VICTORIA - At the B.C. Legislature where British parliamentary customs thrive, First Nations traditions took centre stage Thursday as the province became the first to introduce legislation to enshrine the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into law.

The moment was historic and emotions ran high.

“I’m very excited and somewhat nervous, I will admit,” said Beth Dick, a Lekwungen traditional dancer on hand for the ceremony.

The morning sitting kicked off with Elder Shirley Alphonse of the T'Sou-ke Nation offering a prayer.

“Creator, Great Spirit, may we all make our journey a happy one, because we are all here to walk each other home,” said Alphonse.

Minutes later, the BC NDP government made history, taking a step intended to reconcile a painful past and troubled relationship.

“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on all levels of government to adopt the UN declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples as the framework for reconciliation. That is what this legislation does. It is a commitment to respect, promote and advance the rights of Indigenous peoples,” said Scott Fraser, the minister of indigenous relations and reconciliation.

He light-heartedly asked for forgiveness for taking up more time than is typically allotted for tabling legislation, pointing out the extraordinary nature of the day’s proceedings.

Government house leader Mike Farnworth moved a motion, which saw members of the legislative assembly, including the speaker and clerk leave, to accommodate four First Nations leaders who spoke on the bill.

Inside the house, Cheryl Casimer, an executive with the First Nations Summit noted the “sky didn’t fall.” Later, she told reporters she was attempting to quell fears that self-determination for indigenous peoples would negatively affect others.

“Up until today we've been living in an era of denial and today marks the era of where we have full recognition of who we are as peoples in these lands,” Casimer added.

If passed, the framework means on infrastructure, natural resource and other projects First Nations will have the right to all the information, well in advance -- before giving consent.

A government press release says other elements include:

  • a requirement to develop an action plan to meet the objectives of the UN Declaration, in collaboration with Indigenous peoples;
  • annual public reporting to monitor progress;
  • discretion for new decision-making agreements between the province and Indigenous governments where decisions directly affect Indigenous peoples and mechanisms exist in applicable legislation - with clear processes, administrative fairness and transparency; and
  • recognition for additional forms of Indigenous governments in agreement-making, such as multiple Nations working together as a collective, or hereditary governments - as determined and recognized by the citizens of the Nation.

The premier and other leaders made clear – what is being put forward isn’t veto power.

“The word veto is not contained in legislation nor in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” said John Horgan.

Constitutional expert Joel Bakan says the courts tend to view consent as a human rights issue and so consider balance in making decisions. Consent, he added, is not seen as an absolute, like a veto.

“The courts are already pushing in the direction that's represented by this law and by the UN declaration, but the declaration and the law will give substance to what they're doing,” said Bakan, who is a Professor with UBC’s Allard School of Law.

A similar bill was introduced federally, but died when parliament adjourned for Monday’s election.

Grand Chief Stewart Philip likened the process in B.C. to having many passengers in the back of a car asking, "Are we there yet?"

“I have a very strong belief we're going to move the dial this time,” he said.

In a landmark move, First Nations leaders helped draft the legislation, saying the status quo simply isn't an option.