Short-term goals and endless studies by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and Christy Clark’s Liberals have created bureaucratic barriers to negotiating lasting treaty settlements with British Columbia’s First Nations, says B.C.’s chief treaty commissioner.
Sophie Pierre said Tuesday the federal and B.C. governments appear more interested in avoiding or delaying treaty settlements instead of supporting negotiations that would result in land-claims settlements and self-government for First Nations.
At a news conference releasing the treaty commission’s annual report, “Pathway to Change,” Pierre said the governments should stop considering treaty negotiations as a government program for aboriginals and start serious talks.
After 21 years of treaty negotiations, just two treaties have been finalized, while 18 others are at the final agreement or advanced agreement-in-principle stages.
There are more than 200 First Nations in B.C. and less than 20 have treaties, with the majority of those settlements dating back to the mid-1800s when the province was a British colony.
Pierre said First Nations are looking for solid direction from the federal government that it is committed to negotiating treaties in B.C. She said the statement of direction on behalf of the government must go beyond the letter the treaty commission received from Prime Minister Stephen Harper this year saying Ottawa considers treaties good for the economy.
“Our message is we need to have this oversight, not just one letter coming from the prime minister,” she said. “If we can get the focus of the federal government to look at their mandates, to look at what’s holding up this process and actually get the push, the direction from the prime minister’s office that says, ‘yes, this is a priority, we need to get it done.“’
“If you don’t have that, it just spins its wheels like it’s always done,” said Pierre.
She said First Nations want the prime minister’s office to declare “this is good for Canada.”
Instead treaty talks are bogged down over bureaucratic federal concerns about dividing salmon resources with First Nations and federal studies to review the treaty process, Pierre said.
The last time Ottawa, B.C. and the First Nations formally met to discuss treaty issues was in May 2012, she said.
Treaty commissioner Dave Haggard, a former B.C. union leader, said governments need to take the negotiating process more seriously because the alternative involves endless, costly court battles.
“What can British Columbians do about that?” he said. “I say you can talk to your MP’s, talk to your MLA’s and say we support First Nations getting a fair and just settlement on the land question in this province,” he said.
Pierre said the treaty commission remains concerned with the B.C. government’s focus on reaching interim measures deals with First Nations that avoid complete treaties in favour of pre-treaty agreements that focus on single land or economic issues.
“Budgetary limitations have certainly affected timely negotiations but the real concern is the apparent move away from long-term solutions through treaty in favour of short-term economic opportunities,” stated Pierre in the annual report.
B.C.’s aboriginal relations and reconciliation minister John Rustad said in a statement that B.C. remains committed to reaching complete treaties, but the interim deals are a step towards final settlements.
“We are making progress, but the reality is treaties are complex and take time, which is why we also look to incremental treaty agreements as a way to bring certainty for investment, and economic and social benefits to First Nation communities more quickly,” he said.
Federal aboriginal affairs minister Bernard Valcourt could not be immediately reached for comment.
The First Nations Summit, B.C.’s largest aboriginal organization, said in a statement that Ottawa and B.C. must move away from studying the treaty process and embark on talks that lead to treaties.
”We agree the time has come for all parties, in particular B.C. and Canada, to get on with the task at hand and refrain from any further studies and demonstrate the political will to build relationships with First Nations based on mutual recognition and respect, aimed at achieving reconciliation”, said Grand Chief Edward John.
B.C.’s Opposition New Democrat Leader Adrian Dix said the absence of a dedicated government approach to resolving the treaty issue could have serious economic and social consequences in B.C.
“This is an issue that everyone acknowledges, First Nations, the businesses community, communities across B.C. is a central issue, and governments at the federal and provincial level are not doing the work required,” he said. “We’re 20 years into this treaty process. We need to see more progress than this.”
The B.C. treaty commission was formed in September 1992 to oversee a treaty negotiation process.