BALDREY: B.C. MLAs show rare civility with passage of UNDRIP

Just before the last question period of the fall sitting of the legislature began last Thursday, Speaker Darryl Plecas offered an observation to the members.

“May I cautiously note that it is my impression that the tone and tenor of oral question period has improved dramatically over the session. I want to thank all members for their support in this matter,” he said.

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A big reason for that positive change in tone can be attributed to Plecas’ improved performance in the Speaker’s Chair. Instead of cutting members off for heckling in question period as he did previously, he shrewdly “let them play” (as we would say in hockey) and simply allowed excessive heckling to eat into time for questions.

The MLAs, particularly on the B.C. Liberal side, realized over time that excessive heckling served little purpose and decided to get on with business in a timelier manner. As a result, Plecas was not a lightning rod for controversy in this past session.

But these were not the only noticeable changes from previous legislative sessions which, in the first two years of the NDP being in power, have been characterized more by anger, frustration, partisanship and controversy.

This time around, there was more co-operation between the three parties, any two of which are usually sparring with each other.

Several non-government bills were passed into law, and two more Opposition-sponsored bills were more or less rewritten by the NDP government and enacted into law as well. As legislative agendas go, that is not a huge number but it is certainly a marked departure from long-standing practices in the B.C. legislature.

Perhaps the most impressive bit of co-operation was the unanimity that greeted Bill 41, the bill that formally enshrined the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into the B.C. statutes framework.

The bill passed the second reading stage unanimously (although several B.C. Liberals were absent). A polite and informative debate on the principles of UNDRIP and a clause-by-clause examination of the legislation followed.

After winding its way through the legislature for five days, the bill passed unanimously and allowed legislature clerk Kate Ryan-Lloyd, after she counted the votes, to utter the seldom heard Latin phrase “nemine contradicente” (no dissent, or objection) when reading out the result.

There were shouts of celebration from all sides, another unusual development in an arena where politics more traditionally resembles some kind of blood sport.

There are many unanswered questions about what kind of impact UNDRIP will have on B.C., particularly on  the resource industry where some First Nations may have fundamentally opposing views on whether some projects should go ahead or not (look no further than the Trans Mountain pipeline for example).

That is the major reason why the B.C. Liberals – even though they supported the legislation – had so many questions about it. It is important to get the Crown’s position (as laid out by the minister responsible for the bill) down on paper, to serve as a guide perhaps for future interpretation.

However, those questions will eventually have to be dealt with in the judicial system, which has been wrestling with similar issues for years. Make no mistake, UNDRIP will take years to sort out.

In the meantime, the concept of cementing Indigenous rights into law was warmly embraced by the B.C. Legislature, and surely, that is a good thing.

One more poignant moment brought the session to an end. Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin (who has quickly proven to be one of the top B.C. LG’s of all time) gave royal assent to nine bills but singled out one of them – and this was unusual – for special mention.

“It is an enormous privilege on this historic day to grant royal assent to Bill 41, thereby enshrining the human rights of Indigenous people,” she said, praising the MLAs giving their unanimous support to the legislation.

She also offered a few words spoken in local First Nations’ languages, an appropriate touch.

And so a legislative session that was marked more by co-operation than confrontation ended. Whether that kind of spirit continues in the spring session – traditionally a much more raucous gathering – remains to be seen.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.

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