Jun 20/98: Dramatic change to BC's Treaty process



Sources say officials have agreed on a radical method to speed up land claims that allows tribal groups to control lands while talks to resolve other issues go on

Vancouver Sun
June 20, 1998
Stewart Bell

[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.]

Representatives of the federal government, provincial government and First Nations have agreed that land-claim negotiations must be speeded up -- and Ottawa has proposed a radical plan that aims to accomplish just that, sources close to the talks said Friday.

At a closed-door meeting this week, tribal, federal and provincial officials reached an understanding that the highly-sensitive land and resource portion of treaty talks must be accelerated.

Ottawa and Victoria are to submit a proposal to native chiefs next week on how best to do that. The plan will be voted on at a meeting of the First Nations Summit in North Vancouver starting Wednesday.

Although it's unclear what the governments will propose, a senior official said the federal government is putting forward a new strategy that would dramatically change the way treaties are currently being negotiated.

Under the proposal -- part of an effort to kick-start B.C.'s ailing treaty-making process -- government and tribal leaders would move quickly to identify the lands to be transferred to tribal ownership.

Tribal organizations would then assume control of those lands while talks aimed at resolving the remaining treaty issues (such as cash, self-government, aboriginal courts, museum artifacts and fisheries) continued.

The proposal, called "pre-implementation" because it would see the land part of treaties implemented before the other issues were resolved, is being portrayed by officials as a fast and effective way of resolving ongoing uncertainty over land claims.

First Nations would benefit by gaining earlier access to their treaty lands, allowing them to create jobs and stimulate stagnant reserve economies, while the resource industry would gain by finally knowing which lands are on and off the treaty table.

There's also a carrot for the B.C. government.

Currently, Victoria is to provide the land for treaty settlements and Ottawa will compensate the province with cash once the treaty is finished.

But under the new proposal, Victoria would get cash from Ottawa as soon as a tribe assumed control of its treaty lands, which would be easier on the provincial treasury, sources said.

The plan would use the existing structure of the B.C. Treaty Commission but would involve a radical new approach to negotiations that would require the approval of the federal and provincial cabinets as well as the First Nations Summit, sources said.

The proposal is an attempt to revitalize the effort to resolve the longstanding grievances of B.C. First Nations, which has largely collapsed since December, when the Supreme Court of Canada handed down a decision that liberally defined aboriginal land rights.

Ruling in the Delgamuukw case, the court said tribes have to be consulted about logging, mining and other land-use activities on their ancestral lands -- and in some cases they may even have to give their consent.

The decision has caused widespread confusion in government and the resource industry and has upset the stability that took hold in the province after the B.C. Treaty Commission was established in the early '90s.

Also fueling the pressure for changes to the treaty process are concerns about its slow pace.

Although four dozen tribal groups are involved in negotiations, the talks have yet to produce a single treaty after five years.

Federal, provincial and tribal officials met Thursday to discuss ways of getting treaty negotiations back on track. The First Nations Summit, which represents bands in treaty talks, said the meeting was "encouraging."

Meanwhile, the provincial government is said to be upset about the treaty commission's 1997 annual report, which is to be released Tuesday. The province has sent a letter to land claims officials complaining about how the report interprets the Delgamuukw decision and characterizes the state of treaty talks, as well as the departure of chief treaty commission Alex Robertson.

Robertson left the job after the provincial cabinet refused to renew his contract for another full term, prompting Robertson and the commission to question the province's commitment to the treaty process. The provincial government said it wanted to renew Robertson for 60 days, while it reviewed the future of the treaty negotiations.

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