An 11th-hour decision by the province to veto George Abbott’s appointment as chief commissioner has clouded the BC Treaty Commission with controversy.
Six months ago, former Shuswap MLA and cabinet minister George Abbott was invited by John Rustad, minister for aboriginal relations, to take on the role of chief commissioner of the BC Treaty Commission upon the retirement of Sophie Pierre.
Abbott had accepted the request and began preparing for the job which was to have begun April 1 by putting his business affairs on hold.
He had First Nations and federal support and believed BC Cabinet approval was forthcoming, albeit in a much slower fashion than anticipated.
But last Wednesday and already in transition talks with the commission, Abbott received a call from Rustad informing him he had been unable to secure cabinet approval.
A former member of the BC Liberal cabinet, Abbott twice held aboriginal portfolios.
He says he was shocked and disappointed by cabinet’s last-minute refusal.
“It’s not what I expected to hear,” he said, explaining First Nations ratified his appointment in October and the federal government was ready to add their approval, pending a nod from the province. “I checked with the minister (Rustad) on a number of occasions, obviously concerned when I didn’t hear anything after a couple of months.”
But Abbott, who ran against Premier Christy Clark in the 2011 leadership race, says he was continually reassured his appointment was in process and the delay was not about him personally.
“Now I think it probably was about me; that would be my best guess,” he says. “No one has said that, but I have to assume it.”
With a passion for First Nations issues and expertise garnered in his provincial tenure and doctoral level studies, Abbott says the appointment would have been more than a job.
“Once one understands the aboriginal history in Canada, it is difficult not to agree governments and society have some responsibility for remediating the impact of historical destructive policies,” he says, noting his great grandparents acquired land on the Prairies through the process of preemption, while First Nations got reservations and were excluded from politics and law until 1960. “I, at least, recognize I have to do whatever I can, whenever I can, to remediate those destructive policies.”
Abbott has received a wave of support – including from the province’s NDP, which called for his immediate reinstatement.
“I have heard from a number of aboriginal leaders who are quite disappointed and, in some cases, quite distressed,” said Abbott.
Shock and support have also been offered in the Shuswap.
Cindy Derkaz, North Okanagan-Shuswap federal Liberal candidate, says she was disappointed.
“Six months ago we heard he had been approached and I thought he would be absolutely excellent,” she says, lauding Abbott’s experience, knowledge and reputation. “George is held in high regard and did a lot of good stuff… I think it’s a loss for the treaty process.”
Grateful for the outpouring of support, Abbott says he is sad rather than angry and more concerned about how the treaty process will play out.
“This is not for me a personal loss; this for me is a great disappointment,” he said. “This is something I very much wanted to do, on a file I feel very passionate about and one I won’t be assisting in moving forward.”
Abbott has left the door open, saying if the province reconsiders, he would accept.
“In many instances I might be disappointed enough to say ‘no, I’m moving on,’ but in this case, I feel a responsibility for taking these files forward,” he says, calling the treaty process a historical mission. “And I still want to do it. If I am invited three months from now or three years from now, I would take it on.”
The province has said nothing but issued a press release Friday, saying the government “will work with the principals to appoint a chief commissioner and ensure that the work of the BC Treaty Commission goes on.”