With the groundbreaking Nisga'a agreement under attack in the Supreme Court of British Columbia and with more than 100 bands in the province still making little progress in treaty negotiations, Sophie Pierre admits to feeling frustrated at times.
But Ms. Pierre, chief commissioner of the B.C. Treaty Commission, said Tuesday she feels confident a breakthrough is coming at the treaty table in the near future, regardless of what happens in the legal challenge to the Nisga'a agreement.
"Yes, the logjam could be broken. … I think that could very well be a reality within 12 to 18 months," she said shortly after releasing the treaty commission's 17th annual report on the status of treaty making in B.C.
She did not predict a flood of final agreements, but rather indicated there could be rapid progress at many stages of the process, pushing all bands closer to settlement.
Ms. Pierre acknowledged that over the past year there has been little progress in several problem areas that have been stalling negotiations, including "negotiation fatigue; limited resources … and lack of consensus on what recognition and reconciliation mean."
She said failure to resolve those issues has contributed to "an erosion of confidence" in the treaty process.
At the same time, the court challenge to the Nisga'a agreement, which got under way in B.C. Supreme Court this week, has raised concerns because for the past decade that settlement has stood as an example to first nations of what can be achieved through treaty negotiations.
The Nisga'a agreement, which became the first modern-day treaty in B.C. when it was signed 10 years ago, is being challenged on constitutional grounds by a dissident Nisga'a group led by James Robinson, who is also known as Chief Mountain.
In court Tuesday, Chief Mountain's lawyer, Paul Jaffe, argued that federal and provincial governments violated the Constitution by granting the Nisga'a powers over taxation, education, justice and other matters that should have been left under the control of Parliament.
Ms. Pierre said she can't discuss the case while it is before the court, but agreed that many native leaders are following it with concern because self-governance is seen as a key to treaty settlement.
She said the Nisga'a agreement is not a template for all bands, but most would expect something similar, in terms of self-governing powers.
"Every [treaty]table is different. Every table is unique. Nisga'a can't be a template for Tsawwassen. They are two different realities," she said. "I think they are different, but not to a great extent."
Ms. Pierre said that regardless of the outcome of the court challenge, the Nisga'a deal shows first nations can run their own affairs.
"Do treaties work? Yeah, they do. Just look at what the Nisga'a have been doing for the past decade," she said, referring to how the first nation has established health care, education and other services in the Nass Valley, in northern B.C.
There are 60 first nations, representing 110 bands, currently involved in the treaty process in B.C. Only two, the Maa-nulth and Tsawwassen First Nations, ratified final agreements in 2009, while three others are awaiting ratification votes.
Ms. Pierre said that while there have been few settlements, each agreement provides encouragement to those further back in the system, and adds to a growing sense of confidence.
She believes a tipping point could occur in the next 18 months, leading to a surge of progress.
"It's frustrating at times … [but]I continue to be very, very hopeful," she said.