Premier Gordon Campbell is not a man to conjure up feelings of warmth and deep sympathy, even among those who support him politically and financially. But looking back at the evolution he has gone through on First Nations issues during his eight years in office, one has to feel some empathy for the man, given the way the recognition and reconciliation legislation has fallen apart just a few months before the Olympics open and media from around the world turn their attention to British Columbia.
Campbell, you may recall, came to office in 2001 vowing to hold a referendum on First Nations treaty negotiations, which had started in 1992 and produced no tangible results.
Those who took part in the 2002 referendum were presented with eight "principles" proposed to guide the province in treaty negotiations. Pollster Angus Reid called the referendum "one of the most amateurish, one-sided attempts to gauge the public will that I have seen in my professional career." Many people destroyed their ballots. Of those who took part, more than 80 per cent voted in favour of the eight principles, a result that was for all practical purposes a foregone conclusion.
Still, despite its obvious flaws, the referendum was the starting point for Campbell's efforts to include First Nations in British Columbia's governance. It led to his 2005 promise to give First Nations a greater role in land use, revenue sharing and other decisions within their traditional territories. That promise led some First Nations leaders to endorse Campbell during the 2005 election.
But few wheels grind as slowly as treaty negotiations. By early 2008 Ed John, head of the First Nations Summit, Stewart Phillip, leader of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, and Shawn Atleo, then of the B.C. region of the Assembly of First Nations (and now national chief of the AFN), wrote to Campbell asking him to bring forward recognition legislation as a sign of his commitment to the new relationship with First Nations.
As the Vancouver Sun's Vaughan Palmer recalled last week, Campbell agreed to talks, but with little to show after many months of discussion the native leaders became impatient over the lack of progress.
Last November, the premier agreed to "a high level political discussion" led by Mike de Jong, the minister for aboriginal relations and government house leader. But it took until February of this year before the parties could agree on a discussion paper outlining what should be in the recognition legislation.
The discussion paper that took more than a year to draft generated some serious concern among Campbell's strongest supporters, the business community. "The paper envisioned a bill that would override all other provincial legislation regarding land use, planning and resource management. Natives would gain shared decision-making and greater access to provincial revenues generated within their traditional territories," according to Palmer.
The business community's concerns slowed the drafting of legislation, but after the Liberals won another majority in May, the native leaders took the paper on the road - where the response was underwhelming. Among the native community's objections was the suggestion that the more than 200 First Nations in B.C. be "reconstituted" to about 30 indigenous nations, a proposal that came from the native leaders involved in drafting the paper. Those same leaders were also criticized for proceeding without a proper mandate from their people.
Last month, after a three-day assembly of more than 200 chiefs from across the province, John and Phillip declared the recognition legislation "dead."
But more than that, a task force was struck at the Assembly of Chiefs to consider "assertive strategies on the ground" to advance First Nations' rights. Phillip said there was constant reference to the Olympics at the assembly, although he distanced himself from the more militant First Nations groups that have vowed to disrupt the Games.
"We need to decide where we go from here," Phillip told the Globe and Mail. "There are scores of high-level, grandiose projects that are not accommodating the aboriginal title of our communities and tribal groups.
"We can't sit idly by and watch this continual generation of wealth, while our communities sink deeper and deeper into poverty."
Indeed, First Nations do need to decide where they go from here - here being the rejected recognition legislation that Phillip, John and Atleo helped lead them to.
And for all his faults, they are unlikely to find a premier more willing to work with First Nations on issues than Campbell.
First Nations art will be one of the enduring images of the 2010 Games and the stories of British Columbia's native people - from the Four Host First Nations, to residents of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, to entrepreneurs like the Osoyoos - will be told many times over.
But the Olympics will have the world's attention for a brief few weeks. It's British Columbians who need to pay more attention to First Nations issues and efforts toward reconciliation and recognition. If the relationship doesn't advance uncertainty and lost opportunities will continue to dog the province and First Nations.