Alarmed at growing divisions in British Columbia over native land claims, Premier Glen Clark is sending his top negotiator back to the table today with instructions to quickly conclude a historic treaty with the Nisga'a people. Clark said he hopes there is a final agreement with the Nisga'a this year, which would result in the first such treaty signed in B.C. in a century.
This new urgency over the Nisga'a talks, which resume today in Vancouver, stems from December's landmark Supreme Court decision on another land- claims case known as Delgamuukw. That judgment regarding the land claims of the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en has raised the expectations of aboriginal people across the province who are seeking treaty settlements. It has also increased the anxiety of many non-natives fearful that future land-claim settlements will prove unaffordable for B.C. taxpayers.
"I have to confess to being increasingly alarmed at the prospects of not settling, and at the polarization that is taking place," Clark said in an interview Sunday with The Vancouver Sun. "I think there is a window here before things get really polarized . . . to see if we can't make a historic breakthrough."
For the first time in the two years he has been premier, Clark offered his analysis of treaty-making in B.C., painting it as an issue that is now central to his government's agenda. The deputy minister for aboriginal affairs, Jack Ebbels, has been assigned full-time to these talks, and he has cabinet approval for new proposals to present to the Nisga'a on some key outstanding issues.
"There are two or three really tough issues left which are extremely hard, where the polarization is almost absolute," Clark said. "The governments are going to have to make some decisions, some compromises, and so are the Nisga'a."
Although he is negotiating with the business community on how to improve the province's investment climate, Clark gave notice Sunday that there will be no deal with the Nisga'a using the language of certainty that many third-party interests maintain is necessary. Certainty, or extinguishment, means that once a treaty is signed, First Nations cannot return with further demands. The Nisga'a refuse to accept the position of private-sector interests and the Opposition Liberals that they "cede, surrender and release" any future claims. Clark confirmed there will be alternative wording proposed in this week's talks: "I am now strongly of the view that we must find other language if we want to get a deal."
Another potentially explosive issue is the extent of Nisga'a self- government that Ottawa and Victoria will agree to. Critics don't want aboriginal government to reach beyond the powers of municipal government, which is subordinate to provincial and federal governments.
With two decades of treaty talks behind them, the Nisga'a are outside the treaty process that currently encompasses more than 50 native bands across the province. Two years ago, the Nisga'a reached an agreement in principle with the federal and provincial governments. But Clark, who was just taking over as premier, stopped short of pursuing a final deal in favour of public consultation.
Despite the Delgamuukw decision, which strengthens aboriginal title, the Nisga'a have resisted the temptation to walk away from the negotiating table and take their chances on a better deal in the courts. "The Nisga'a deserve enormous credit. When Delgamuukw came out, many aboriginal people were euphoric, as if they had won everything," Clark said. "The Nisga'a didn't take long before they came back and said, 'Look, the court decision does have an impact, it changes things, it is very supportive of the aboriginal view, but we have signed an agreement in principle and we are prepared to see this through.' "
Signing a treaty with the Nisga'a will help reduce the tensions created by the Delgamuukw decision, but Clark said longterm certainty will require broad public support. "Passing the Nisga'a treaty is not going to end it. We have to actually win the debate," he said. "In other words, this is one of those issues where the government majority is not enough to sustain the momentum and the policy changes that can 'fix' this problem."
He chastised the Liberal Opposition for taking a less conciliatory position on the question of extinguishment. "It is distinctly unhelpful. It really drives a political posture which leads to greater polarization on this issue," Clark said. "We have got to find a way to bridge this and they have chosen to say they are not prepared to find a way to bridge this."
Clark said he is optimistic, however, that the public will understand the need for accommodating the Nisga'a. "If it becomes a question of whether there should be compromise to deal with this historic injustice and settle it to move things forward, then we'll win. I'm convinced of that."
Some facts about Nisga'a treaty negotiations
- The Nisga'a have spent 120 years fighting for recognition of their land rights.
- 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 have also agreed to phase out tax-exempt status and deal with fisheries issues in a side-agreement lacking the treaty's constitutional protection.