[S.I.S.I.S. note: The following mainstream news article may contain biased or distorted information and may be missing pertinent facts and/or context. It is provided for reference only.]
A bold expression of optimism crept into aboriginal land claims negotiations this week, inspiring hope, agreement, incredulity, disdain and fear among various players at the well-worn bargaining table.
The hullabaloo revolves around the notion that land and resource claims could be negotiated and settled quickly -- and separately -- from other treaty concerns, such as self-government and cash settlements. But the real interest lay in the suggestion by John Watson, the regional director of Indian Affairs, that an agreement from federal, provincial and First Nations members of a Tripartite Committee on treaty negotiations on so-called "fast-tracking" might be possible by the end of the summer.
The note of optimism that Watson dared to sound was that once the agreement is achieved, provincial and federal cabinet approval may follow swiftly, and land could conceivably be parcelled out to First Nations over the following year -- even if treaties have not been negotiated or signed. Optimistically, this could mean as much as 25 to 50 per cent of the eventual settlement lands for the 30 B.C. bands who are already in the "agreement in principle stage" of the negotiation process, he said. (Fifty bands are now negotiating treaties.) "That's more a speculative number than an informed one," he admits.
But it was not one that shocked Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart, whose attitude was basically: Why not? "These negotiations have been going on for years. We're getting better and better at understanding the process," she says. "People wring their hands and say: 'What are we going to do? What are we going to do?'
"But we're doing it. We have been doing it," she says. "The B.C. Treaty Commission process speaks directly to that, and all we're doing now is trying to fine-tune it and do a better job."
The possibility of fast-tracking isn't a surprise to First Nations negotiators.
The question Chief Joe Mathias of the Squamish Nation had was more along the lines of: What's taking so long? Aboriginals introduced the concept of fast tracking, calling it "interim measures" to the tripartite group on treaty-making in 1991, says Mathias, an elected member of the First Nations Summit that represents bands involved in treaty negotiations. "All parties have agreed that that is a fundamental element of treaty negotiations," he says, asking why cabinet federal and provincial approval has not been forthcoming. "What we're suggesting is land and resources should be put front and centre and get cabinet approval and mandates to negotiate them as soon as possible," he says.
The First Nations concern is that, to date, government negotiators have said they do not have the mandate to negotiate land or resource issues. Meanwhile, the provincial government is opening up territory for logging, damming and other resource-related issues without consulting First Nation bands, he says. "We're worried that by the time the final treaty is done, for many First Nations there will be no land or resources on the table because the government has turned around and [transferred] them to third parties," he says. "We've got to make it clear that the federal and provincial cabinets should provide the mandate to deal with land and resources as quickly as possible. That's the acceleration we're talking about."
Chief Gail Sparrow of the Musqueam band says she is suspicious of the government's new emphasis on fast-tracking. "They want an accelerated process so they can get out of having to settle the real issues of what a treaty is all about," she says.
But Mathias says fast-tracking would in no way remove the other issues from the treaty table. "We're not interested in limiting the scope of our negotiations. But we believe that interim measures negotiated on land and resources should proceed now and proceed quickly."
Stewart believes that if the B.C. government can achieve one agreement, the entire treaty process will snowball.
Roslyn Kunin, executive director of The Laurier Institution, a think-tank that specializes in multicultural issues, agrees and doesn't find it far-fetched. If Premier Glen Clark's promise that the Nisga'a treaty will be signed shortly comes true, the effect could have far-reaching impact on other negotiations, says Kunin, a specialist on the treaty process. "If you can get part of all the treaties and all of at least one of the treaties actually signed, I think that will make the path much smoother for those that are following on afterward and that should shorten the time frame."
Ken Georgetti of the B.C. Federation of Labour, who is labour's observer on the tripartite committee, has faith the fast-track deal can be reached because of the seniority of the committee's membership. "If they stay at the table at that level, I'm optimistic." There's too much "economic uncertainty" at stake not to fast-track, says Georgetti.
The province agrees a fast-track agreement could tip the balance on treaty negotiations. "I take some comfort from the notion that if we can demonstrate our ability to achieve modern treaties in this province, by even one, that will help considerably to achieve others," aboriginal affairs minister Dale Lovick says. That's why the Nisga'a agreement is so important to achieve quickly. "It would be clear evidence that you can indeed achieve a modern treaty and it can be done in a way that will be demonstrated to be good for all of us, First Nations and ourselves alike." But Lovick doesn't see a fast-track deal in the works for this fall. "To be blunt...it's not a realistic assessment." There are too many issues about how the deal would function, he says.
One of the issues in the past has been reimbursement from the federal government to the province for Crown lands it gives up to settle land claims. Still, the federal government appears ready to move on those issues to kick-start the process. The government would likely approve a fast-tracking of monies to the province in exchange for the lands, Watson says. The current provincial-federal agreement says the province is reimbursed every five years after each treaty is signed (The two parties have an agreement to share 50-50 the costs of land and cash given to First Nations in treaties). Watson says that could be done annually, and it could be done upon transfer of lands, rather than waiting until a final treaty is signed.
The impetus for the fast-tracking is economic, Kunin says. "Parties on all sides of the table are beginning to realize that not having settled treaties is really, really hurting us. It is not just hurting the First Nations people. It is hurting everybody in this province because all our land-based activity -- which is all our resources -- are, in effect, being put on hold."
That comes as a result of last December's Delgamuukw ruling, which said tribes must be consulted about logging, mining and other land-use activities on their ancestral lands -- even if a treaty hasn't been signed.
Jerry Lampert of the Business Council of B.C., who is business' observer on the tripartite committee, isn't optimistic that a deal can be worked out by the end of the summer. But, he says, business and industry are totally behind the concept. "Anything that can bring about more [economic] certainty will be embraced by us at the moment. If it's fast-track, let's get on with it."