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B.C. treaty commission asks PM to intervene

The British Columbia Treaty Commission is calling on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to shake up the complacency it says has set in around treaty negotiations with B.C. First Nations after 16 years of expensive talks and few successes.

Chief Sophie Pierre, who heads the commission, said Wednesday that Mr. Harper must send a message to his federal negotiators that they are at the table to negotiate treaties, not stall potential settlements.

Ms. Pierre said Ottawa and the B.C. government must re-examine the settlement mandates they give to their negotiators, while aboriginals must work to resolve territorial issues between first nations.

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She made the comments at a news conference where the treaty commission presented its 2009 annual report.

"Everybody's just gotten so used to this thing," said Ms. Pierre, the former elected chief of the Cranbrook-area St. Mary's Indian Band for more than 25 years.

"It doesn't have the urgency," she said. "People have forgotten why we got involved in this in the first place."

Ms. Pierre, appointed treaty commissioner last April, said that of the three governments attempting to negotiate treaties in British Columbia - federal, provincial and first nations - Ottawa is moving too slowly, which is why she is appealing directly to Mr. Harper.

"We're trying to do what we can to ensure we can get his attention, and that he sees the real benefit in giving the kind of direction that is needed," she said.

Treaty settlements offer economic, social and cultural benefits for first nations, British Columbians and Canadians, Ms. Pierre said.

The commission will repeat its kick-start message to the federal government later this month when members appear before the federal House of Commons finance committee.

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Ms. Pierre said the Powell River-area Sliammon First Nation has been waiting for two years to enter the final stage of treaty talks, but federal negotiators don't have the authority to reach a fish-sharing agreement with the Sliammon.

The federally managed salmon resource is a vital cultural, social and economic aspect of aboriginal life in British Columbia, and salmon allocations are always a major point in treaty talks.

A treaty with the tiny Yale First Nation in the Fraser Canyon is also waiting for federal movement on the salmon resource.

"From the government of Canada, there have been extended periods of silence and inaction creating the impression they lack commitment," Ms. Pierre said in a statement. "A worrisome example is their lack of a fish mandate."

Mr. Harper's office could not be reached for immediate comment.

Ms. Pierre said the treaty commission has called for three actions to encourage treaty settlements, including pushing Ottawa to affirm its commitment to settling treaties, asking B.C. negotiators to re-examine their mandates to reach treaties and urging first nations to resolve territorial issues where they share land boundaries.

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Last August, talks involving 60 first nations communities and representatives of the federal and B.C. governments met for 13 days to discuss the treaty process.

The report, called the Common Table Report, explored common approaches to settling treaties, citing 21 opportunities.

Since 1992, the treaty commission process has resulted in one official treaty. The Tsawwassen First Nation, located near the Fraser River Delta in suburban Vancouver, was ratified last year.

The treaty commission said nine treaties are close to completion in British Columbia.

There are 203 first nations in British Columbia, but fewer than 20 have treaties, and the majority of them date back to the mid-1800s when British Columbia was a colony of Great Britain and aboriginals signed agreements with local government officials.

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