The provincial government is putting $200 million toward the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Murray Rankin announced the money Thursday (April 27) at the provincial legislature following a virtual townhall with First Nations leader. Rankin said the Declaration Act Engagement Fund will give First Nations the necessary resources to participate in the UNDRIP implementation.
Adopted by the United Nations in 2007 after decades of negotiations, UNDRIP codifies various political, social and economic rights for Indigenous peoples around the world.
In 2019, B.C. became the first jurisdiction in Canada to implement UNDRIP through legislation by passing the Declaration Act. It establishes UNDRIP as the legislative framework for reconcilation and includes various mandates such as bringing provincial laws into alignment with UNDRIP and developing an action plan to realize the rights found in UNDRIP.
“We have heard from First Nations leaders that engaging with government on the various initiatives underway has been a challenge given the time, the energy and the resources required for First Nations to participate effectively in this transformational work,” Rankin said. “These resources would otherwise be put toward meeting other important priorities and challenges in their communities.”
The fund will help First Nations offset their costs that come from the engaging with the province to implement UNDRIP. “This fund will be administered by our partners — the New Relationship Trust — and all First Nations in British Columbia will benefit.”
Rankin said the money could be used for the hiring and training of staff necessary for genuine government-to-government consultations, adding that it is just a step toward a new fiscal relationship with First Nations.
“But it’s a crucial step along that path that will help address the urgent needs that First Nations have now,” he said.
First Nations leaders as well as voices inside the legislature such BC Green House Leader Adam Olsen have long lamented the lack of support from the province for First Nations when it comes to implementing UNDRIP.
While UNDRIP grants First Nations much greater say in B.C.’s lawmaking process, First Nations by virtue of their size and economic resources often lack the means to make use of the power UNDRIP theoretically grants them, thereby rendering it meaningless.
Rankin made the announcement in the presence of several senior First Nations leaders representing different parts of the province, including Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs.
Phillip said the money has created an “unprecedented” opportunity to make reconciliation a reality in the face of all the crises that currently co-exist in B.C. from climate change to the opioid crisis.
“We owe it to our grandchildren to get it right this time,” Phillip said. “We do this work not for ourselves, but for our grandchildren,” he added. “This is a special moment in history. I celebrate this moment.”
Other speakers such as Chief Joe Alphonse, Tribal Chair of the Tsilhqot’in National Government, echoed Phillip’s message of thanks.
“This is huge,” he said. Alphonse also hoped that Thursday’s announcement would send a signal to Ottawa and beyond with B.C. serving as a “role model.”
Other speakers packaged their praise with demands for additional reforms.
Cheryl Casimir of the First Nations Summit and BC First Nations Leadership Council said the funding is evidence that the provincial government has listened to the concerns of First Nations.
“British Columbia were the first province to enshrine UNDRIP into legislation and this declaration recognizes once and for all the that Indigenous rights are indeed human rights,” she said.
But Casimir did not shy away from describing various chapters in the “dark history” which First Nations and the province share such as the Residential School System in calling for a relationship based on equality.
“We need to change the narrative where we can leave a better legacy for all First Nations and British Columbians,” she said. “This fund is a step in the right direction but there is much work that needs to be done such as finalizing a new fiscal framework between provincial government and First Nations as well as the conclusion of treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements.”
These initiatives are essential for the future economic prosperity of First Nations, she added.
“The real work begins now.”