We respond to BC’s human rights commissioner


The following is our open letter to BC’s human rights commissioner, Kasari Govender, in response to her letter to us of 23 January 2020. It all centres on First Nations issues related to construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

Dear Commissioner:

Re: Your letter of January 23, 2020

This is in response to your above offer to engage about our open letter of January 19, 2020.

We first observe that your claim to “take no position on whether these projects should move forward” is hard to believe, and it seems our interpretation of your comments was widely held by other readers. In fact, others such as the Victoria City Council have relied on the wording of your statement of January 10, 2020, in their own misguided call to suspend construction.

First of all, it’s clear the Wet’suwet’en people disagree on this project. There is no governance approach that reconciles Wet’suwet’en elected and hereditary leaders. The refusal of governments to reconcile Aboriginal Rights and Title in BC continues to wreak havoc on our communities.

We believe you are conflating a number of complex issues into an oversimplified approach to human rights. Most significantly, you are confusing issues of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) with issues of political decision-making.

We agree that human rights are not a numbers game, but the majority of Indigenous leaders have chosen to consent to the project. They did so after years of hard work in environmental assessment processes and negotiations with the province and the proponent. These same processes were open to those who now object to the project but chose not to participate.

Put differently, other communities in free and democratic societies may disagree, but life goes on. We suggest that until the content of FPIC is fully entrenched in domestic law, its meaning in practice is not certain but cannot possibly mean the level of unanimous consent you seem to be suggesting.

Denying economic opportunity to the majority of Wet’suwet’en people while others pursue an impossible standard of unanimity would be a travesty. In that regard, I also assure you that those of us in elected positions who deliver programs and services to Indigenous band members fully understand the consequences of historically disregarded human rights on a daily basis.

You are also confusing issues of free, prior and informed consent with the contrast between peaceful protest and enforcement of the December 31, 2019 court injunction. We do not consider it reasonable to indefinitely withhold economic reconciliation from our communities simply because a faction chooses to express their discontent in direct violation of a court injunction.

If you are to represent yourself as an arbiter of an “evolving human rights situation”, we believe you should not only understand how incredibly complex this situation is, but also you should clearly identify the criteria on which you are making your determinations.

These are complex matters that cannot be addressed reactively. A non-Indigenous public watchdog in a non-Indigenous public institution who comes out publicly against Indigenous people on a controversial issue must take great care to be properly informed, provide some degree of neutrality, and adhere to high standards of transparent assessment of issues.

We do agree entirely with your identification of “the need for the situation unfolding on Wet’suwet’en territories to find a peaceful solution.” We suggest one way to accomplish this is to take greater care in your public pronouncements and to stop taking sides against reconciliation in our communities.

Yours truly,

Karen Ogen-Toews

Chief Executive Officer

(Posted here 28 January 2020)

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