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The man who's reshaping our home and native land

You probably have never heard of Tom Molloy, yet he's arguably one of the most influential Canadians of the past half-century. Few, if any, have played a bigger role in native land-claims agreements that have reshaped our country.

His fingerprints are on some of the largest, most important pacts in Canadian history. He was the federal government's lead negotiator in talks that led to the creation of Nunavut in 1993. He closed the historic Nisga'a treaty in April of 2000 after resolving the contentious issue of self-government.

He was the chief figure in negotiations that led to agreements stemming from complicated transjurisdictional offshore claims by northern Quebec's Cree and Inuit.

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He was brought in at the beginning of the B.C. treaty process in the early 1990s. He met 33 first nations groups, helping to establish negotiating tables in almost every case. Many of those same groups are expected to sign treaties in the next few years.

This modern father of Confederation is usually well out of sight when the self-congratulatory photo ops get under way. When we caught up to the 70-year-old Saskatoon lawyer this week, he was travelling the bumpy back roads of B.C., dropping in on the 11 tribes that make up the St'at'imc Nation.

Mr. Molloy appears to have resolved a historical grievance between the St'at'imc and BC Hydro that stretches back 60 years. In the 1950s, BC Hydro was given permission to install transmission lines on St'at'imc territory in exchange for supplying the area with electricity.

BC Electric, as it was then called, never did. It left the first nations communities to rely on dicey diesel-fuelled generators for power. The communities were often without it for days at a stretch. That betrayal produced bitter relations between the two sides - and the odd blockade. Now with the help of $210-million and measures to mitigate some of the damage done to the St'at'imc, a tentative deal will be voted on by the various bands on April 9. It's expected to be ratified.

Negotiations began almost 20 years ago. In 2008, Mr. Molloy was brought in when talks were stalled, with 32 issues still on the table. "When Hydro brought in Tom, that's when we knew they were serious about getting a deal done," said Mike Leach, chief negotiator for the St'at'imc. "I've done lots of negotiating and I can say that Tom's style breeds trust and confidence. And on top of that, he brings all that experience to the table."

After 30 years in the land-claims business, Mr. Molloy possesses a unique perspective. While many bemoan the length of time it takes to hammer out agreements, Mr. Molloy is more sanguine about the matter.

Non-aboriginal negotiators, and the elected officials who stand behind them, often don't fully appreciate native cultural issues, and the importance of land, fish and animals. Conversely, native leaders often don't understand how government works and how decisions are made.

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"There is a lot of educating that needs to take place every time you start to negotiate," Mr. Molloy told me. "It takes enormous patience and time to bridge the huge gulfs that exist."

While many are pessimistic about a B.C. treaty process that has delivered only one full-fledged agreement in almost 20 years, Mr. Molloy doesn't count himself among them. He says initial expectations about how quickly these deals would get done were unrealistic. They've taken a little longer than he expected, but not much.

Soon, he believes, there'll be a raft of new treaties being ratified.

Mr. Molloy lives in Saskatoon, not far from his four grown daughters. His wife died 15 years ago. He's only been home a handful of days in the past three months.

His new challenge is in Ontario. The provincial government has hired Mr. Molloy to find peace in Caledonia, a hornet's nest that may present him with the greatest challenge of his career.

"I love imagining how complex issues can be solved," he says. "It just leaves you with a good feeling when you happen upon a solution that gives you those deals."

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Deals that change a country.

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