The federal Conservative government needs to use its new majority to get cracking on settling treaties with B.C. first nations, says the new president of the Mining Association of Canada.
Pierre Gratton, who is wrapping up a three-year stint as head of the Mining Association of B.C., took aim at Ottawa in a speech to the Vancouver Board of Trade on Tuesday, saying the federal government's commitment to treaties has waned – and it is hurting economic growth.
"With a minority government, they were continually trying to maintain power and to do things mostly short-term in nature," Mr. Gratton said in an interview after his address. "Now here's an opportunity to do something longer-term."
The mining association hasn't always been an ally of first nations in B.C. Just two years ago, Mr. Gratton and the Mining Association of B.C. worked to kill an ambitious proposed law that aimed to recognize aboriginal title for all B.C. first nations, warning that the ground-breaking initiative would give native bands a veto over resource development in the province.
The planned Recognition and Reconciliation Act never made it through the drafting stage, and was eventually abandoned despite a high-level commitment from then-premier Gordon Campbell and first nations leaders.
But on Tuesday, Mr. Gratton added his support to first nations leaders who have decried the failure of the federal government to move forward on individual treaties in B.C. "The future of mining in British Columbia will be shaped by no issue greater than how we relate to first nations," he said in his speech. He added that the provincial government too has been mired, with not a single resource-revenue-sharing agreement signed since last summer.
Sto:Lo tribal council chief Doug Kelly, a key backer of the failed recognition law, welcomed Mr. Gratton's support, but wished it had come sooner. "I appreciate the comments and I agree with the need to have renewed federal and provincial treaty mandates," he said. "I'm just wondering when the conversion took place."
The mining industry has clashed with first nations on specific projects like the proposed Prosperity Mine, but Mr. Gratton noted that in the absence of treaties that define aboriginal title and rights, mining companies increasingly recognize the need to negotiate agreements directly with first nations.
Sophie Pierre, chief commissioner for the BC Treaty Commission, has been pressing Ottawa for over a year about the lack of progress on land claims. She met with Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan last January to highlight her concerns.
Ms. Pierre was in the audience on Tuesday applauding Mr. Gratton's speech. "He gets it," she said later. "It's fantastic because now he can bring that message to Ottawa, which is where they need to hear it."
When she met with Mr. Duncan, Ms. Pierre raised the example of the Sliammon First Nation, which concluded 15 years of negotiations last summer with a handshake agreement with B.C. and Ottawa. Both B.C. and the band have initialled the deal, but federal officials have not yet approved the agreement made by their senior treaty negotiator. Even today, there is no sign of movement, she noted.
She said she is hopeful that the Conservative majority secured in the May 2 federal election will pave the way for a renewed interest in reviving B.C.'s stalled treaty process.
"We can no longer use the excuse of a minority government," she said. "That Conservative government has a longstanding commitment to the B.C. treaty process. They need to recommit and get this done."
The B.C. Liberal government, taking pains to avoid criticism of the federal Conservatives, maintained there is no reason for concern. "I'm not sensing any lack of commitment on their part," said Mary Polak, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation. "Perhaps it means we need to have more conversations with the industry so that they understand exactly where we are."