[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 B.C. government has been patting itself on the back for the past five years over the way it was working with the federal government and First Nations to resolve the longstanding grievances of the province's native Indian tribes. In one taxpayer-funded brochure, the province said the B.C. Treaty Commission system of negotiating land-claims settlements was "unprecedented and important" and "heralds the beginning of a 'made-in-B.C.' solution." But there are growing fears that, after years of painstaking negotiations in reserve band halls and government office towers across B.C., the provincial government now wants out of the treaty commission.
"There's every appearance that the provincial government would really like to back out of the treaty process," said University of Victoria professor Frank Cassidy, former premier Mike Harcourt's adviser on aboriginal issues.
The latest suggestion that the treaty process may be in jeopardy came May 13 when the B.C. cabinet reneged on a deal to renew the appointment of the head of the treaty commission, Vancouver lawyer Alec Robertson. As a result, the commission - the organization that oversees treaty talks, loans tens of millions of dollars to Indian bands to finance their land claims and referees disputes in negotiations - is without a leader. In an angry letter to Aboriginal Affairs Minister Dale Lovick last week, the normally-reserved Robertson said B.C.'s decision to "decapitate" the commission had sent a "cynical message" about its commitment to the future of the treaty process. The First Nations Summit, which represents Indian bands in treaty talks, issued a statement saying it feared the move was "the first step in dismantling the independent treaty commission. We are seriously questioning whether there is a hidden agenda here."
Lovick challenged that perception, saying he "would like to make very clear that British Columbia is still absolutely and completely committed to the negotiating of treaties process. We have never for a moment deviated from that course. We believe that negotiation is absolutely preferable to litigation and we're doing what we can to ensure that the negotiation process is productive and will work."
When the New Democrats came to power in 1991, resolving land claims was a priority. It was not only the just thing to do, the NDP said, it was necessary to end the blockades and court battles that had paralysed rural B.C. and scared away investors. But the NDP government has changed since then. Faced with a weakening economy, it's become wary of any program with a hefty price tag. Many observers also say Premier Glen Clark lacks the enthusiasm that Harcourt had for the issue. The government now views land claims as a political liability - an issue that will not win them the next election, although it could lose it for them.
As evidence of Victoria's dwindling support for the treaty commission - a system that sets the rules for three-way talks between the federal government, B.C. and First Nations - federal and tribal officials point to a long list of provincial moves they feel have undermined the process. First, B.C. unilaterally declared that land-claim settlements would be capped at five per cent of the provincial land-mass (arguing that was only fair because aboriginal people made up less than five per cent of the population.) Then B.C. mostly ignored pleas from both aboriginal groups and the treaty commission to limit the harvest of resources from Crown lands subject to claims. In fact, the province set up a company to sell off Crown lands, including some that were the subject of claims.
Last year the aboriginal affairs portfolio was combined with labour, meaning the treaty issue no longer had a full-time minister. Then John Cashore was replaced as minister by the junior Dale Lovick. The position of deputy minister has remained vacant since Jack Ebbels left in December to work on the Nisga'a deal. Throughout, the ministry has faced funding and staff cuts. One tribal observer described the over-all effect on the treaty process as "death by a thousand cuts." "They are definitely losing their commitment to the treaty process," said Chief Gail Sparrow of the Musqueam band, who heads the team negotiating a treaty for her large Vancouver-based tribe.
Some observers believe the event that has most put the province off the treaty process was the December 1997 Supreme Court of Canada decision on the Gitxsan land claim, the so-called Delgamuukw decision. The decision has been interpreted as strengthening the aboriginal hand in treaty talks, and observers say that has made the province fear it will face much higher settlement costs than the $10 billion it anticipated.
B.C. is now rethinking its approach to treaties, saying the existing system hasn't worked. But Sparrow believes the province wants to settle quickly for fear it will end up paying more if it continues with the treaty commission process. "They're scared so they want to settle now, get out of it."
Cassidy said B.C. - which under Clark has consistently battled with Ottawa - wants to move towards a new treaty system where the federal government will pay virtually all the costs. "The province is positioning itself so that treaty-making and aboriginal people are a federal responsibility.
- First Nations that have filed statements of intent: 49
- First Nations that have entered negotiations: 39
- Number of framework agreements signed: 33
- Number of agreements in principle signed: 0
- Final agreements signed: 0