Opinion: It means meaningful and sustained engagement with First Nations on forest legislation and policy that impacts directly on First Nations business to survive and thrive in the forest sector economy.
Dr. Charlene Higgins
The B.C. government has been engaging with First Nations for years to discuss forest revenue-sharing models and policies, meaningful approaches to consultation to respect Aboriginal title and rights, tenure reform, and policy changes needed to reallocate volume to increase their participation in the forest sector. But very little has changed to reflect input received from the First Nations themselves.
The majority of tenure is still under the control of the few major players, and the province continues to offer most First Nations “take it or leave it” agreements (forest consultation and revenue-sharing agreements) that share a minimal percentage (four to six per cent) of stumpage revenues. In some cases, these agreements provide First Nations with as little as $35,000 as accommodation for impacts on Aboriginal interests from forest-related land and resources decisions in their territories.
In 2018, the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resources Operations and Rural Development made a commitment to develop a revitalized B.C. and First Nations Forest Strategy in collaboration with First Nations to reflect their commitment to advance reconciliation, implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and increase the involvement of First Nations in all areas of forestry.
In 2019, the forest strategy was drafted in collaboration with forests ministry, based on recommendations First Nations have provided for over a decade. The First Nations Leadership Council and B.C. First Nations fully endorsed the forest strategy in 2019 through resolutions passed by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, the First Nations Summit, and the B.C. Assembly of First Nations. However, the B.C. government still has not endorsed or committed to implementing the B.C. and First Nations forest strategy.
The province has signed agreements with a few First Nations that provided a path forward based on reconciliation, collaboration, shared decision-making, increased access to forest tenure opportunities, and access to resources needed to support governance capacity and economic development. These same pillars are reflected in the goals and objectives of the forest strategy that change the relationship between the B.C. government and all First Nations, not just a few.
The forest strategy has six goals that support the modernization of government-to-government relationships through a collaborative approach to forest governance, stewardship, and joint decision-making. It identifies concrete steps and actions to advance reconciliation in alignment with UNDRIP by making changes to forest legislation, policy, programs, and practices that increase the role First Nations play in the governance and stewardship of forest lands and resources, and their participation in the forest sector as full partners.
In several letters sent to B.C. First Nations in 2018 and 2019, the government committed to involving First Nations in the development of forest policy, including legislative and regulatory review. Regardless of these commitments, the B.C. government made significant changes to forest policies and legislation, such as Bill 21 (Forest and Range Practices Amendment Act, 2019) and Bill 22 (Forest Amendment Act, 2019), with no input from First Nations. This includes the development of regulations and policies that disproportionately impact small tenure holders, and puts them at a competitive disadvantage.
Recently, Premier John Horgan committed to “implementing the report, A New Future for Old Forests, in its totality” if re-elected — a report that was developed without meaningful input or engagement with First Nations.
So, what does commitment really mean?
A commitment means more than words — it requires action. It means meaningful and sustained engagement with First Nations on forest legislation and policy that impacts directly on First Nations’ land governance and the ability of First Nations’ business to survive and thrive in the forest sector economy.
We are looking to the incoming B.C. government to follow through with significant commitments made to advance meaningful reconciliation with First Nations. A commitment that B.C. First Nations are looking for is the endorsement and implementation of the B.C. and First Nations Forest Strategy “in its totality.”
Dr. Charlene Higgins is CEO of the B.C. First Nations Forestry Council.