It seemed like such a good idea at the time.
The B.C. Treaty Commission was established to facilitate talks between the provincial and federal governments and First Nations, most of whom had never signed the kind of accords and comprehensive land claims settlements negotiated by native groups elsewhere in Canada. It was the hope that within six to 10 years, most of B.C.'s bands could operate under treaties as well.
So much for best-laid plans. There were 65 First Nations, representing 104 Indian Act bands, participating in the process when it began 22 years ago. Since then, just two treaties have been implemented. A handful of others have signed final agreements that haven't yet been enacted. But overall, B.C.'s treaty process has been a complete and utter bust.
The long, drawn-out talks have also created a corollary issue: native debt. While lawyers and negotiators for Ottawa and the province are paid by taxpayers, native groups had no such money available for expensive legal advice. So, Ottawa agreed to lend the First Nations money for negotiating staff.
As we know, legal advice doesn't come cheap. You can imagine the kind of bills that can be racked up by counsel representing more than 100 bands over the course of 20-plus years. As of this year, the amount of money lent by Ottawa for this purpose stands at almost a half a billion dollars.
Since the treaty process began, several First Nations have walked away from the table, fed up with glacial pace of progress and policies they believe were grossly unfair to native groups. For instance, the federal government instituted an Own Source Revenue diktat in regards to aboriginal groups making money from external sources. For every outside dollar a band brought in through an economic development project, Ottawa subtracted a dollar in transfer funds for health, education and social assistance programs.
This policy infuriated many First Nations, which felt they had the right to obtain a standard of living similar to most Canadians before having transfer payments reduced against profits made through other means. In fact, many bands walked away from treaty talks because of this decree. Ottawa has recently abandoned this edict, but not before it had stalled (or abandoned) many treaty talks.
Now, some B.C. bands are millions of dollars in debt to the federal government with no means of repaying the money. In the meantime, banks are rejecting them for startup financing on various economic development projects because of the debt they're carrying.
There's another problem. When a First Nation does sign a treaty, it gets a capital transfer from Ottawa to assist in initiating self-government operations. The amount is negotiable, but so far, it's been in the range of $10-million to $30-million. In some cases, the amounts approach what the bands owe Ottawa in loans. In other words, if they pay off their federal debts upon signing a treaty, they'll have little money left to finance self-government.
The B.C. Treaty Commission has tried to get the federal government to deal with this matter, but with little success. It seems Ottawa has no appetite for discussions about forgiving the loans, but that may well be exactly what has to happen.
The reality is that the federal government is never going to force a band with no means for paying off its debt into bankruptcy. Ottawa was largely responsible for the constant delays in the treaty talks, either because of reaction to its policies or its inability or reluctance to deal with difficult issues at the table.
Also, there have been general elections and changes in government, resulting in strategy shifts by federal negotiators. So it can be reasonably argued that Ottawa is principally responsible for the debts incurred by these First Nations – groups that had no choice but to take on these obligations if they wanted to participate in the process.
The federal government needs to deal with this issue now. To put it off any longer is not in anyone's interests, least of all the First Nations that are buried under debt.