NDP cabinet minister sidesteps B.C. Liberal demands for legislative committee on Aboriginal affairs

Skeena MLA Ellis Ross, claimed that Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Murray Rankin was mouthing "empty words", which he vehemently denied

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      The interim leader of the B.C. Liberals, Shirley Bond, and the B.C. Liberal MLA for Skeena, Ellis Ross, think the legislature could do more to gather input from Indigenous people.

      On June 16 in question period, they both asked Premier John Horgan if he would activate a standing committee on Aboriginal affairs.

      Standing committees hold public hearings and issue reports with recommendations for the government.

      "Three weeks ago, in response to the MLA for Skeena, the premier committed to 'whatever steps we can take, whatever resources need to be brought to bear'," Bond said, according to Hansard. "With his help and with the help of the other members of this House, I'm confident that we can bring together a plan that all of us can be proud of."

      Then she said that an important step would be to allow the legislature to hear directly from First Nations by activating the select standing committee on Aboriginal affairs. She described this as a "simple ask".

      "It would mean that the premier meant what he said," Bond declared. "It would engage all of us in this absolutely critical path to reconciliation."

      Rather than Horgan, Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation MInister Murray Rankin responded to Bond's inquiry.

      Rankin said that his door is "open to all members who have constructive suggestions on how we can work together to address this challenge of reconciliation".

      But Rankin would not commit to the creation of a standing committee focused exclusively on Indigenous issues. 

      Bond then stated that her request is a "small but significant step", noting that addressing Indigenous issues is bigger than a single minister or even the premier and the entire government.

      "While I appreciate that answer, now more than ever, words are not enough," Bond said. "People in this chamber need to send a strong signal about how absolutely critical it is that we work together to listen, to learn, to work constructively with First Nations."

      In hockey parlance, Rankin continued ragging the puck, agreeing that Indigenous issues are much bigger than a particular government and agreeing that there's value in a nonpartisan approach.

      "I think the idea of a standing committee of the legislature on Aboriginal affairs being reinvigorated is definitely an idea worthy of consideration and will ask my government to consider that as we go forward," the minister added. "But a standing committee is but one vehicle to do the work of which the honourable member has spoken. There are many vehicles that we need to work on together to achieve reconciliation."

      The next MLA to speak was Ellis Ross, a former chief of the Haisla First Nation who's seeking the B.C. Liberal leadership.

      "Those are nice words coming from the minister of Indigenous affairs or Aboriginal affairs," Ross said. "But that's all they are. They're just words."

      He then stated that "empty words and these empty speeches are what got me into politics in 2003 in the first place".

      According to Ross, it wasn't until the Haisla elected council started working with industry and government that it achieved progress.

      "I've said it before: my band is not talking about poverty anymore," Ross said. "There are many other bands that need help. Canadians need help in healing from what was discovered in Kamloops. The commitment that was made by the premier was pretty clear: we will do what we can together as a legislative body and work together."

      Rankin vehemently denied uttering "empty words".

      "Our government has released a consultative draft on Friday last with 79 concrete, achievable actions to achieve what we all committed to in this place when the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act was enacted," the minister said. "These are concrete actions in social areas, in resource areas, in revenue-sharing."

      Rankin added that this includes $3 billion on housing over 25 years, generated from gaming revenues.

      "Whether the particular vehicle that's been proposed by the member, mainly resurrecting and reinvigorating that particular committee would be part of that solution, is an idea that is worthy of consideration," he said. "But to suggest that these are merely words is a completely misstatement of what this government has done successfully and will continue to do throughout its mandate."

      That prompted Ross to ask to whom Rankin thought he was speaking to.

      "I was born on reserve. I still live on a reserve today," Ross said. "The incident that happened in Kamloops affects 203 bands. It affects me directly. There are people in Canada that are in pain."

      He then reiterated that the premier made a commitment to take whatever steps he could take to achieve reconciliation.

      "I'm hoping the premier isn't actually delaying the announcement simply to use it as a prop when he goes to visit Lower Post," Ross said. "Yeah, let me hear your groans. Based on the minister's response to what I just asked, the previous question, let me hear your groans. Because I've been listening to this my entire life: politicians making promises and empty speeches, but nothing happens unless it's for a political agenda that doesn't serve Aboriginal interests."

      Rankin responded that he has a great deal of respect for Ross but he also doesn't believe that his government can be accused of "wordsmithing".

      "We have acknowledged the healing together, of which the member has spoken," the minister said. "We have been in touch, for example, with Kúkpi7 Casimir of the Tk'emlúps te Sexwépemc people, who is apparently working on submitting a budget and a proposal to specifically address the issue of the Kamloops school.

      "We are listening to other nations who have come forward in respect of this particular issue of bringing home the lost children, calls for action 71 to 76. I'm working in close coordination with the minister, Marc Miller, at the federal level to address this critically important issue."