This legal power could translate into a de facto veto, by drawing out the process and substantially increasing costs.
Observers have drawn comparisons with the Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline, which was first proposed in the 1970s, again with northern first nations presiding over unsettled claims. A federal inquiry at the time recommended the 1,196-kilometre Arctic pipeline not be built for at least 10 years, to allow a chance for settlement of those claims.
It took more than two decades for industry to launch its most recent effort at reviving the project – but even then, the one claim that remained unsettled for the Dehcho people has created a substantial development obstacle.
Today,almost 40 years after the now $16-billion pipeline was proposed, a large segment of the natural gas industry believes the project, led by Imperial Oil, won’t be built because it no longer makes financial sense given the vast quantities of gas that have since been discovered in places like British Columbia and Texas.
Having won the support of first nations groups, the Mackenzie consortium is waiting for the federal government to dish up financial help now that it has cabinet approval.
“Even if it turns out that only 10 of the 50 [first nations] communities [along the Gateway route] are willing to dig their heels into the ground, it would create something that would be just as messy as the pipeline to the North,” Mr. Christie said.
A long history of inaction
Nothing has come quickly in the struggle for British Columbia’s first nations to gain rights over the land they claim. To gain a sense of how difficult this issue has been, it’s worth casting a gaze far back in history. First contact between Europeans and B.C. first nations happened in 1774. It took 75 years before land negotiations began. Around 1850, James Douglas, then the governor of Vancouver Island, set out to sign treaties. He succeeded in inking 14. The terms were not especially generous. For example, he paid 45 kilograms in goods to secure 130 square kilometres of the island’s Saanich Peninsula. But the British Crown soon put a stop to even those anemic payments, and the treaty process ground to a halt.
In the nearly 150 years that followed, only one other treaty was signed on B.C. soil. That was Treaty 8, which covered part of the province’s northeast. Commissions were called in 1876 and 1913, but failed to settle issues. Gold miners came, as did smallpox. Relations between outsiders and first nations grew increasingly tense.
It was not until 1972, with the Supreme Court’s Calder decision fought by the coastal Nisga’a, that aboriginal title to land was recognized. Even then, it took until 1998 for the Nisga’a to reach a final agreement on a treaty settlement. Two years later, it came into effect.
Efforts to reach similar agreements with other first nations have, however, proven difficult.
“It only seems to only be that when [disputes] have tremendous economic implications such as a major energy project that we begin paying attention to something that exists all across the entire country,” Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in an interview Thursday.
For Canada to secure its place as a resource superpower, Chief Atleo said a fresh national framework affirming title rights is needed in order to settle disputes. “At the rate and pace we’re going, this is going to take far too long.”
Sixty first nations are now working their way through a process created by the B.C. Treaty Commission. Of those, 34 are negotiating on an agreement-in-principle. Three have completed final agreements. Only two, the Tsawwassen First Nation and Maa-nulth First Nations, have implemented their final agreements.
That means that, with only three exceptions, the situation in B.C. today remains little changed from 1899, when Treaty 8 was signed. Vast parts of the province remain locked in a battle over land rights.
And without settling land claims and developing a system that upholds and honours aboriginal title, Chief Atleo warned that mining, energy, forestry and other projects could endlessly be stymied.
“What we have is the potential for perpetual and repeated conflict,” Chief Atleo said. “That doesn’t do anyone any good. It has an adverse impact on not only relationships but overall the economy.”
“Something needs to be down to break the logjam in these negotiations.”
Nathan VanderKlippe and Carrie Tait
Source: B.C. Treaty Commission and The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs