BC government cloaks corporate resource policies with highsounding rhetoric

Commentary by Kimball Cariou, leader of the Communist Party of BC, Nov. 5, 2021

A hallmark of B.C. Premier John Horgan’s four years in office has been the contradiction between his efforts to claim credibility on environmental issues, and his refusal to break with the resource extraction and export policies of the previous Liberal government. The Premier also keeps trying to walk a tightrope between support for Indigenous rights and appeasing corporate demands, usually falling off on the side of big business.

The latest example is the announcement by Forests Minister Katrine Conroy (a former grassroots environmental activist!) that timber harvesting could be deferred on 2.6 million hectares of land identified as old-growth forest across the province. A closer look shows that despite its progressive rhetoric, when push comes to shove the NDP government sides with corporate interests.

Conroy’s announcement of deferrals could have been a step towards protecting the remaining ancient and rare big-tree old growth forests along the west coast. But there’s a catch – the deferral depends on agreements by First Nations. This caveat was recommended by a technical advisory panel formed in June, in response to the protests against logging of the Fairy Creek watershed at the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Despite intense police harassment and brutality to enforce court injunctions, those courageous protests continue, with more than a thousand arrested over the last year.

The corporate media and the NDP government have presented the Fairy Creek struggle and similar disputes in other areas largely in terms of “internal differences” among First Nations people. This framing is a tactic to put the blame on First Nations for wiping out the jobs of forestry workers. But resource issues here can only be understood in a full historical context, going back to the 19th century origins of the colony which became the province of “British Columbia” in 1871.

For over 150 years, from colonial to capitalist times, forestry has been a key part of the B.C. economy. Vast fortunes were gained from “green gold”, an industry which employed huge numbers for much of this time. But the forestry industry has mostly operated on lands which were never ceded or surrendered by their inhabitants. While Indigenous labour was always part of the workforce, the fact is that First Nations have been deeply impoverished under the modern capitalist economy. To put the burden of decisions over logging deferrals on their shoulders is a gross distortion of Indigenous sovereignty, to say the least.

Responding to the announcement, the largest coalition of Indigenous groups in BC, the First Nations Leadership Council, nailed the issue squarely. A statement from the FNLC, which is comprised of the political executives of the BC Assembly of First Nations (BCAFN), First Nations Summit (FNS), and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), is headlined “Hot Potato Handling of Old Growth Stonewalls Indigenous Decision-Making and Lacks Fulsome Supports for First Nations.”

The FNLC is “extremely concerned that old growth remains unprotected today, and that the Province has passed responsibility to First Nations without providing financial support for Nations to replace any revenues that might be lost if they choose to defer logging old growth in their territory.”

BCAFN Regional Chief Terry Teegee said, “The lack of proper consultations with First Nations prior to the announcement, as well as the government’s failure to provide details on transition financing and financing for Indigenous-led conservation solutions, all point to the Province’s repeated pattern of advancing a mismanaged forestry landscape that fails to uphold Indigenous Title and Rights, jurisdiction, and decision-making. First Nations have asserted inherent jurisdiction over their unceded forest resources for decades, yet the Province has continued to profit from harvesting trees on so-called Crown Lands. Those stolen dollars should be returned to First Nations so they can be true partners in deciding how to manage their forests including old growth.”

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, added “We want the Horgan government to decisively protect old growth trees as a priority issue with a concrete and fully funded plan developed in partnership with First Nations as the proper Title and Rights holders. There must be legislation created specific to protecting old growth. This requires a whole-of-government approach as the logging of old growth trees is intimately connected to climate change, meaning the impacts of logging in one area are felt everywhere and by everyone.. If BC really wants to make good on its commitment to implement the UN Declaration and tackle climate change, it needs to provide comprehensive financing for Nations to end destructive resource extraction on their lands and waters.”

Instead, the province has given First Nations a narrow 30-day window, and extremely limited funding, to assemble the technical and legal supports required to participate in negotiations on deferrals.

This is not “partnership with Indigenous Nations” as the Premier claims. This is yet another case of a government cloaking pro-corporate policies with high-sounding phrases about Indigenous rights.

The Communist Party has consistently pointed out that rolling back the huge tax breaks granted to corporations and upper-income earners by the Campbell Liberal  government would provide billions of dollars to the provincial treasury – more than enough to begin providing First Nations with a part of the wealth generated on their stolen lands. That would be a real first step towards finding ways to protect old-growth forests. We call on the Horgan government to take this approach, and to stop presenting impoverished First Nations with ultimatums like the latest announcement.

For more information, contact Communist Party of BC leader Kimball Cariou, 604-255-2041, or the Vancouver Island organizer for the Communist Party, Tyson Strandlund, 250-883-7321.