A new industrial park is set to break ground in B.C.'s Okanagan this month, the latest economic initiative of the Osoyoos Indian Band. Chief Clarence Louie has no time for treaty talk - he's also busy securing a multimillion-dollar housing development around the band's golf course.
"I like to spend my time focusing on the immediate needs of our people, and that revolves around job creation," he said Monday. The strategy has proved successful for his people, but it's a full-time commitment, he said. "There is no finish line in this stuff."
To the north of that development, another Okanagan Indian band, the Westbank, have bailed out of nearly 20 years of treaty talks and now intend to turn to the courts. Like the Osoyoos, the Westbank are among the top native communities in the country for developing their tax base, but Chief Robert Louis sees a different path ahead for his people.
"There is no sense wasting any more time or energy on negotiations, we have no other choice but litigation," he said. His council will meet next week to discuss a lawsuit that aims to settle the band's land claims without giving up what they already have, which is a community where his people benefit from the shopping malls and industrial and residential development on their reserve lands. "We have been very successful - it's a model we don't want to tamper with."
These are just two lines of attack on what is best for aboriginal communities. With 203 native bands in B.C., there are almost as many ideas of how to settle the land question that has been hanging over the province for 150 years.
A year ago, B.C. was set for a "seismic shift" in aboriginal policy. Early in 2009, Premier Gordon Campbell's top negotiators sat behind closed doors with the First Nations Leadership Council. Their goal was to produce a recognition and reconciliation act, an unprecedented law that would eliminate the need for native bands to prove their aboriginal title in court. It would also establish a system for joint decision making and resource sharing on Crown land within a band's traditional territories.
The ambitious change foundered and today there is little political will in Victoria to revive the so-called R&R process. Instead, there is a let's-make-a-deal approach where those aboriginal communities that are ready for change can come to Victoria and see what they can get.
The province's top native leaders are in a holding pattern, too: The leadership council - comprised of top leaders - is defunct. They are waiting for a group of chiefs who opposed the proposed legislation to draft an alternative model. The opponents of R&R have until the end of March to produce a report.
"It's a tough assignment," said Robert Morales, one of the members of the all-chiefs task force. "We are at that formative stage of coming up with a road map of where we can go. It's not only how do we move the agenda [of land claims]but how do we organize ourselves as first nations to advance that agenda."
George Abbott, B.C.'s Aboriginal Relations Minister, said his door is open to new ideas, but his government has a less ambitious agenda for the new year.
He is still bullish on treaties, and predicts there could be as many as five new settlements this year, from the In-SHUCK-ch Nation, just 90 kilometres from downtown Vancouver, to the Yekooche, whose remote community is accessed by a logging road north of Fort St. James.
As well, there are other kinds of deals being crafted in the spirit of the failed recognition act. This spring, the province will officially change the name of the Queen Charlotte Islands to Haida Gwaii, part of a deal that includes joint land-management decision making, as well as revenue sharing on future resource development.
"We are now trying to move in a practical, steady way towards achieving better relationships with first nations through community and regional agreements," Mr. Abbott said. That is, the province has abandoned the goal of capturing an agreement that somehow brings all 203 bands together.
"This year, 2010, is a make-it-or-break-it year for the treaty process," said Jody Wilson-Raybould, chief for the BC Assembly of First Nations. There are opportunities and success stories for individual native communities, she said, but both B.C. and Canada will have to change what they are bringing to the table if the process is to survive.
"The treaty process has not kept pace with the legal decisions rendered. For a majority of first nations in the treaty process, it's not palatable," she said.
And with no hint of a new negotiating mandate from the Crown, native leaders across the spectrum predict that 2010 will be, increasingly, the year they turn to the courts for solutions.