Nowhere fast - The Orca

Nowhere fast

Rob Shaw 2

Rob Shaw: By blaming the floods for Indigenous governments not meeting the NDP’s unrealistic 30 day deadline to respond to its new forestry plan, it’s refusing to accept its responsibility for creating the mess.

The BC government’s plan to protect old growth forests risks going badly off the rails after many First Nations refused to meet an arbitrary deadline to respond, leaving the entire effort in limbo.

Forests Minister Katrine Conroy was nowhere to be seen last week when the 30-day deadline she proclaimed with much fanfare in November was met with heated anger by Indigenous leaders.

Conroy had demanded BC’s more than 200 First Nations respond within a month to her plan to defer 2.6 million hectares of old growth forests.

To help, her ministry dumped out a series of baffling colour-coded maps and encouraged the nations to find their territory upon them and decide whether they would acquiesce to the province’s plan to protect those areas for at least the next two years. It also offered $12 million in aid — which worked out to a paltry $60,000 per nation to understand a decision that could have millions of dollars worth of economic implications.

The plan appeared doomed from the start.

Within hours of the announcement on Nov. 2, there were already complaints that it was insulting to give Indigenous people only 30 days to respond to a plan the government spent 18 months crafting.

Sure enough, on deadline day, angry First Nations gave the missing-in-action minister an earful.

“To be effective, old-growth deferrals must be immediate, well-funded and transparently communicated to Nations – essentially the opposite of what the B.C. government has done,” Khelsilem, Chairperson for the Squamish Nation Council, said in a statement.

“The BC NDP are giving a terrible choice by only offering consent for temporary deferrals but not requiring consent for logging. Deferrals are needed now to provide the opportunity for long-term planning.”

Joining Indigenous leaders at a press conference slamming the deadline was Rachel Holt, a conservation biologist who specializes in forestry and old growth who’d been part of the government’s initial announcement and helped define the areas to preserve. “This is a significant issue and now I see effort being wasted,” she said.

Meanwhile, silence from Conroy and her ministry, other than a bland statement saying the government would “provide an update shortly.”

By alienating First Nations with an arbitrary deadline, Conroy now finds herself in a no-win situation entirely of her own making. Does she delay implementing the old growth deferrals until she can bring all of BC’s 200 First Nations onside? Or can she proceed without Indigenous consent, in direct contravention of the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples law passed by her government?

As the province sputters, the very old growth it is seeking to protect continues to be logged.

Tens of thousands of hectares of irreplaceable trees are either being cut or at risk of being cut during the delay, according to a new analysis from the Wilderness Committee. More than 50,000 hectares is logged, on average, in a year.

“The BC NDP government has evaded responsibility and hastily thrown the conflict over old-growth into the laps of Indigenous people, forcing First Nations into an impossible situation,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.

“While chainsaws are still roaring and old-growth forests continue to fall, First Nations must confront multiple, complex challenges around resourcing conservation and safeguarding their livelihoods.”

The Forests Ministry confirms that previously-approved cut blocks within the 2.6 million hectares of ancient and rare forests it had earmarked for preservation can, and are, being logged as it waits for Indigenous approval of its plan.

But that doesn’t look like it will happen any time soon.

Conroy’s ministry is dropping hints it will give First Nations more time — not because it acknowledges it jammed them with the original deadline, but because the flooding crisis preoccupied the attention of many nations.

In framing it that way, the government refuses to accept its responsibility in the mess. If it wants to get its plan into action, it will have to offer up significant new resources to help Indigenous nations understand what they are consenting to, as well as a new timeline that is more respectful to the First Nations involved and less of a threat hanging over their heads.

Until it does so, BC’s old growth protection plan is going nowhere fast.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.