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Les Leyne: Treaty process makes modest progress

Dec 11 2012

The great treaty stall is a known fact of life in B.C.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent over the last 20 years on negotiations that have produced just three treaties.

Dozens of other First Nations are locked in talks with the provincial and federal government that have gone almost nowhere for years on end.

Former premier Gordon Campbell quietly signed a New Relationship manifesto, along with a transformative change accord, in 2005 that looked like a breakthrough. Instead it was the start of a slow, steady slog through an entirely separate bureaucratic process in which the provincial government signs one-offs with individual bands.

But there's a lot more progress in that field than there is at any treaty tables. There are hundreds of such deals now on the books. Some say they are a different avenue toward the same goal of full and final treaties.

Others view them as an end-run around the treaty impasse.

Dallas Smith, president of the Nan-wakolas council of First Nations representing several bands on the north Island and mid-coast, showed up Monday at the legislature with several chiefs to sign another one.

His theme during the signing cere-ony was how much determination it took over the last several years to get the deals done.

Smith said the New Relationship, once a concept that carried a huge amount of freight, got "too politicized and too big."

"They started trying to solve the treaty process and every other problem that existed in the First Nations communities ... through this new relationship."

He said the Nanwakolas bands kept working at building a pre-treaty relationship that is starting to pay dividends.

Some First Nations in B.C. are invested in the treaty process and others are disengaged, so the side deals opened up a rift of sorts in the native leadership.

Smith said the Nanwakolas were worried at the outset. "We felt we were being alienated from some of the other aboriginal groups, because we were signing these progressive agreements in a pre-treaty environment."

Some of them "took it on the chin" from colleagues.

But the leadership's view was: "Stick to your guns, this is the right thing to do."

Smith said: "I just think you've seen an economy grow within the treaty process, and there's a lot of people comfortable with the lack of results in it."

Bands borrowed money to start negotiations in 1993.

"Most of them are $2.5 million in debt now with nothing to show for it."

Some bands in his council are well advanced in treaty talks, others aren't. But the council as a whole is comfortable doing the side deals.

It signed a "clearing house" deal in 2007 to streamline consultation on resource development.

There are a number of logging operations and a handful of proposed independent power deals in a huge swath of territory that are worth up to $6 billion.

Then in 2009, the council was the first to sign a "strategic engagement agreement." It formalized government-to-government consultation on resource projects and provided enough money to hire a dozen people to work on permits.

Monday's event was about a deal to extend the agreement for another three years, with B.C. granting $2.3 million to the council.

It also sets up a forum where resource issues will be discussed, including the prospect of revenue-sharing on major projects in the bands' traditional territories.

Smith said: "More work can be done in the next three years than has been done in the last 20 years in the treaty process."

His pessimism about treaties stems mostly from the federal performance.

"The federal government doesn't recognize what a beautiful, supernatural place B.C. is. They just haven't been able to sit down and accept that First Nations have rights and title in these areas."

Some of the Nanwakolas bands are keen on resource projects, and have signed on as supporters of the power projects.

The obvious question about any three-year deal with a government is: What happens if the government changes?

"Let's not hide away from the fact there's an election coming," Smith said. "We've been through it a few times now and been caught holding the pot at the end of the day."

He credited the Liberals for showing leadership in designing the alternative processes, but said they can "work with whatever government comes in."

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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