BRITISH COLUMBIA
05/28/2014 03:47 EDT | Updated 07/28/2014 05:59 EDT

B.C. government emails show disdain for Agricultural Land Reserve

VICTORIA - On a day when B.C. Premier Christy Clark's government held a ceremony to recognize the 100th anniversary of a racist government policy denying entry to Canada to a group from India, one of her caucus members issued an apology for writing inappropriate emails about First Nations people.

"Unacceptable," Clark said Wednesday about statements made by Pat Pimm, the Liberal MLA for Peace River North and former minister of agriculture.

"They don't reflect government's policy, government's direction," she said. "Our direction as a government is to say we want to include First Nations in the resource development and the resource boom that we are bringing to this province."

Pimm's comments were contained in a series of two-year-old emails about British Columbia's Agricultural Land Reserve, the 1970s-era legislation protecting farmland which has been the subject of contentious debate in the legislature for weeks.

The Agriculture Land Commission Amendment Act is slated to become law Thursday, splitting the land reserve into two zones, making it easier to use farmland in the Kootenays and northern B.C. for other purposes such as oil and gas development.

Opposition New Democrat agriculture critic Nicholas Simons said the emails between key players in the Liberal government's bid to weaken the ALR law shows how long the plan to change the law has been in the works.

Pimm's July 2012 email to the Agricultural Land Commission chairman Richard Bullock and several Liberals like current Energy Minister Bill Bennett and former agriculture minister Don McRae indicates the push to make changes started at least two years ago. Bennett is spearheading a review of the land commission

"Who the hell is running this province anyways," said Pimm's email that goes on to state opportunities to make changes are being ignored while First Nations get more government money "which doesn't get me one vote."

Pimm, who has taken a leave from his political duties to recover from cancer surgery, issued a statement of apology.

"I deeply regret and apologize for my comments in regards to First Nations that appeared in the Globe and Mail (newspaper) today," said the two paragraph statement. "They were inappropriate and wrong, and do not in any way reflect the policy of our government, which has been working with First Nations to make sure B.C.’s First Nations are full participants in our economy."

Bennett, in a July 30, 2012 email to then agriculture minister McRae, presses for a boundary review that would re-examine agricultural land in his Kootenay East riding.

"No one up here is trying to undercut the ALR," said Bennett's email. "We just want what we were promised when the ALR was first created, a boundary review to ensure land within the reserve is actually worth 'protecting' for agriculture."

NDP Leader John Horgan said Clark placed Bennett and Pimm in positions of power knowing both politicians favoured making ALR changes.

"I think that Mr. Bennett has a good deal to answer for," said Horgan. "He said categorically he did not have an axe to grind, but clearly he's been grinding an axe for about a decade now."

Bennett said he has always been clear that he favoured an overhaul of the land commission.

"There's really not very much new here folks," he said.

Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick rejected NDP calls to withdraw the current ALR amendment act until more public consultations are held. Letnick said changes to the proposed law were introduced that further reinforce the independence of the land commission.

Both Bennett and Letnick said Pimm's email comments about First Nations people were unfortunate and regrettable and do not reflect the views of the Liberal government.

The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs issued a statement calling Pimm's comments "repugnant, reprehensible and downright racist."

Former British Columbia New Democrat premier Ujjal Dosanjh — the first Indo-Canadian premier in Canadian history — was one of the dozens of guests at the legislature attending the ceremony marking the arrival of the Komagata Maru at Burrard Inlet in Vancouver.

In May 1914, the 376 passengers from India were not permitted to enter Canada and were sent back to India where they were met with gunfire resulting in 19 deaths.

"We've spent the last 100 years trying to wash this stain away from our history, to get over it, to heal," Clark said.

In 2008, the B.C. politicians made a formal apology to the South Asian community and to the families of the victims of the Komagata Maru incident.