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Workers clear the land at the Kitimat LNG site on the Douglas Channel, which leads to the Pacific Ocean. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Workers clear the land at the Kitimat LNG site on the Douglas Channel, which leads to the Pacific Ocean. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

B.C.'s Premier Clark breaks with decades-long first nations strategy Add to ...

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark is breaking with a decades-long pursuit of treaties with first nations, saying that process has failed to deliver either economic growth for aboriginal communities or security for business investors.

The Premier is directing her government to focus instead on striking economic development deals with native leaders who are willing to do business. Those agreements may include land transfers or revenue-sharing on resources, and in other cases the province will broker deals between private investors and first nations on a project-by-project basis.

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Such deals have emerged on a piecemeal basis in recent years but Ms. Clark has formally adopted the strategy – effectively repudiating the approach of her predecessor, Gordon Campbell, who saw treaty settlements as the means to permanently remove uncertainty over land and resources from B.C.’s business climate.

“Lots of first nations are fed up with waiting for economic development. And frankly so am I,” Ms. Clark said in an interview. “We have to find other ways of getting there sooner.”

In a province where almost the entire land base is subject to aboriginal claims for rights and title, Mr. Campbell sought seismic change to bring about reconciliation with B.C.’s 230 native bands. In contrast, Ms. Clark said she is content to seek small but practical outcomes.

Creating jobs within native communities will help close disturbing gaps in health and economic conditions, she said, but the province also needs to project a soothing message about its investment climate.

The Premier leaves Friday for a trade mission to China where she hopes to persuade investors that B.C. is a safe harbour for their money. Two weeks ago, a delegation of B.C. first nations leaders led their own mission in China to prepare the ground with a different emphasis – that investors should be prepared to accommodate the interests of native peoples if they hope to do business here.

The first nations’ China strategy highlights the challenges Ms. Clark’s fresh approach will face. Although the B.C. government is not walking away from treaty negotiations, some native leaders are worried the policy will leave behind communities where there are no ready investment opportunities.

“This is not a pathway for unleashing the potential of this province,” said Chief Douglas White, leader of the Snuneymuxw First Nation and an executive with the First Nations Summit.

“There may be scenarios where the stars line up and a proponent’s project lines up with a first nation’s interests. But for the most part, the uncertainty and conflict will remain.”

On Sunday, the Occupy Vancouver protest will feature an Indigenous Assembly Against Mining and Pipelines, highlighting opposition to projects such as Enbridge’s proposed $5.5-billion Northern Gateway pipeline, and the $815-million Prosperity gold and copper mine.

Ms. Clark, however, is appealing to those who have already rejected the B.C. treaty process, which has yielded just two completed treaties in two decades.

“I think first nations’ and government’s relationship has matured enough that we no longer have to see treaties as the be-all and end-all of every negotiation,” she said. “We have stop saying that we’re going to wait for economic development until we get to treaties,” Ms. Clark said.

Last month, the Premier travelled to the north coast to endorse a partnership involving the Haisla First Nation for a proposed liquefied natural gas facility. That project’s success is crucial to her agenda: “It will be a proof point for investors that you can do business in British Columbia and you can get business done quickly and efficiently,” Ms. Clark said.

The LNG plant requires completion of a pipeline that has won support from 15 first nations, including the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council. With funding from the province, the bands have acquired a stake in the pipeline project.

Chief David Luggi of the Carrier Sekani welcomed the Premier’s new approach. “She has just reiterated our message with respect to treaty negotiations,” he said Thursday. “A treaty doesn’t recognize title or rights in the way we want to be recognized.”

Follow on Twitter: @justine_hunter

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