Vaughn Palmer: Protesters' betrayal leaves 'good faith' Fraser looking a tad foolish
OPINION: Premier Horgan signalled a growing frustration with the protests that have dogged his government and depressed his approval rating throughout the spring session. Other New Democrats fell back on the defence that if Scott Fraser was a dupe, at least he was a well-meaning one
VICTORIA — When cabinet minister Scott Fraser invited protesters into the legislature this week only to discover they wouldn’t leave, even some New Democrats asked “what was he thinking?”
The minister’s invited guests staged a sit-in at one of the legislature committee rooms, eating pizza (passed to them through a window by their fellow protesters) and generally enjoying themselves at Fraser’s expense.
Victoria city police had to be called in to remove the intransigents, a task that took several hours because officers had to navigate a gauntlet of protesters gathered outside the buildings.
Ironically, the NDP minister chose to admit the protesters at a time when the legislature was closed to the public for the second week in a row, owing to concerns about the presence of those same protesters at the front steps and driveway.
Fraser, the cabinet minister for Indigenous relations and reconciliation, spent much of Thursday’s question period trying to explain himself to a skeptical audience that included all of the B.C. Liberals and some of his colleagues.
He told the house the meeting had been requested by the protesters. He agreed to meet with a delegation of a half dozen or so Indigenous youth, hoping to share with them the recent rights and title agreement he’d helped negotiate with the Wet’suwet’en people.
The delegation pressured him to oppose the Coastal GasLink pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory, the focus of their protests.
When he refused to do so, they decided to stay, in violation of what Fraser regarded as a commitment to leave when the meeting was over.
“I’m deeply disappointed that they broke their word,” said Fraser, a line he would repeat more than once in defending himself.
Disappointed, maybe. But he should not have been surprised. As Opposition House Leader Mary Polak pointed out, “these are the same protesters that promised, when they first set up their camp, that they would leave in five days. They did not. They promised that they would not light a fire. They broke that promise, too.
“I have a really difficult time understanding how someone with good judgment would believe that they would keep their commitment to leave the room.”
Fraser fell back on the defence that he prefers to operate in good faith. “That is the approach I have always taken as minister, and I stand by that.”
Polak then asked whether he’d cleared his plan to invite the protesters into the building with Premier John Horgan. “because in spite of our many disagreements, I’m pretty sure your premier wouldn’t have shown that kind of bad judgment.”
Fraser side stepped the question twice, instead saying “I made the decision,” which pretty much confirmed he had not consulted the premier’s office before going ahead.
He did claim to have discussed his plan “with the Speaker and the sergeant-at-arms.” That bought an artful response from Alan Mullen, chief of staff to Speaker Darryl Plecas.
Mullen confirmed that Fraser had consulted those offices before time, but hinted they had not welcomed the prospect of letting the protesters in the building.
“We in the Speaker’s office, as well as the sergeant-at-arms, as well as the ministry staff, had reservations about that,” Mullen told reporters.
But having let that cat out of the bag, he then provided a modicum of cover for the credulous minister: “But, ultimately, if you’re going to operate in good faith, which I believe the minister was, you trust what people say. Obviously that trust was betrayed.”
Mullen also signalled that the Speaker’s patience was running out with the encampment at the front of the buildings.
“We’re not OK with continuing to erect tents and light fires,” he said, referring to a couple of the more disruptive aspects of the protest.
Whether taking the hints or not, the protesters did break camp later in the day. Should they return, they might face a ban against fires, tents and other installations.
As for Fraser, the premier did try to provide some cover for his beleaguered minister at the end of question period Thursday.
“I have full support in the minister of Indigenous relations looking for an off-ramp in a very difficult situation. I believe that the right steps were taken,” Horgan told the house, stopping short of saying he had approved those steps in advance.
Unlike the minister, the premier “personally apologized to the Victoria police department for the situation they found themselves in.”
Horgan then challenged the Liberals to say what they would do.
When Opposition members fired back that for starters, they would not have let the protesters into the building, Horgan let slip his own view: “Is the mob outside helpful? I would suggest not.”
The mob. With one word, Horgan signalled a growing frustration with the protests that have dogged his government and depressed his approval rating throughout the spring session.
Other New Democrats fell back on the defence that if Fraser was a dupe, at least he was a well-meaning one.
Did Fraser himself realize how gullible he looked? When I asked him, he replied “well, you could try selling me something,” making light of the question.
But it is no joke when a minister of the Crown is so easily fooled. For all Fraser’s good intentions, he has hurt his credibility the next time he has to persuade British Columbians that he has negotiated a good deal on their behalf.