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gary mason

From British Columbia, the view of the Crown/first nations gathering is decidedly different.

Recent history suggests that talk in Ottawa this week about the need to escape the shackles of the Indian Act is mostly just that. Attempts by the B.C. and federal governments to conclude treaty negotiations with the province's first nations have been a dismal failure.

In 20 years, only three first nations groups have signed agreements paving their way to independence. There are some other deals in the pipeline, we're told, but otherwise, the talks have been a bust.

The head of the B.C. Treaty Commission, Sophie Pierre, made headlines last fall when she said the process should be shut down unless more progress is made soon. This, of course, runs counter to what we heard out of the Crown/first nations discussions, where many native leaders lamented the continued tyranny of the Indian Act.

There are many reasons why B.C.'s aboriginal groups have been reluctant to cut the apron strings with Ottawa. Some don't like the terms of the deals they're being offered. Some are not yet ready to set sail on their own. Some feel that recent moves by the federal government have profoundly changed the self-government game.

In fact, two pieces of federal legislation passed in the last six years have altered the aboriginal landscape in Canada more than anyone knows.

The First Nations Commercial and Industrial Development Act (2005) and the First Nations Certainty of Land Title Act (2010) have helped unlock enormous economic potential for aboriginal groups – especially those in urban areas.

Together, the legislation allows native groups to develop their land in ways previously not possible. Among other things, the bills give real-estate projects on reserves the same legal protections as those off reserve. The Certainty of Land act allows bands to transfer property rights to non-aboriginals – which makes developments on their reserves more attractive to investors.

In other words, the bills free first nations groups from some of the most stifling provisions of the Indian Act and gives them control over their future in a way they didn't have before. But the legislation has also had an unintended consequence: There is less incentive now for aboriginal groups to sign treaties.

While there is much about the Indian Act that native groups abhor, it does assure them of two things that they don't mind at all: tax-free status and a pipeline of money from Ottawa. After a native group signs a treaty, those benefits get phased out. The whole point of native self-government, after all, is to give aboriginal communities the clout and ability to stand on their own, free of an act that native leaders have described as oppressive and paternalistic.

But many bands have come to depend on their tax-free status and regular federal funding. With recent legislation opening up fresh economic opportunities, many first nations groups can now earn heaps of money and keep their federal benefits too.

This is certainly not a knock against aboriginal leaders who are thinking along these lines. They have politics and elections and the will of the majority to consider. Many of their members don't want to lose the sure thing they have now. And if they can have their cake and eat it too, why wouldn't they?

Of course, not all of Canada's Indian bands will be able to take advantage of the legislation passed by Ottawa – especially those in remote areas. And so long as such groups remain under the Indian Act, they lack property rights. So current arrangements are far from perfect.

To that extent, aboriginal politics in Canada remain as complex as ever. And the pathway to a brighter future is equally elusive.