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(David Parkins For the Globe and Mail)
(David Parkins For the Globe and Mail)

B.C. Liberals turn backs on First Nations issue Add to ...

Six years ago, the Maa-nulth treaty was ratified by the B.C. legislature with a grand ceremony to mark the rare achievement of reaching a modern-day land claims settlement. But implementation – that’s a sticky thing.

The treaty took effect on April 1, 2011, and still the province hasn’t gotten around to registering most of the land that has been promised. Of the 22,000 hectares that is to be handed over, only 15 per cent has been surveyed and legally transferred.

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Sometimes, getting to “yes” is a slow process. But Premier Christy Clark’s government is in a hurry – racing to complete industry deals to take advantage of international demand for liquefied natural gas (LNG).

In her mandate letter to her new minister for aboriginal relations, John Rustad, the Premier makes it clear to him that his top priority is helping secure these huge projects that will bring natural gas from the northeast corner of the province to the coast for processing and export. Along those routes, there are roughly 40 First Nations communities. And, as the executives at Enbridge are learning, B.C.’s First Nations hold considerable clout when it comes to the development of the province’s natural resources.

“Your role will be to ensure First Nations critical to securing LNG are participating and benefiting from this opportunity,” the Premier’s instructions state. There is a brief mention – just one line in three pages – that suggests securing treaties is part of Mr. Rustad’s portfolio.

For more than a century, the provincial government wouldn’t even take part in treaty-making. That changed 23 years ago, but interest in the file has waxed and waned. For the past two years, the Clark government has shown a preference for non-treaty benefit agreements – the quick wins of the aboriginal relations file.

There is a telling detail about this government’s attitude, buried in the 10,000 pages of documents that were dumped online earlier this month related to the ethnic outreach scandal that emerged just before the provincial election.

The documents show the genesis for the province’s multicultural initiative began with a draft plan, dated September, 2011, aimed to build inclusive workplaces and public institutions. The “All of Us” strategy included plans for engaging with First Nations communities and teaching aboriginal culture in schools.

Months later, the Premier’s senior political aides took over the file. Their version of ethnic outreach only targeted ethnic voting blocks in swing ridings where the B.C. Liberal party could gain support. First Nations issues disappeared.

That oversight is not a recipe for reconciliation and relationship-building. “I think most First Nations would reflect negatively on such a crass way of dealing with their issues,” NDP Leader Adrian Dix observed. “It’s obviously a fundamental issue that this government doesn’t seem to get.” During the election campaign, Mr. Dix had identified First Nations issues as a priority. He wanted to sit down with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to talk about how to reignite the treaty process in B.C.

But it is Mr. Rustad’s file now. His list of tasks from the Premier is lengthy: He is supposed to land 10 non-treaty agreements in two years, boost aboriginal participation in skills training, push First Nations clean energy projects, and of course advance economic development in mining, forestry and oil and gas.

In an interview, Mr. Rustad maintained that treaties are at the top of his to-do list: “The most important thing we can do with First Nations is to bring about certainty with a treaty.” But, he added, “treaties take time, so the non-treaty agreements, those economic development agreements, are the second part of the agenda we are going to be focused on.”

Sophie Pierre, chief commissioner of the B.C. Treaty Commission, is concerned that the short-term focus will take away from efforts to achieve treaties. The commission argues that the province will gain billions of dollars in economic development by achieving certainty through settlement of land claims.

“It is a lesson that needs to be learned over and over – governments of the day must be speaking about long-term solutions with First Nations, not these quick, flash-in-the-pan plans,” she said. “The true measure of reconciliation is implementing treaty.”

And by implementing, she means delivering on what the province has promised. Mr. Rustad could make a fine start by finishing the job with the Maa-nulth.

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