The B.C. government's stunning move to put the 22-year-old treaty process on ice was sure to invite controversy and criticism no matter how it was rolled out. But the spectacularly ham-fisted way in which the governing Liberals managed the issue ensured that what may be a sound policy move was initially blanketed in scorn and ridicule.
The decision to offer former Liberal cabinet minister George Abbott the job of treaty commissioner, string him along for six months, and then tell him the position wasn't his after all is inexcusable. As was Premier Christy Clark's preference to have her Aboriginal Relations Minister make the uncomfortable call to Mr. Abbott rather than handling the matter herself.
Given his long and distinguished service in government, including a stint in Ms. Clark's cabinet, Mr. Abbott deserved that much.
The manner in which this significant program review was revealed remains bewildering. It was effectively blurted out by the Premier in the course of answering questions in the legislature regarding the government's treatment of Mr. Abbott. Remarkably, that is how we learned the government was re-evaluating the treaty commission's mandate.
It caught everyone off guard, including the other parties involved in the treaty process – First Nations and the federal government.
Unfortunately, the plan's rocky debut has helped obscure its legitimate underpinnings. In defence of the repositioning, Premier Clark said the present situation is not an option. On that she is absolutely right. The treaty process in B.C., as it's currently designed, has been a colossal failure and anyone with any knowledge or understanding of the system would have to concur. That includes the Opposition New Democratic Party.
The numbers have now been cited ad nauseam: 22 years of negotiations for four agreements at a cost to taxpayers of more than $600-million. The only people the treaty process has really taken care of are the hundreds of lawyers enriched by it.
There are myriad reasons the negotiations have failed and all three parties at the table deserve some of the blame. Both levels of government have done their share of procrastinating, as well as thrown up obstacles and introduced policies that have torpedoed agreements. On this front, however, the federal government has been the worst offender.
But First Nations have had their own troubles. Many have been unable to sort out overlapping land claims. Some groups have spent a decade or more reaching tentative agreements only to have them later rejected by their bands. First Nations communities, meantime, have borrowed tens of millions of dollars from Ottawa to finance their negotiating teams, a situation that has had some unintended consequences.
One look at the amount of debt on the books of some of these bands has been enough to persuade banks to reject groups looking for financing to underwrite prospective economic development projects. Meantime, the amount of debt the bands owe the feds is approaching the amount of cash they would receive in a treaty deal.
Several bands have populations that are too small to sustain the kind of self-government model treaties are designed to achieve. Others are content to derive financial benefits from more specific economic development agreements with the provincial government, while maintaining the tax-free advantages that they receive under the Indian Act.
So there are lots of reasons why it might be a good time to suspend the treaty process and look for another path forward.
But while a noble goal, it is also one that is politically fraught. First Nations in B.C. have won their biggest gains in the nation's highest court, not around the negotiating table. Some are content to have judges determine what they will receive in compensation for their claims, not a government. This makes finding a fresh approach to treaty-making more difficult.
There also remains a great deal of mistrust between aboriginal groups and senior levels of government, much of it well-founded. Premier Clark has not helped her efforts to blaze new trails by blind-siding First Nations with the news that she wanted to reimagine the way settlements in B.C. are reached.
Given the many problems currently plaguing the treaty process, it's hard to imagine a better option doesn't exist. If it can be found, and it speeds up the treaty process, few will remember how bumpy the road to this better tomorrow was initially. If this initiative fails, it will be deemed a monumental setback and bleak and dismal surrender to the status quo.