The federal government should be on the hook for the hidden cost of its decision to grant the Cohen commission on Fraser River sockeye another year to complete its work, says the head of the BC Treaty Commission.
At least seven first nations communities are in treaty limbo, their debts mounting while they wait for a verdict from the salmon inquiry before they can move ahead with settling their claims.
"The Cohen inquiry should not continue to be used as an excuse not to get on with business at the treaty table," said Sophie Pierre, chief commissioner for the BC Treaty Commission.
The unintended consequence of extending the deadline for the Cohen commission means first nations that are in the final stages of treaty negotiations - those that include salmon-fishing rights - are on hold.
Many have taken out substantial loans to pay for the slow-moving and cumbersome treaty process. This year, B.C. first nations at the treaty table are expected to sink another $30-million in debt to pay for negotiations.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed the Cohen commission to investigate what happened on the Fraser River in 2009, when only about one million sockeye returned in a run that was supposed to number more than 10 million.
Gail Shea, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, later announced the federal government would defer negotiating fisheries issues at treaty tables in B.C. until the Cohen commission reports out. At that time, the Cohen report was due by May 1, 2011. It now has until June, 2012 to complete its investigation into the cause of the decline of the Fraser River sockeye runs.
Last week, Ms. Pierre presented Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan with a list of seven sets of treaty negotiations she wants exempt from the Cohen freeze.
But even a band that had already been carved out of that prohibition has stalled with no explanation from Ottawa.
Last June, the Sliammon First Nation concluded 15 years of negotiations with a handshake agreement with B.C. and Ottawa. Both B.C. and the band have initialed the deal, but federal officials have not signed off on the agreement made by their senior treaty negotiator.
Ms. Pierre said the federal government should forgive the Sliammon's loans for the period it has left the treaty on hold.
"We need some accountability here from the federal government," she said. "They are really big on demanding accountability from first nations, but that shoe goes on both feet. We need accountability from them too."
The Sliammon First Nation, near Powell River on the Sunshine Coast, won't hold its community ratification on the treaty until Ottawa initials the proposed deal. Roy Francis, chief negotiator for the Sliammon, warned that every day that goes by, the risk grows that his community may reject the pact.
"We are in limbo," he said. "Back in June we felt we had reached a historic point, we shook hands and agreed we have a deal. .… Now our agreement seems to have gotten lost in Ottawa somewhere."
He believes the federal government simply won't sign off on a deal involving salmon allocations while the Cohen commission is still under way. But he said the 1,000 members of the Sliammon are unhappy to be saddled with their substantial treaty debts - more than $10-million - while Ottawa is silent.
"There is a real concern about the integrity of the federal government," he said. "The longer we wait, the more difficult it becomes to explain it in a good way for our community."
A spokesperson for Indian Affairs said the Sliammon proposal is still being reviewed, and could not say when a decision will be made.