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B.C. scrapping Land Act amendments plagued by 'misinformation,' minister says

Orange shirts, shoes, flowers and messages are on display on the steps outside the legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Saturday, June 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito Orange shirts, shoes, flowers and messages are on display on the steps outside the legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Saturday, June 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
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The B.C. government has backtracked on proposed Land Act amendments intended to facilitate joint decision-making agreements with First Nations, including on major resources projects.

The reversal followed significant public backlash that Nathan Cullen, minister of water, land and resource stewardship, blamed in part on "dog-whistle politics" and false characterizations of the proposal among critics.

"There was a great deal of misinformation that was intentionally spread," Cullen said Wednesday. "Fear mongering, speculation and just simply inventing things does nobody any good."

But the minister also acknowledged that B.C.'s process of gathering public feedback on the amendments – which was quietly launched last month, in the absence of an official announcement – was insufficient and rushed.

The province had said its intention was to begin negotiating agreements with Indigenous governments as early as spring 2024.

Meanwhile, concern spread about a variety of possible implications, including that First Nations would have "veto" power on major decisions involving Crown land.

The government stressed that was never the case.

An updated public engagement website launched last week said the proposal would have "no effect on tenures, renewals, private properties, or access to Crown land," and that there was no such veto – an interpretation "acknowledged by First Nations and legal experts," according to the province.

The purpose of the amendments, the government has said, was to bring the Land Act in line with the U.N.'s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and enshrine a decision-making process that would avoid costly court battles with First Nations.

While the government is not moving forward with the proposal, Cullen said it will continue engaging with the public on how to "deepen and broaden" consultation with Indigenous groups.

"We know that our path forward is a path of reconciliation," he said. "I hope this gives us the pace – and the calm – that is required to have these important conversations with British Columbians."

The official Opposition painted the government's decision as a political manoeuvre intended to avoid controversy in an election year.

Peter Milobar, the BC United MLA for Kamloops-North Thompson, said the NDP has "very much shown their cards of what they want to do," and suggested the party is hoping voters forget so they can move forward after the election.

"We will not be letting them forget," Milobar said.

The First Nations Leadership Council responded to Wednesday's announcement with disappointment and frustration, describing the scrapped amendments as "straightforward" changes that would have helped the province fulfill the commitments it made in the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act five years ago.

"It's heartbreaking after all the work that we've been doing in the last several years to advance reconciliation in the province of B.C., between Indigenous peoples, the business community, industry, municipalities," said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. "We're faced with this outright attack on that progressive work."

In a written statement, Phillip accused BC United of making a "coldly calculated decision" to turn the amendments into a wedge issue.

"Indigenous rights are human rights, and are not up for debate or referendum. We expect the full legislature to work together on an education campaign to this effect," he said.

With files from CTV News Vancouver's Penny Daflos 

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