Aboriginal Affairs minister says government and First Nations want to build partnerships
By Jonathan Fowlie, Vancouver Sun
First elected in 2005, John Rustad spent his first two terms as a backbencher. But after the Liberals won this year, Premier Christy Clark named the MLA for Nechako Lakes as her minister of aboriginal relations and reconciliation. Rustad sat down with The Vancouver Sun recently in his Victoria office to discuss his new job and the opportunities that he thinks lie ahead for First Nations.
Q. You were an MLA for eight years before this. What are your reflections on what a private member can do?
A. There is no how-to manu al, there is no set process. Everybody finds a different way to get things done. Some people are in banging on doors — just very persistent about things — and some people have a more gentle approach. I’ve always tried to take the approach that you’re not going to get to “yes” on everything, so you try to work on the issues you think you can get wins with and try to advance the ones you may have an opportunity down the road to advance.
Q. There were many cabinet shuffles when you didn’t get the call. You got the call this time. What was that like for you personally?
A. I always recognized that we had two very strong ministers right next door to my riding, with Pat Bell and Shirley Bond. So I knew it would be challenging to crack into the cabinet situation with those two ministers there. So you go through the ups and downs of wanting to be there and the disappointment when you don’t get there. When the premier asked me to step up and be part of cabinet, I have to admit it was very exciting. I was very honoured. But also it was quite humbling because I recognize what that also means in terms of the work, in terms of the commitment and in terms of the expectations.
Q. One of the big pushes of government is LNG (liquefied natural gas) and a lot of those pipelines are destined to go through your riding. Do you think that’s part of why this portfolio makes sense for you, in terms of discussing what the ramifications are with First Nations?
A. We have to remember there are 203 bands across the province so there’s 40 or 50 that are impacted across northern B.C. in terms of LNG. So the ministry has a mandate provincewide, but certainly in terms of moving forward on LNG, that is one of our high priorities. I think my relationship with them will be helpful in terms of trying to move forward with these opportunities. There was an interesting phrase that was put forward by one of the leadership groups that talked about a “shared prosperity” as LNG moved forward, as these resource development projects go forward. That’s something I think is a great idea in terms of how all of the people of the province should be able to benefit – First Nation and non First Nation – and share in the prosperity that can come from LNG.
Q. You’ve spoken in favour of Enbridge Northern Gateway. Is that creating any friction or will it affect your ability to deal with First Nations who are very much opposed to the project?
A. I had to chuckle because that came up as a question during the election campaign. It’s actually a misquote in Black Press. I’ve historically never bothered to correct misquotes as they’ve come out. It gets printed the way it gets printed and then move on. What I said to the people at Black Press is we have five conditions, I walked through those five conditions, and I said if those conditions are met then yes I support the pipeline going through. That got printed as, ‘I support the pipeline.’ During the election it came up and I explained it. My position hasn’t changed on that. If we have the five conditions – one of them being he engagement and process with First Nations – then I support the movement of oil, whether it’s Enbridge or any other project.
Q. What kind of a timeline do you think is reasonable to expect on reaching new treaties with First Nations?
A. I think that with some First Nations we may never get there. With some First Nations, it may go quite quickly. Now that we’ve seen some success with the treaties – the first few treaties coming through as they’re being implemented – people are taking a look at them and we’re actually finding some First Nations approaching us and saying, ‘We want to accelerate the process. If what we’re seeing in those deals is what we can expect, let’s get to it.’ I think the opportunity for success in treaties has been improved, but there’s no questions it’s still going to take time to do to be able to go through and negotiate and get things in place. I sort of look at it as this is an issue that was created over 200 plus years. It’s not going to be resolved in five years. We’ve been at it now for 20 years and we saw limited success as we started moving through. We’re seeing a little bit more success and my hope is momentum can carry, but we’re still 20 years out before we see a significant number of treaties.
Q. What do you think, if anything, is the lasting impact of the Idle No More movement that crossed the country?
A. I’ve been thinking of the Idle No More movement, and this was a topic that I discussed last year on Facebook. My perspective on it is they think the status quo is unacceptable. I couldn’t agree more. We’ve got to find ways to change what the status quo is. If the engagement is in a respectful way from Idle No More, then I think it’s going to be very positive. If it goes beyond that, whether it be starting to break the laws, then I’ve got to say, ‘Hold on here, what are we trying to achieve?’ If this is about civil disobedience, I don’t want any part of it. If this is about wanting to make a change, then I’m fully supportive.
Q. You do use Facebook a lot, and to look at a variety of issues. Do you find that useful and do you learn from that you don’t from other places?
A. It’s like any tool. I’m a large believer in going out and doing town hall meetings, going out and meeting people. This is a way to get a tremendous amount of information back in short order. Facebook for me is a way to put some ideas out there, have some discussion, offer some perspective where it’s appropriate and allow people to generate that discussion and input and it’s been quite successful in terms of that. A lot of people use it to get a message out, but it’s one of the reasons why I don’t use Twitter. I do’t use Twitter because to me that’s just you trying to get you message out there as opposed to Facebook, which is more of an opportunity to engage in a conversation.
Q. When you look at the history of what’s happened, what do you see in terms of what we’ve done right as a province in our dealings with First Nations?
A. In my riding, the former capital of British Columbia was actually Fort St. James. It was a region that used to be called New Caledonia before British Columbia became British Columbia. That community has been in place for more than 200 years – I think it’s 207 years now that it’s been a continuously occupied community. When the Europeans first came and settled in that area they worked very closely in partnership with First Nations, and for the coastal First Nations, when the Europeans first came the first thing the Aboriginal people did was come out and want to trade. That was the beginnings of British Columbia, and then of course we went on and the other things happened and First Nations were relocated and there was all kinds of other issues that have created big problems over time. Those issues are the ones that are creating the kind of challenges we have today. But I would love to get back to the place where we were when we first came here, which is working in partnership, working where those opportunities are and finding a way to go forward together. How to get there? Maybe it’s a pipe dream, but the First Nations people I’ve talked to, they want to get there. We cannot forget the fact that there have been wrongs, that there have been things that have created problems and we’ve got to do what we can to build that reconciliation and to have that moment where we can put that behind us and move forward. But ultimately that’s where I want to be. I want to get us back to where we were, which was in partnership, working together, living together, trying to move forward for the interest of all.