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Premier Christy Clark in Burnaby, British Columbia, Tuesday, February 08, 2011. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail/Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)
Premier Christy Clark in Burnaby, British Columbia, Tuesday, February 08, 2011. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail/Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)

Clark, Dix lay out their visions for first nations Add to ...

The rookie leaders of B.C.'s dominant political parties have made their debuts before the First Nations summit, but their audience came away wondering whether either can attain enough political influence to put their words into practice.

B.C. Liberal Premier Christy Clark was up first on Thursday before members of the summit, which represents the majority of first nations and tribal councils in B.C., followed by Adrian Dix, leader of the opposition New Democrats.

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Robert Morales, a member of the Cowichan tribe, said he is curious how each leader will follow up the visions they laid out.

"We've heard other leaders, premiers and leaders of the opposition in the past, and they generally say nice things as well. We didn't see any changes," said Mr. Morales, a chief negotiator for the Hulquminum Treaty Group.

Both leaders, he said, will face a test: "Can a single leader have enough clout within their own party and within the political structure to make a difference, to actually achieve significant movement. That's going to be the challenge that either Premier Clark or Mr. Dix, if he becomes premier, is going to have."

Ms. Clark launched her remarks with an emotional acknowledgement of the death of the six-week old brother of Sherry Charlie, a native child whose death at 19 months of age raised searing questions about child protection practices in B.C.

"I cannot imagine the depth of loss that the people who loved that little boy feel knowing that he has passed," Ms. Clark said. "Today, I join you and I join the community on Vancouver Island and everyone who loved that little boy in grieving."

She then laid out a broader agenda, promising a devotion to advancing treaties, and to work toward an aboriginal investment council to provide venture capital for first nations.

Ms. Clark said she would pick up where her predecessor Gordon Campbell left off on a "new relationship" with first nations that would include treaties that would provide tools for economic and social development as well as self-government.

"On my watch, we will continue to move forward. My government believes that treaties remain the most comprehensive approach to building relationships between our governments," she said.

She acknowledged the process has been slow, and talked of revitalizing it with such measures as providing treaty benefits before deals are finalized, and seeking to provide benefits outside of treaties.

Mr. Dix said he was also committed to treaties, but that the process was not progressing because the government was not fully funding it. He said that if he becomes premier, his first meeting with the Prime Minister will focus on providing adequate resources at each level.

He also chided Ms. Clark for her support for the Prosperity Mine, saying it had come at the expense of the environmental assessment process.

Earlier Ms. Clark challenged the developers of the controversial $1-billion project advanced by B.C-based Taseko Mines Ltd. to work more closely with First Nations. The company has recently re-filed its plan for the open pit gold-copper project, southeast of Williams Lake.

"The proponents of that mine are going to have to build some real, durable trusting relationships to first nations," Ms. Clark told reporters. "...This can't go ahead if it compromises the environment or it compromises those relationships."

The company's CEO, Russell Hallbauer, said in a statement that his company is eager to speak to first nations leaders about the benefits of the project, emphasizing it will create nearly 2,000 new jobs for the region.

Mr. Dix said B.C.'s Premier should be leaving the fate of such projects to the environmental-assessment process.

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