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Former B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell shakes hands with Chief Alex Frank during a treaty signing ceremony in Tofino, B.C. November 13.Jeff Vinnick/ The Globe and Mail

British Columbia should abandon its 140-year-old quest for treaties with first nations if it cannot find the will to make and meet targets for treaty settlements, says the head of the BC Treaty Commission.

"We know in the next few years we could have 13 treaties done," said chief commissioner Sophie Pierre as she released the commission's latest annual report on Wednesday. "And if we can't do it, it's about time we faced the obvious – it isn't going to happen, so shut 'er down."

The treaty commission will mark its 20th anniversary next year. In that time, the process has led to three settlements – and one of those won't be implemented until 2013.

Ms. Pierre said that pace is unacceptable. The commission, and the entire treaty process, should be jettisoned if both the provincial and federal governments won't commit to firm targets.

"We'd never shut down the commission without having to shut down the whole process," she said in an interview. "If we can't accomplish what we've set out to do, then it's time to set it aside and do something different."

First nations at the treaty table are digging deep into debt to pay for their share of negotiations. Since opening its doors, the commission has lent first nations $422-million for treaty talks. In addition, the federal and provincial governments have contributed more than $100-million – and that doesn't include the cost of their own negotiating teams.

Ms. Pierre said the coming 20th anniversary of the treaty commission is the appropriate time for people to ask if it is worth it.

In her report, Ms. Pierre says all three parties are partly responsible for a lack of urgency at the table. She singles out the federal government for foot-dragging. Ottawa has refused to negotiate matters related to fisheries for the past four years, in part because of the long-running Cohen Commission of inquiry into the collapse of the Fraser River salmon run.

She also says Ottawa needs to give clear mandates to its negotiators.

"Once an agreement has been reached that has taken years of work and millions of dollars, there should be no need to subject it to a long, internal review without an explanation to the other parties," the report states.

The B.C. government has been focused primarily on interim measures since abandoning its ambitious recognition and reconciliation proposal. Ms. Pierre said Victoria needs to recommit to treaties rather than simply working toward short-term solutions in first nations communities. "Lasting reconciliation can only be achieved through a treaty," she writes.

In the Throne Speech earlier this month, B.C. Premier Christy Clark said she is committed to agreements of some kind with first nations – but not necessarily treaties.

"Your government will focus attention on establishing agreements with first nations that will create certainty over our respective responsibilities," the Throne Speech stated. "And while treaties may be an option for some first nations, there are many ways to reach agreements that can benefit all communities – aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike."

Ms. Pierre also has a task for first nations leaders, saying they must make a concerted effort to address overlapping claims that create roadblocks to settlements.


140 – the number of years British Columbia has been wrestling over land and governance with its first nations

19 – years since the B.C. Treaty Commission was established to settle those questions

2 – number of treaties that have come into effect under the commission process to date. (A third is expected to do so in 2013.)

60 – number of first nations (representing 110 bands) in treaty negotiations

$10-billion – the value to the B.C. economy if treaties are settled, according to an economic study done for the B.C. Treaty Commission