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How to understand modern British Columbia

Mark Milke: Mark Milke: "Capitalist vs. socialist" used to be the shorthand for understanding BC issues and politics. That's no longer the case.
Luca Camaiani/Shutterstock

If you want to understand the recent history of British Columbia, it helps to set aside free enterprise/socialist ideological battles that originated in the 1930s, and instead grasp that for some time now, the province’s idea currents have been more affected by two other major developments.

The first is the rise of an environmental movement since the 1970s that has been both beneficial and harmful at the same time; and second, the increasing number of pro-Indigenous court judgements.

Some history: With the rise of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) party in the 1930s in Western Canada—the precursor to today’s New Democratic Party (NDP) – interventionist socialist economics challenged the dominant classical liberal assumptions that had been around since at least Confederation. That included a presumption of free enterprise, moderate and low taxation, and minimal government intervention.

From Wacky Bennett to Bill: Free enterprise BC

That battle between free enterprise and interventionism raged for decades. The most obvious was W.A.C. Bennett (Social Credit premier between 1952 and 1972 and nicknamed “Wacky” though shrewd as a fox)) who famously attacked “godless socialists.” After BC’s New Democrats under Premier Dave Barrett ruled for a brief period between 1972 and 1975, the battle between socialism and free enterprise continued in the 1970s and into the 1980s under WAC’s son, Bill Bennett, premier between 1975 and 1986.

However, in retrospect, it’s clear that the 1970s were the high-water mark for interventionism of the clearly socialist variety. It was Bill Bennett, for example, who first experimented with privatization in the late 1970s, selling off previously government-owned businesses that never should have been nationalized in the first place.

That policy, which put business back where it belonged in the private sector, was embraced by governments worldwide in the 1980s and 1990s with railways, airlines, mines, and energy firms sold off.

Privatization, slimmer government (which Bennett also pioneered with an early restraint program on government spending after the 1983 election), deregulation, and tax relief all began to erode the interventionist policies that been in play worldwide since the 1930s.

Tired interventionists eclipsed by enthusiastic green and Indigenous activists

That was then. Few politicians today would seriously suggest governments should own and run airlines, railways, mining firms, or high-tech companies.

British Columbia today is impacted by two issues that have long transcended the previous free enterprise versus socialism divide. One is environmentalism, which also matters worldwide to politics; the other is Indigenous issues.

Green issues have risen in importance ever since Greenpeace was founded in Vancouver in 1971 and other like-minded organizations local and international arose. The environmental movement has been both beneficial and harmful – though that depends on specific issues.

For instance, few Canadians would think any extraction or industrial activity should proceed without any regulation or safeguards or reinvestment. I once planted trees for three summers precisely because it is reasonable to require forestry companies to plant trees on land previously harvested.

But the divide on environmental issues shows up when green matters become a battle between purists who reflexively oppose extraction, or development, or transportation of the same (—think here of reflexive opposition to the development of BC’s natural gas reserves)—and pragmatists. The latter grasp how resources, be they harvested trees, coal, oil, natural gas, and mining in general, underpin modern life.

The Delgamuukw earthquake

Similarly, the other major change in the idea and political landscape in British Columbia has been the rise of Indigenous rights as pronounced by courts. The landscape shift began with the Supreme Court of Canada decision on Delgamuukw, in 1997.

Prior to Delgamuukw, courts and governments took the position that aboriginal title to land had been extinguished during the colonial period and that even without treaties, much of British Columbia’s land base could then be subject to federal and provincial legislation and policy regardless of the local First Nation governments, who were treated akin to municipalities; that is, not constitutionally consequential.

Post-Delgamuukw, everything changed. Subsequent court judgments and political attempts to address the same are akin to environmental issues. There have been winners and losers including among Indigenous British Columbians.

For example, it is clear that some First Nations that have prospered because of Delgamuukw. They are the ones who have capitalized on the requirement to take into account various rights on their land or even the notion of vaguely defined rights on traditional territory. The Haisla First Nation is a useful example, where it was able to negotiate equity stakes with natural gas companies.

But there’s a flipside here just as there is on environmental issues: Others can clog up the development pipeline—literally.

When the Blueberry First Nation in northern BC won a court case in BC Supreme Court last July alleging it had not been consulted enough on its traditional territory, and when the provincial government declined to appeal, the knock-on effect of that was that the province halted all permitting on all lands, direct or traditional, while they figured out next steps.

Then there is the not inconsequential issue of the court judgment which has been described by one law firm as granting a “veto” over development on traditional First Nations lands.

Be careful what you wish for: More “wins” in court can equal no investment

That seems like a win for some – but that’s not the same as a win for the wider population, including Indigenous British Columbians. This enthusiasm by some First Nations for ever-more court interventions that will have a wider, dampening effect upon resource development, just as with too-enthusiastic greens—though that’s exactly the point of the latter.

In fact, Blueberry First Nation’s win could affect existing and future LNG export possibilities from British Columbia. If natural gas exploration, extraction and transportation is stymied in northeastern British Columbia, there goes the win that coastal First Nations have secured.

This dampening effect in another sector, mining, was obvious when the Tsilhqot'in First Nation won a court case against Taseko Mines’ plan for a proposed $1.5 billion copper/gold mine near Williams Lake. Stopping that mine was considered positive by those who wished the project dead; but also meant that high-paying resource jobs and tax revenues were foregone.

In parallel, while Blueberry First Nation is not opposed to natural gas development on its traditional land, its leadership may find that a constant resort to the courts is not much of a remedy. Resource companies worldwide have other options and may choose to abandon British Columbia, given the torturous process of investing here, with its zig-zag policies. The losers then will include First Nations peoples who otherwise could work in and profit from resource extraction.

In fact, add to Tsilhqot'in and Blueberry other examples of slowed-down development in BC due to green activism or some First Nations opposition (yet never forget the majority of First Nations in BC are pro-development) and you get modern British Columbia: A province where it is increasingly difficult to get resource projects off the ground, where capital is chased away, and where there are losers and winners among all British Columbians. That includes those of Indigenous ancestry.

Mark Milke wears many hats and one is that of an author. His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations. He is also is president of The Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy, a new think tank set for launch later this year.