Premier Christy Clark is seeking to forge a profoundly different relationship with First Nations in British Columbia after a major court victory by the Tsilhqot'in recognized native title over land.
In an unprecedented meeting in a Vancouver hotel ballroom on Thursday, Ms. Clark, her cabinet and top deputy ministers sat down with leaders from 203 First Nations and key aboriginal organizations in what the Premier called "a chance to shape history."
The spark for the conference came from a June decision by the Supreme Court of Canada that recognized that the Tsilhqot'in have title to a vast territory in central B.C. While that ruling clarified the rights of natives, it also created uncertainty in the province by stressing the need for government consultation with First Nations before development can take place on native land.
The decision does not absolutely require consent, but it underscores the importance of consultation and pushes both parties to seek agreements through negotiation rather than the courts.
In her opening address, Ms. Clark said that although the government had fought the Tsilhqot'in and other First Nations in court for three decades over rights and title, her government did not see the recent ruling as a defeat.
"All of British Columbia can benefit from this new opportunity," she said, thanking Tsilhqot'in leaders for pursuing a case that has redefined an old, legally antagonistic relationship.
Ms. Clark, who was in Tsilhqot'in territory on Wednesday to sign a government-to-government letter of understanding about the future relationship, said she wants to work "in partnership" with all First Nations.
"I know our common interest will keep us pragmatic," she said. "This is our chance to be on the right side of history."
Ms. Clark called the court ruling "a fork in the road" that allows both sides to choose a new path.
"Let us take that fork in the road," she said, describing the conference as the "day when our shared history began to be transformed forever."
Ms. Clark's comments drew polite applause, but Jody Wilson-Raybould, regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said concrete changes are needed, not just talk.
"This will require more than mere mandate tweaking," she said.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould said First Nations throughout the province need to build capacity in many different areas as they take on greater responsibilities for governance, and she urged Ms. Clark to support those efforts.
"It is hard to decolonize. …We need to do this together," said Ms. Wilson-Raybould, who is running in Vancouver-Granville for the Liberals in the next federal election.
Grand Chief Edward John of the First Nations Summit said it is "a remarkable achievement" to have cabinet sitting with so-many First Nations leaders, but he, too, wanted words backed by action.
"In the past, what we've been met with is mostly forked tongues," he said.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said he hoped the "critically important convention" would end an era of conflict.
But Mr. Phillip also defined the Tsilhqot'in court decision in a way government might have trouble accepting.
"I am not a lawyer, I am not a scholar, so for me it's simple: B.C. is Indian land," he said.
Chief Darrell Bob of the Xaxli'p First Nation near Lillooet, B.C., said in an interview that governments too often talk a good line but fail to follow through.
"It's like putting icing on this," he said holding up a breakfast muffin. "It doesn't change anything."
Mr. Bob said he would be more encouraged if, instead of organizing conferences, Ms. Clark was prosecuting whoever was responsible for the Mount Polley mine tailings disaster, and toughening environmental protection laws.
"That would say a lot more to the people of B.C., not just native people," he said.