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Editorials B.C.’s glacial treaty process: A century late, it’s time to make a deal

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday March 18, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

There have been times when it has been tempting to just give up on the frustrating negotiations of indigenous treaties in British Columbia. But that would be a mistake. The people of B.C., aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike, need to have the issues of ownership and rights over much of the province's land sorted out in modern treaties. There is no other way.

The B.C. Treaty Commission, a negotiating vehicle involving the province, the federal government and native bands, was set up in 1992 and for the next couple of decades it moved at a pace slow enough to make a snail look like a steroid-filled sprinter. Only seven first nations in B.C., among 75 treaty negotiation "tables," have come near to completing an agreement. John Rustad, the provincial Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, has said that, at the current rate, negotiations with all 198 bands in B.C. will take 600 years to complete.

Some observers have said that all sides have negotiated in bad faith. In early 2015, the B.C. government apparently got fed up, and decided not to appoint former provincial cabinet minister George Abbott as chief commissioner of the Treaty Commission. Instead, B.C. named nobody to the post, freezing the barely moving negotiations.

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Premier Christy Clark may realize, with the provincial election in May, 2017, not far off, that the NDP Opposition might well attack the Liberal government for letting these issues languish.

So Mr. Rustad is trying to resuscitate the negotiations. The brave-new-world approach is not exactly clear. Ottawa, Victoria and the First Nations have formed a plan to negotiate "core" treaties; more difficult issues are to be sorted out later. And then there are to be "stepping-stone" treaties. If the metaphor is to be taken literally, the parties should stretch their legs without getting their feet wet.

Now that the federal Liberal government has accepted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it has committed itself to a whole set of tricky, slippery stepping stones with quite a few cracks. Meanwhile, Mr. Rustad, a provincial Liberal, is right to insist that negotiations can't go on ad infinitum. British Columbians, native and non-native, need clarity. They shouldn't have to wait six centuries more to get it.

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