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New ministry will mostly be presiding over continued conflict


Opinion: New ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship is expected to co-manage land and resources with B.C. First Nations.

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VICTORIA — There was no understating the challenges Friday as Premier John Horgan took the wraps off a new ministry to oversee land, water and resources in B.C.

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The new ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship is expected to co-manage land and resources with B.C. First Nations, in keeping with the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

But it will be managing in an era of “scarcity, not abundance,” given existing commitments and expectations regarding the provincial land and resource base.

“There are no easy decisions left on the land base,” as the government acknowledged in the briefing paper that accompanied the premier’s announcement. “The sector is missing a framework where trade-off decisions are made at the right level within an overarching government policy context.”

Supposedly the new ministry will supply that framework and start clearing a backlog of permitting for land and resource use.

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But the first task is getting the new ministry up-and-running, which is no small order in itself. The previous B.C. Liberal government twice tried to create a new one-stop ministry for decision-making on land and resources. Both attempts bogged down in bureaucracy and had to be scrapped.

The NDP’s new stewardship ministry was assembled from the parts of five others, including forests, environment and agriculture. More than 1,100 public servants will be relocated to the new ministry. Plus, it has been given a $10 million budget top-up to hire 100 additional staff.

Many of those public servants learned the details of their relocated postings just this week. For as the government put it in a confidential briefing note recently, the design of the new ministry was undertaken by senior public servants “in a cone of silence.”

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Yes, “cone of silence.” Fans of the old Get Smart TV comedy will recall the stifling effect on communications when they brought down the cone of silence.

The reorganization took more than a year, under the direction of Minister of State Nathan Cullen, who the premier assigned to the task after the 2020 provincial election. Typically, reorganization is an internal process of government. This exercise had to involve First Nations from the outset.

“I would say with some confidence that the consultations were unprecedented,” Cullen told reporters Friday. “We constructed with First Nations’ rights and titleholders a process to go out and speak to communities, held hundreds of hours of Zoom calls, given the pandemic.”

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The goal was to head-off the “somewhat wicked problems with respect to marine planning and land-use planning, which, when not done or done poorly, sometimes manifest into challenges and protests and conflict.”

Throughout, he and a team of public servants headed by deputy minister Lori Halls were mindful of “getting this right with the people that matter most.”

Despite Cullen’s central role in establishing the new ministry, he wasn’t appointed to oversee it as minister. Instead, Horgan reassigned Municipal Affairs Minister Josie Osborne, and appointed Cullen to municipal affairs.

Why didn’t the premier appoint the one who knew the ministry and its challenges in depth? Horgan claimed that he had always had Osborne in mind, which didn’t explain why he didn’t give her the job of pulling together the component parts in the first place.

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But then he gave the real reason for not appointing Cullen.

“Nathan has represented, as an MP, a vast tract of northern B.C. where land-use decisions and challenges on the land base are significant. He is also renowned for his local engagement. As a member of cabinet responsible for permitting, it’s a challenge for him to engage in an impartial way with stakeholders that may have become friends, or, in fact, constituents.

“When you take on a job, you don’t just abandon all the other things in your life,” explained the premier.

In short, Cullen is too close to the issue and, in particular, too close to some of the people with big stakes in land-use decisions.

If you recall his recent accusing letter to the RCMP about its handling of protests in the north, you can see the basis for Horgan’s concern.

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Osborne represents a largish constituency on Vancouver Island. What if a land, water or resource stewardship issue arose there?

“We have processes in government to avoid conflicts like that,” Horgan replied. “We have taken great steps to protect ministers and the people they serve from potential or perceived conflicts when these types of decisions are made.”

Left unsaid was why those processes wouldn’t have been available to protect Cullen if he were minister. I’m guessing his conflicting interests were much broader than anything that might engage Osborne.

But it puts Osborne on a steep learning curve in a ministry that is supposed to be up-and-running by April 1.

Also left unsaid Friday was how the government intends to measure the success of this new venture. The New Democrats have yet to release a service plan for the ministry, which is the usual repository of targets for the year ahead. That is due early next month, including measurable “metrics” by which success or failure can be gauged.

In the interim, the critics have already coined a nickname for the Land, Water and Resource Stewardship ministry. “LandWARS,” they’re calling it, in anticipation that for all the good intentions, the ministry will mostly be presiding over continued conflict concerning the land base.

vpalmer@postmedia.com

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