B.C. signs deal with 6 coastal First Nations

The B.C. government has signed a wide-ranging agreement with six coastal First Nations aimed at promoting economic development on the province's central and northern coast.

The B.C. government has signed a wide-ranging agreement with six coastal First Nations aimed at promoting economic development on the province's central and northern coast.

Premier Gordon Campbell signed the Coastal Reconciliation Protocol protocol Thursday with leaders of the Gitga'at First Nation, Haisla Nation, Heiltsuk Nation, Kitasoo band, Metlakatla First Nation and Wuikinuxw Nation.

The deal includes $25 million in federal-provincial funding for a new ferry terminal at Klemtu, shared decision-making on resource and land use, allocation of carbon-offset revenue from forests on First Nations' traditional territory and revenue-sharing of commercial recreation permits.

The premier told a room full of aboriginal leaders in Victoria on Thursday this protocol "will ensure lasting and comprehensive reconciliation with the coast First Nations by giving those First Nations a direct say in the decisions that impact their people."

Percy Starr, the Kitasoo's longtime band manager, said the new ferry terminal will restore Klemtu's regular transportation link to the rest of the province, enabling it to expand its aquaculture industry.

"The relationship that I'd like to see us develop is starting to take shape," he said.

Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, praised the agreement, which he said was achieved after a decade of effort to establish a new economic base on what coastal residents call the Great Bear Rainforest.

He credited the pragmatism of federal and provincial ministers and the work of a new generation of aboriginal leaders who refused to be handcuffed by legislation governing First Nations' relationship with government.

"It takes a tremendous amount of courage in the legal framework that we're operating in to move forward and sign off agreements," Sterritt said.

Breakthrough without treaty

The deal is a breakthrough for the province, after two decades of negotiations with B.C.'s First Nations that produced limited results.

This summer, the province's proposed Recognition and Reconciliation Act, aimed at forging what Campbell deems a new relationship with First Nations, was also derailed by First Nations opposition.

Although dozens of First Nations have become involved in treaty talks with the provincial and federal governments since the early 1990s, only one treaty -- with the Tsawwassen First Nation south of Vancouver -- is in effect, while another final agreement has been ratified.

Instead, the B.C. government moved toward signing specific land use and economic deals with First Nations, such as the one announced on Thursday.

Speaking to reporters, Campbell said governments don't have a "shining" history of responsible relationships with First Nations.

"I think the fact of the matter is you build trust one step at a time and you build trust where you have First Nations and communities that are willing to take that step," he said.

Sterritt, a former member of the B.C. Treaty Commission, said he spent 10 fruitless years at the table where government negotiators had no mandate to make agreements and First Nations were skeptical of signing something where they didn't know the long-term implications.

That's not the case with the type of deals announced Thursday, he said.

"What our people look at this as, is a way to incrementally build up that you may put a ribbon around at the end of the day and call it a treaty, if it works," he said.