Wednesday, 9 September 2015

A year after Tsilhqot'in it's time to move from analysis to action

The BC Business Council invited me to speak at a networking event they hosted in Vancouver last night on the eve of the annual BC Cabinet and First Nations Leaders' Gathering.  It was a privilege to have an opportunity to speak to a room of Cabinet ministers and their deputies, First Nations and business leaders and to reflect on how to make greater progress in turning the promise of economic and social reconciliation into reality in the aftermath of the Supreme Court of Canada's 2014 landmark decision in Tsilhqot'in.
Here is the text of my remarks, more or less as delivered.

Let me first thank the BC Business Council for its leadership in convening this important gathering. What the business community is signaling here is its recognition both of the importance of reconciliation, and the role that business must play in turning the promise of reconciliation into reality.

This is an important gathering, you know.

Just imagine, for a moment, what might get done here, starting tonight, and over the next few days.

Meaningful progress in creating tangible opportunities for economic and social development, founded on mutual recognition and respect. 

You are here because you are leaders, because you sought out leadership and because your communities chose you as leaders.  So make this an occasion for leadership. Not for standing still, not for looking for short cuts to nowhere, not for dressing up the status quo as something new, but an occasion for stepping outside your comfort zone, for exploring new ideas, for taking risks. For courage.

I know this is much easier to say than do. I’ve been in politics. I’ve attended a hundred meetings where my main objective was just to sit tight and wait until it was all over.

I’ve also experienced how hard it is to lead change. But really, that is why you are here. To lead change. To make history.

So where are we at?

14 months after the Supreme Court’s decision in Tsilhqot’in, there’s been no shortage of discussion and analysis. People have tried to make sense of what the decision means, and there have been calls for action.

14 months on, we continue to push out more agreements – and that is a good thing – but overall, it’s hard to say we have found a clear path forward.     

Let me offer some observations intended to help get past reflection and into real progress.


First, let’s leave the lawyers at the door. They’re nice people, really, (after all, I am one) but we will not establish reconciliation by relying on legal opinions about legal rights.

For a long time, now, courts have helped level the playing field as between non-indigenous and indigenous rights, but courts cannot put rights into action.  Even those who cannot see the moral force of the argument for respect of indigenous rights must surely agree that litigating the ownership of every hectare of British Columbia will not build a prosperous society. There has to be a better way to do this.

Last summer, in the aftermath of the Tsilhqot’in decision, First Nations sent a letter to government proposing four principles.  The principles were intended to inform new forms of relationships, negotiations, and agreements with the Crown. The principles were simply that: principles. You could say they were aspirational in their reach.  But they were intended as a start for a new conversation.

Ten months later, Government’s letter of response carefully parses the principles as though they were a legal contract, rather than a potential foundation for a political discussion. With respect, a dialogue that entrenches old positions, rather than empower fresh thinking, simply won’t help. This is not the time to draw lines in the sand.  It’s a time for problem solving, not problem defining.

I’m not suggesting we should pretend there are no differences. Of course there are differences. But let’s all of us spend less time trying to win arguments, and more time looking for mutually beneficial opportunities.

To put this in another frame, for a long time this discourse has been characterized by positional statements and demands. And for much of our province’s history it was, perhaps, too tall an order for any party to shift that.

But certainly now is the time for change.  It’s time for an interest-based approach that promotes collaboration – which again sounds easier than it really is, but it is an approach that definitely holds more promise than the alternatives.  What we need to focus on is how to deliberately, systematically, and programmatically, create economic and social opportunity for everyone.  Opportunity for the First Nations communities on whose territories land and resource development takes place, and opportunities for everyone else who deserves a share of the prosperity we can create if we work together.


How should we frame our engagement?

First, I do not suggest we can or should overreach - we’re simply not going to get to comprehensive reconciliation with one bold leap. 

It may not be possible to design, let alone implement, an over-arching framework which is both meaningful and comprehensive enough to encompass all of the province’s many First Nations.  It may not even be desirable to try, given the diversity of experience and perspective that lives within our province. 

There has to be room for nuance and flexibility. We can get to reconciliation in many ways, and as leaders you all have a critical role to play in shaping those pathways. A policy which looks for wins – call it “strategic opportunism” - is entirely respectable, not least because achieving some success somewhere helps build confidence that other successes are possible. We need to acknowledge the successes that have already been achieved in this way. 

At the same time, looking for wins should not be confused with “squeaky wheels always get grease.” We need a proactive, rather than reactive approach.  It’s not about waiting for opportunity, it’s about looking for it. It can’t be just about putting out fires. We have some wonderful firefighters in the room – from all parties – and we can all hope that as leaders, these skilled individuals are given the opportunity to look for opportunities, rather than simply respond to problems.

There is a powerfully important need for frameworks, objectives and principles that avoid the risks inherent in a continuous proliferation of isolated one-off arrangements.  Real progress is not rooted in expedience.  With a bit more design work, there’s no reason we can’t establish a stronger foundation of shared, understandable, acceptable, achievable expectations, based on mutual respect and recognition, not denial and mistrust.

And then there is this vexing question: how do we ensure that everyone benefits? If the distribution of success is too lopsided, then it will breed its own failure.  I’m not discounting the reality that forests, mines, gas wells and other resources are not evenly distributed across the province. I am also not suggesting that all First Nations need or want to benefit in exactly the same way – that approach ignores the reality of so many diverse perspectives, interests and priorities. But it’s critical that we design our policies to address the reality of uneven wealth distribution.  This will be particularly challenging if negotiation becomes – as I hope it does not - an exercise in the valuation of asserted rights and title. 

There is a need for greater transparency. Not only because our respective communities need to know what is going on, if we are to hope that they will support this work.  But also because a growing public record of best practices, will help demonstrate what kinds of arrangements are more likely to succeed than others.  Again, I am not suggesting that what is needed is strait-jacket uniformity imposed through the back door.  I’m just saying, keep the confidentiality clauses to a minimum, let’s talk about what’s going on, and let’s keep track. 

I’m not trying to make this sound harder than it needs to be.  But for all the successes that have been achieved through many agreements and arrangements that have been entered into, there’s a need to do much more to give full effect to the promise of Tsilhqot’in.

This work is not, at its heart, positional jousting to reduce costs and minimize the distributional effects of rights and title.  We cannot allow this to be a zero sum game of benefit re-redistribution. It has to be about creating competitive advantage, of creating incremental value. The question is can we really lead?  Are we ready to lead in ways that are more enduring for our communities, shareholders and families?

To be fair, we are in an era where it often seems there is not a great deal of public appetite for bold political leadership – in any of our respective communities.  But rather than be defeated by cynicism, let’s choose to be inspired by the profound importance of the work that lies before us.

I do believe great things can happen if we are willing to recognize and affirm the mutual legitimacy of our aspirations, and if we are able collectively to see aboriginal people and their unique rights not as threats, not as the “other”, but as part of the larger “us.” To recognize that justice for First Nations is justice for all of us.  


In closing, you are here given an opportunity to direct the course of history.  I’m not afraid to put it in such terms.  There is no issue that so taints the history of our country as the long legacy of our failure to respect the rights, hopes and aspirations of Canada’s First Nations.  This week’s meetings take place against the backdrop of this history. One way or another you will be remembered for what you do here. I say, choose to succeed.    

By coming together here as leaders, it’s your turn, your time, to take hold of the paddles that sit in the great canoe which holds our collective hopes and dreams.  You can, if you want, keep your paddles dry, and let the river take you where the river will. The river will always take you somewhere.  Onto the rocks maybe, or stalled forever in some backwater.  Or you can decide to sit up straight, put your back into it, and paddle. You’ll get wet, maybe blisters, too.  It’s going to be harder to find and hold the course than you would like.  But paddling together - sensing the surge as the boat moves forward - it’s an amazing feeling. It’s really the reason we’re here, after all. So try it. Paddle.

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