MLA adopted by First Na­tion faces a dilemma

The Prince George Citizen - - Opinion -

Doug Don­ald­son strikes me as an honourable man. That just makes the sit­u­a­tion he’s in that much more dif­fi­cult. Over 10 years in the leg­is­la­ture, he has es­tab­lished him­self as some­one who is deeply im­mersed in First Na­tions cul­ture and tra­di­tions.

On oc­ca­sion, he de­liv­ers mes­sages in the house flu­ently in Indige­nous lan­guages. Con­grat­u­lat­ing a hered­i­tary chief a few years ago, he said: “Um jabt, Si­m­o­gyet Malii. Um jabt. That is ‘good job’ in Git­sen­imx.”

A few years ago, he told the leg­is­la­ture: “I am the rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Stikine, but I’m also an adopted mem­ber of Wilp Dawa­mukw (a sub-group of the Gitxsan na­tion). My Gitxsan name is Ax jabits, and it’s a Gis­gassst fire­weed clan.

“When I be­came an MLA, my hered­i­tary chief, Dawa­mukw, con­tacted me and said… I was free from not sim­ply ad­vanc­ing the in­ter­ests of Wilp Dawa­mukw, which I be­long to, but for ad­vanc­ing the in­ter­ests of all peo­ple in the con­stituency and all First Na­tions. I wanted to make that clear, be­cause there is no con­flict of in­ter­est in me be­ing a mem­ber of Wilp Dawa­mukw as I con­duct the bud­get es­ti­mates to­day.”

But it’s a lot tougher to mesh those roles and re­la­tion­ships once you be­come a min­is­ter of the Crown. After sev­eral years as a critic of the for­est, lands and nat­u­ral re­sources port­fo­lio, he be­came min­is­ter of same, along with ru­ral de­vel­op­ment, in 2017.

That makes him re­spon­si­ble for a lot of the rou­tine per­mit­ting re­quired for the LNG Canada plant near Kiti­mat and the nat­u­ral-gas feeder line from Daw­son Creek.

Just to add to the mix, he’s also the MLA from Stikine, the rid­ing where a protest camp was set up along the gas pipe­line route by some hered­i­tary First Na­tions chiefs six years ago. It be­came the cen­tre of na­tional at­ten­tion this week after RCMP ar­rived in force to en­force an in­junc­tion against block­ing pipe­line work.

So a man with deep re­spect for First Na­tions is now nom­i­nally re­spon­si­ble for over­rid­ing long­stand­ing con­cerns of some hered­i­tary chiefs and al­low­ing a pipe­line through their claimed land.

The project has the ap­proval of all the First Na­tions’ elected lead­ers. It’s got signed ben­e­fit agree­ments with bands all along the route. But ac­tual work was hung up un­til this week on the ob­jec­tions of some un­elected in­di­vid­u­als whose claims to au­thor­ity aren’t well un­der­stood.

A se­nior gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial ac­knowl­edged Wed­nes­day the hered­i­tary power struc­ture “is not clear to us.”

The RCMP ini­tial bid this week to clear that road brought it all to a head and high­lights the un­com­fort­able po­si­tion Don­ald­son is in.

He vis­ited the site be­fore the ar­rests started and tried to strad­dle the gulf be­tween sup­port­ing a protest just on the verge of be­ing de­clared il­le­gal and rep­re­sent­ing the rule of law. He said it was a cour­tesy call, but Op­po­si­tion B.C. Lib­er­als de­manded his res­ig­na­tion.

Premier John Hor­gan said Wed­nes­day that his min­is­ter was vis­it­ing “life­long friends and ac­quain­tances” with a pro­to­col gift and was in the clear.

Don­ald­son said his visit was to ac­knowl­edge hered­i­tary au­thor­ity, but he also said the rule of law must be up­held.

He has ex­pressed strong con­vic­tions in the past about that “hered­i­tary au­thor­ity,” which is ex­actly the po­ten­tial break­point.

Dur­ing de­bate about a dif­fer­ent gas pipe­line through the same ter­ri­tory a few years ago, he de­manded that the gov­ern­ment “ac­knowl­edge the hered­i­tary sys­tem as right­ful ti­tle­hold­ers. ”

The ar­gu­ment is that elected lead­ers rep­re­sent de­fined Indige­nous ju­ris­dic­tions, while hered­i­tary chiefs hold Indige­nous ti­tle out­side those ar­eas.

He has de­scribed it as a “very struc­tured hered­i­tary or­ga­ni­za­tion. It’s alive, and it’s well.”

The prob­lem is, if the NDP gov­ern­ment holds to that view, it might as well kiss the $40-bil­lion LNG plant good­bye.

Se­cur­ing elected First Na­tions agree­ment is an ob­vi­ous re­quire­ment for 21st-cen­tury re­source de­vel­op­ment. Ex­pect­ing a whole dif­fer­ent buy-in from an­other poorly un­der­stood level of au­thor­ity adds up to a per­ma­nent veto.

The NDP is try­ing to stand cir­cum­spectly on the side­lines and let the com­pany and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment han­dle the protest camp for the time be­ing. But Don­ald­son isn’t the only NDP cab­i­net min­is­ter who will be wrestling with his or her con­science as this plays out.

LES LEYNE

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