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The Globe and Mail

Changes afoot for aboriginal treaty talks and resource development

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is joined by Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Bernard Valcourt and Minister of Environment Leona Aglukkaq as they take part in a meeting with artic leaders in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut on Thursday, August 22, 2013.


The Conservative government is launching more flexible options for aboriginal treaty talks after setbacks to its ambitious resource development plans.

The announcement signals Ottawa's desire to give its stagnant British Columbia treaty process a boost by negotiating smaller, incremental treaties where possible and signing deals with aboriginal groups outside the formal treaty process.

It is also promising to improve its nation-wide approach to aboriginal consultation, which has been at the heart of a string of court defeats for the federal government as it attempts to speed up resource projects like mining and new pipelines, particularly in Western Canada.

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Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt made the announcement on Monday in Vancouver via a news release and was not available to answer questions.

The plans are in response to recommendations in a November, 2013, report from Douglas Eyford, who was appointed last year by Prime Minister Stephen Harper as Canada's special federal representative on West Coast energy infrastructure.

Mr. Eyford's report called for better relations between governments and aboriginals in order to build the trust required to reach agreement on resource development. However, trust is in short supply at the moment when it comes to aboriginal relations and the Harper government.

While the Prime Minister won high praise with his 2008 apology for Canada's residential schools history, his government has inspired resentment over its approach to resource development and education reform. The Assembly of First Nations is leaderless because of internal disagreement over how to work with Ottawa.

Mr. Valcourt's announcement also comes on the heels of a Supreme Court ruling in June that for the first time recognized the existence of aboriginal title on a particular site in B.C. – a decision that put aboriginals on a new footing, in part because it said they still own their ancestral lands if they did not surrender them through treaties.

Anne Johnson, a Queen's University community relations expert and PhD candidate in mining, said Ottawa appears to be redoubling its efforts to persuade First Nations people they would benefit from resource projects such as the Northern Gateway pipeline to the B.C. coast.

"It's a step forward," she said. "But I think the government is looking at it through their own lens, which is that development is the highest good and a desirable outcome."

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Historic treaties and modern land agreements cover most of Canada, but B.C. is a clear exception. According to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, 57 groups representing two-thirds of all First Nations people in the province are currently participating in the B.C. treaty process. Since the negotiations were launched in 1993, the government has signed and implemented three modern treaties.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, the president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, called the government's announcement a "misguided" attempt to calm jitters among industry stakeholders.

"This is a pathetic effort to revitalize the treaty process in the aftermath of a dramatic change to the legal landscape," he said, referring to the Supreme Court decision. "It's going to take more than that."

Monday's announcement includes an offer from Ottawa to facilitate shared territory disputes between aboriginal groups in relation to major resource development projects. It is also offering to stop clawing back federal transfers for health, education and social development based on an aboriginal government's own sources of revenue. Ottawa will also resume treaty fisheries negotiations in B.C., which had been deferred as part of a public inquiry into the Fraser River Sockeye population.

"Our goal is to work in partnership so we can seize opportunities to promote prosperous communities and economic development for the benefit of all Canadians," Mr. Valcourt said in a statement.

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