Indigenous leaders say political opposition in British Columbia derailed a plan that would have cleared the way for shared decision-making between the province and First Nations over the use of public land in their territories.

The NDP government announced Wednesday that it would not proceed with proposed amendments to the Land Act after holding a series of meetings with stakeholders, saying officials heard that they need to take time for further engagement and to demonstrate the "benefits of shared decision-making in action."

The First Nations Leadership Council says its members are "extremely disappointed" with the decision to scrap the changes, which were part of the B.C. government's work to align its laws with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, says they are "disgusted" that the leaders of BC United and the B.C. Conservatives "leveraged" the province's plan "as a shameless opportunity for partisan political gain."

Earlier this month, BC United Leader Kevin Falcon issued a statement saying his party could not "support giving veto power to five per cent of the population with impacts to over 95 per cent of public land," referring to First Nations people.

That followed a statement from B.C. Conservative Leader John Rustad calling the government's plan "an assault on ... private property rights."

Phillip says the leaders created a "wedge issue," making factually incorrect statements and sparking "racist backlash" against Indigenous Peoples in B.C.

Cheryl Casimer with the First Nations Summit Political Executive says, "a small cohort of so-called leaders" used the amendments to "tap into racist fears and beliefs for their own benefits, and on the backs of First Nations people."

In the province's statement announcing the decision to reverse course, Nathan Cullen, B.C.'s minister of water, land and resource stewardship, said some people had "gone to extremes to knowingly mislead the public" about the changes.

First Nation leaders blame opposition parties for derailing BC Land Act changes. #bcpoli

The minister said many people who attended the stakeholder meetings were "surprised" to learn the claims were not true, adding there would have been "no impacts to tenures, renewals, private properties or access to Crown land."

The provincial web page for the now-discarded proposal says the changes would not have provided First Nations with "veto" power. Rather, they aimed to provide "durability" in public land decisions to "help unlock B.C.'s economic potential," it says.

Cullen said those misleading the public about the plan "wish to cling to an approach that leads only to the division, court battles and uncertainty that have held us back."

The changes would have updated the Land Act to "legally recognize" the ability to create shared decision-making agreements with First Nations, something that has already been done with laws related to forestry and environmental assessment.

"We will continue to engage with people and businesses, and do the work to show how working together, First Nations and non-First Nations, can help bring stability and predictability, and move us all forward," Cullen said in the statement.

The B.C. government passed legislation in 2019 requiring the province to align its laws with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The declaration requires governments to obtain free, prior and informed consent before taking actions that affect Indigenous Peoples and their lands, and B.C.'s law set provisions for the province to negotiate agreements with First Nations to establish shared, consent-based decision-making in their territories.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 22, 2024.

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