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British Columbia New plan to expedite treaty talks between First Nations, government

John Rustad, B.C.’s Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, noted that just seven nations have concluded treaties in the 23-year history of the B.C. treaty process.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Fifteen months after the B.C. government made a high-stakes play to force reform at the provincial treaty negotiating table, the federal government and First Nations have agreed to a plan that aims to expedite the process.

The pact, which will still require months of refinement, aims to produce a quicker and less costly resolution of the province's long-standing conflicts over indigenous rights and title.

Negotiations between the three parties began more than a year ago, prompted by the province's abrupt decision to withdraw support for a new chief treaty commissioner. It was a signal that British Columbia would not support the status quo, but the tactic angered both the federal government and First Nations, and has left the treaty commission on uncertain footing in the interim.

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The position of chief commissioner remains unfilled but on Tuesday, the three parties announced a new plan that will allow flexibility to negotiate "core" treaties that could leave some contentious issues to be worked out at a later date, or "stepping stone" treaties that would piece together incremental agreements and one-off economic development deals.

"We are not interested in this process just going on and on and on," said John Rustad, B.C.'s Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, in an interview.

He noted that just seven nations have concluded treaties in the 23-year history of the B.C. treaty process. At that rate, it could take more than 600 years to wrap up negotiations with the remaining 198 Indian Act bands in British Columbia that remain without a Constitutionally protected settlement.

"What B.C. is interested in is seeing improvements for aboriginal people, period," he said. "And we would like to be able to do that in such a way that creates certainty on the land base."

In recent years, the province has shown a preference for economic deals with First Nations over the glacial pace of treaty-making, and it has signed roughly 450 agreements to date. The federal government has eschewed B.C.'s preference for one-off deals on resource sharing.

However, Tuesday's announcement means that Ottawa is willing to take a stripped-down treaty approach, leaving British Columbia to proceed with its side agreements but still allowing First Nations to secure a treaty on areas of importance.

The path to reform began in March, 2015, when British Columbia scuttled the appointment of former BC Liberal cabinet minister George Abbott as the new head of the B.C. Treaty Commission just as he was being briefed for the transition. Mr. Abbott's appointment had been approved by all three parties.

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Mr. Rustad said Tuesday he doesn't expect an agreement on a new commissioner until September.

Cheryl Casimer, a member of the First Nations Summit political executive, said the new approach should result in significant improvements in the treaty process. But she said the provincial government eroded trust by its handling of the appointment of the chief commissioner.

"I don't think we are out of the woods yet," she said in an interview. "This process provides multiple opportunities for tables to work at reaching Constitutionally protected agreements, but we need to finalize an agreement on a chief commissioner – we thought 15 months ago that we had someone agreed to, and then it turned out we didn't." She said the treaty commission has been "crippled" by the lack of leadership.

Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, could not be reached for comment. In a statement, she said her government believes treaties "represent an ultimate expression of reconciliation with First Nations." The federal government agreed to look at "new approaches and tools so we can create the momentum needed to expedite treaty negotiations both in British Columbia and across Canada."

The three parties also agreed to look at alternative funding models for the treaty process. First Nations currently borrow money to pay negotiating costs, but slow progress has led to mountains of debt that eat away at the value of any potential settlement. Those loans currently total more than half a billion dollars.

The agreement also aims to break the current logjam around overlapping land claims. The three principals have agreed to consider a dedicated source of funds to support efforts to resolve conflicts over shared territories.

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