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The BC Treaty Commission has stepped in to try to resolve a dispute between native Indian chiefs and the provincial government that has thrown a wrench into aboriginal land-claims negotiations. Chiefs from across BC are angry that the provincial government has started selling off surplus public lands, including some that have been claimed by Indian bands participating in treaty negotiations.
Finance Minister Andrew Petter has instructed the government-owned company WLC Developments to put Crown lands on the market to help reduce the deficit and pay for government programs. But 32 Indian Bands filed a writ in BC Supreme Court last week to stop the land sales, saying they violate the province's duty to ensure adequate land is available for aboriginal treaty settlements. "The concern that's coming forward now is that some of the lands that are the subject of land-claims are being put on the table to sell," Chief Edward John, of the First Nations Summit, said Tuesday.
"There are some discussions about trying to get some way to have this issue resolved without going to court, and that's under way right now," said John, speaking for the bands involved in the court case. In one case, the Nanaimo First Nation was contacted by WLC recently and told that two of the properties they were claiming in treaty talks were to be sold by next year, the band said. John said the land sales demonstrate the seeming lack of commitment to the treaty process on the part of the government of British Columbia and a total disregard for the interest of First Nations."
WLC (Whistler Land Corporation) was established in 1983 to market and develop Crown land at the Whistler ski resort. But facing a budget shortfall, Petter revived the agency this summer and gave it a broad mandate to sell off unoccupied Crown land across the province. The BC government is required to consult with bands before selling Crown Lands within their traditional tribal territories. Peter Smith, communications manager at the ministry of aboriginal affairs, said that will not change now that WLC is marketing lands. The company is currently identifying which Crown Lands should be put up for sale, and treaties will be taken into consideration in the selection of properties, he said.
The ministry is currently reviewing the impact of the lawsuit on the treaty talks. As a general policy, the province won't negotiate treaties with bands that are suing the government over land claims. Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Cashore will speak to chiefs about the issue on Friday. Chiefs from across BC are meeting in North Vancouver this week.