[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.]
The provincial government is close to reaching a final agreement on the historic land claim treaty with B.C.'s Nisga'a people.
Details may be finalized within days or weeks, said Premier Glen Clark, who met personally with negotiators late Monday to iron out the remaining wrinkles.
The landmark treaty, which would still have to ratified, would be the first one signed in B.C. in a century and would provide an important template for future deals with First Nations peoples.
"We're very, very close to an agreement," said Clark. "I want to personally make sure that the Nisga'a know we're committed to this issue and clarify any remaining issues and move the extra mile if we have to to get an agreement."
Clark said this was the first time he'd been involved in a face-to-face, informal meeting with negotiators. "I'm committed, whether it's good politics or not, I'm doing this," he said just before going into the closed-door, secret meeting at a downtown Vancouver hotel.
Inside were half a dozen Nisga'a negotiators -- including Joe Gosnell, head of the Nisga'a tribal council -- and half a dozen government officials, including deputy minister of aboriginal affairs Jack Ebbels. Ebbels has been assigned full-time to finalize the agreement in principal, which was signed two years ago.
Gosnell wouldn't comment on the imminence of a treaty, except to say Clark had suggested a "fireside chat" to frankly discuss the outstanding issues.
Gosnell said there was unfinished business that still needs to be addressed.
Clark said it's important to reach a deal now more than ever to stop polarization over aboriginal rights issues.
The new urgency also comes from December's landmark Supreme Court decision on another land-claims case known as Delgamuukw. That case has broadened the interpretation of aboriginal rights and led to a return to the courts as a venue for resolving native rights disputes.
"In the post-Delgamuukw environment we want to show people we can reach agreements that are mutually beneficial and not through the courts," said Clark. "I'm worried about . . . aboriginal peoples' expectations going up, and resource companies, the opposition and ordinary citizens feeling the need for the hardening of positions."
The Nisga'a tribal council signed an agreement in principle with Victoria and Ottawa nearly two years ago that would give them 1,930 square kilometres of land and $190 million in cash. The Nisga'a also agreed to phase out tax-exempt status and deal with fisheries issues in a side agreement lacking the treaty's constitutional protection.
Among the issues still to be settled are the extent of Nisga'a self-government, as well as so-called "certainty" language which would extinguish the Nisga'a claim to reopen the deal once it is signed.
Clark said certainty language -- which the business community wants -- is one of the remaining issues, but he sidestepped questions about it. "The aboriginal people have legal rights they're exercising and we're trying to codify those rights so they're consistent with the Supreme Court and to provide a foundation for progress, jobs and an end to...aboriginal poverty," he said.
Once an agreement is reached, it must be ratified by the federal government, by the Nisga'a people and by the B.C. government. Clark said it will go to a free vote in the legislature. He said a referendum on the deal is out of the question.
Instead the public will be informed about the decision and may be mailed summaries to stimulate public debate.
"We won't won't rush it through," said Clark, who doesn't think it's likely the treaty will be ratified before the end of this session later this month. Instead, he said it may not be ratified until the fall or next spring. "I want the debate. I'd like British Columbians to be involved in the debate," he said.
Gosnell said the Nisga'a people, who number close to 5,500, must also vote on the deal. About 2,400 Nisga'a people reside in four villages in the remote Nass Valley on B.C.'s northern coast and 3,000 more live in cities such as Vancouver and Prince Rupert.