A decades-long effort to resolve Canada's unfinished business of treaty-making with its aboriginal communities has become expensive and ineffective, and Ottawa should get out of those talks that are going nowhere, a report commissioned by the federal government has concluded.
Doug Eyford, a Vancouver lawyer and treaty negotiator who Ottawa appointed last summer to review the federal comprehensive land-claims process, found just 26 modern-day treaties have been reached since 1973. His report, released on Thursday, proposes the government fast-track treaties now near completion and prepare exit strategies for those with little prospect of settlement.
"There is a conspicuous lack of urgency in negotiations and in many cases there are sharp differences between the parties about the core elements of a modern treaty," Mr. Eyford wrote in the report. "A plan needs to be developed to bring negotiations to a close. All parties must be ready to confront hard realities. Not all claims appear to be heading to successful conclusions."
Mr. Eyford said negotiations have become a "way of life" for many aboriginal communities, providing employment for negotiators, who can spend decades at the table using money borrowed from the federal government to sustain the process. Aboriginal groups no longer in active negotiations may not formally withdraw because of concerns Ottawa would seek repayment of the loans. The federal government must embrace new paths to reconciliation to dislodge the "institutional inertia."
"The fact the treaty process provides a constant source of funding and employment in aboriginal communities can also serve as a disincentive to conclude negotiations," he wrote. He added: "Many aboriginal groups are simply not ready to take on the responsibilities of a treaty despite spending a decade or longer in negotiations."
Most of Canada's unsettled land claims are in British Columbia, and 53 of the 75 groups in the treaty process are in B.C.
Mr. Eyford says Canada must embrace non-treaty initiatives, pointing to resource-sharing pacts the B.C. government has undertaken without Ottawa's involvement. Those economic development agreements with First Nations provide benefits from mining, forestry and other resources within a community's traditional territory.
He also proposes "thin treaties": constitutionally protected agreements that would cover only the core components of a treaty – jurisdiction, governance structures, and rights and obligations – and leave other aspects to be determined through time-limited, renewable side agreements.
The Conservative government initially retained Mr. Eyford to help unlock major energy proposals that are bogged down in the West by unsettled land claims. First Nations communities say projects such as the Northern Gateway oil pipeline, which would increase tanker traffic off the West Coast, cannot proceed without their consent. The review of the treaty process was launched after a Supreme Court of Canada decision last summer expanded the legal definition of aboriginal rights and title.
Ottawa made no commitment on Thursday to act on Mr. Eyford's recommendations.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said in a statement that Ottawa is taking steps to make the treaty process "more effective for the benefit of all Canadians."
He promised only that the government will consult aboriginal groups and other stakeholders on Mr. Eyford's report.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said the report does not go far enough. The land-claims process is "doomed to fail," he said, and its flaws "cannot be repaired by simply accelerating negotiations or demanding greater accountability of the enormous amount of resources that have been poured into this process."
Ed John, Grand Chief of the B.C. First Nations Summit, welcomed the report and said he is committed to working with the federal and provincial governments to examine the 43 recommendations. He blamed the lack of progress on Ottawa's restrictive mandates, but said there are many paths to negotiating constructive settlements. "First Nations need certainty as well," he said.
Vancouver lawyer Doug Eyford, who was hired by Ottawa to review the modern-day treaty process, has issued a report that describes an expensive, ineffective system and calls on the federal government to fast-track negotiations that are almost finished and abandon those with little hope of success.