize Indigenous title. However, in 2019, B.C. enshrined the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in a step towards reconciliation.

But Indigenous rights and title is still far from a settled issue in the province and projects like the Coastal GasLink pipeline illustrate that there is still much to be resolved. The outcome of the 2020 provincial election will impact the course of reconciliation into the future.

BC NDP candidate Nicole Halbauer said an essential first step toward reconciliation and healing historical wounds was when B.C. implemented UNDRIP.

“That said that every ministry within the provincial government needed to take a look at the mandate for reconciliation and ensuring that their ministries were working toward eliminating the harms done to Indigenous people within the provincial system,” she said. “The next step from there is learning what that means and learning how to apply that.”

She said that she had some experience implementing those changes in her role as chair of the board of directors at Coast Mountain College.

“The key is, the tone is set at the top …That frees up everybody within the system to know that this is the goal, and this is the filter every policy we make needs to go through, is one of reconciliation,” she said. “It’s really, really important that at a government level we recognize the systems change that is necessary for reconciliation.”

BC Liberal candidate Ellis Ross said reconciliation is all about the bigger picture, not strictly residential schools, and that people need to focus on bringing people together rather than try to divide groups.

“I don’t prescribe to the us versus them strategies. I don’t like divisive politics. And reconciliation, if you look at the true definition of reconciliation, itself, it means to bring back to together,” Ross said. “And that’s my whole point, no matter if you’re talking about Indigenous issues or just issues facing British Columbians, or issues facing Canada.”

Ross said that the government programs and funding that have been implemented over the past 40 years haven’t done much to address social issues for Aboriginals at their core, and more needs to be done to provide better opportunities for careers, jobs, and addressing the core social issues facing First Nation communities, especially very remote ones.

“It’s discouraging to put a First Nations member though extensive training only to find out there’s no job waiting. It almost makes your problem even worse in trying to alleviate some of the issues,” he said. “I don’t think we’re actually look at some of the real solutions out there that have been proven, especially in terms of an occupation or a job or some type of passion that can help put the Aboriginals on a better road.”

Independent candidate Martin Holzbauer said there are many facets to dealing with reconciliation over the historical treatment of Indigenous peoples and that it’s absolutely an ongoing issue that needs to continue to be addressed.

“It’s not that historical, it’s still fairly recent,” Holzbauer said. “It has been going on for so long that it’s, you know still very hurtful for a lot of people to deal with it.”

Holzbauer said that it’s something that needs to be dealt with on a community level, as well as a government level. He added that there’s a lot to deal with and it’s not something that’s going to be addressed overnight, especially given peoples’ difficulties with addressing and apologizing for past mistakes, due to human nature.

“When something is in the past and it’s not very — well — it doesn’t put a particular group in a very good light, they usually don’t want to talk about it,” Holzbauer said. “It’s just human nature, we don’t want to talk about our past mistakes. But sometimes we need to at least acknowledge them and realize and learn from our mistakes and not make them again.”

A current issue facing several Indigenous communities linked to reconciliation and rights and title is the Coastal GasLink (CGL) Pipeline project, which the Office of the Wet’suwet’en have been openly at odds with since early 2020.

Halbauer said new approaches to communication and negotiation are needed to resolve conflicts like that surrounding the CGL project.

“Making sure that we are all there to hear each other, respect where each other is at, and change the mind frame that it’s one way or the other, or that somebody is right or somebody is wrong,” she said. “These binary thought processes are what got us here, and they are not going to help us change the relationship.”

Ross said that consultations for LNG coming to Skeena — both Chevron Kitimat LNG and LNG Canada — have been happening since 2004 and he’s worked with First Nations leaders from Prince George to Kitimat to discuss the pros and cons of the issue.

“The only way you’re going to decide whether or not a community’s been consulted is to check the record,” he said. “The people I worked with, with Wet’suwet’en, the leaders, they were trying to accomplish the same thing that we were trying to accomplish. They were trying to build a future for their people, and they were trying to get their people involved with jobs and the economy.”

Ross said he believes that the Wet’suwet’en and other First Nation communities should deal with any issues and disputes in their community internally before other parties get involved, and his advice to those other parties is to not manipulate a community’s problems for their own agenda.

“Do not use native issues for your own politics,” Ross said.

H0lzbauer said that while he is not involved personally, he believes the best way to deal with it is to find a common ground between all involved parties and work out the differences from there.

“The problem is, you know, most of the times, when it’s in front of the courts, it’s sort of a last resort,” he said. “You will never get a group of people to agree 100 per cent on anything. That’s just human nature, it’s near impossible. Everybody has their own opinions, but you can find common ground and then work from there.”

Along with negotiations about the CGL Pipeline project, treaty negotiations are big rights and title issues that Indigenous communities have to deal with.

Halbauer said the direction of treaty negotiations must be set by First Nations and they must be conducted on a government-to-government basis, like the Nisga’a Treaty. She said her role, if elected, would be to support and advocate for First Nations in the Skeena riding.

“My role [would be] to support our communities in the direction that they want to go, to uplift their concerns and to advocate strongly for them and to support them in their decisions,” she said.

Halbauer gave the example of a recent trip to Gitlaaxt’aamiks (New Aiyansh) and Gitwinksihlkw where she heard from community leaders that there was an issue with ambulance services.

“I used whatever advocacy power I had, and yesterday we came together and had a meeting with Adrian Dix to help build a solution around the ambulances services,” she said. “I think that’s really important from a government to government standpoint, making sure we’re supporting the nations in the work that they’re doing and supporting the growth of reconciliation so that we can set that direction.”

“It’s like charting a map. None of us have been here before, and we’re all learning together.”

Holzbauer said that for negotiations going forward, not even just for rights and title in the northwest, they’re usually done behind closed doors for a reason.

“It’s hard enough for people to, you know, find common ground and deal with the issues without having additional pressures put on them,” he said. “And, you know, for the public, yes the public has the right to know, but, you know, they don’t really have a right to know every detail.”

He said that negotiations should come to a preliminary agreement, and be put in front of the public and interested groups so any tweaking and input that is needed can go from there.

“It’s always better when people are asked ahead of time…instead of being asked after the fact,” Holzbauer said, “because if people are asked after the fact, they sort of feel left out to begin with and it usually doesn’t create the best environment for co-operation.”

Ross said he believes those involved in or who will be affected by the situation should have knowledge of the issue and plans associated with it, but that each situation should be dealt with differently, as each one affects different groups to a particular degree.

“In terms of the negotiations themselves, in terms of transparency, it all depends on the issue and it all depends on leadership,” he said. “My perspective was, I can deal with Aboriginal rights and title in terms of the Haisla, but I want to do it in a way that it doesn’t affect non-Haislas.”

In terms of rights and title, specifically, Ross said he encourages people to read the case law associated with that particular issue as it’s quite complicated and involves many different facets.

“Rights and title is one of the most complicated, most costly, most technical topics that are facing Canadians today. And there’s not much knowledge about what it actually is,” he said. “There’s over 200 court cases that have been won by First Nations that actually define how rights and title should be addressed. But on the other side of that, there’s a number of court cases where First Nations have lost that further defined rights and title.”