First Nations treaty negotiators in B.C. are blaming the federal government for delays in the ratification of at least seven aboriginal treaties and for slowing the progress of many others.
Federal treaty negotiators are telling B.C. First Nations they can't complete final treaty agreements because they don't have a mandate from Ottawa to deliver salmon allocations as part of any deal, Jody Wilson, acting chief of the B.C. Treaty Commission, said Wednesday.
'Fish is just hugely critical to First Nations … they won't negotiate a treaty without salmon' — Jody Wilson, B.C. Treaty Commission
Wilson said salmon plays an important cultural, social and food role for B.C. aboriginals and not being able to talk about the salmon catch puts a huge hole in negotiations.
Unlike the rest of Canada, the colonial government did not sign land treaties with most First Nations in British Columbia and some modern treaties have been under negotiation for decades.
For most First Nations closing in on final agreements, Wilson said, the fish issue is the last hurdle to clear.
"Fish is just hugely critical to First Nations, specifically up and down the coast, and they won't negotiate a treaty without salmon," she said.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is conducting a review of the West Coast fishery, Wilson said, and federal negotiators won't discuss fish at the treaty table until the review is complete.
'In the interests of conservation of the resource, we need to thoroughly review the status of it [West Coast fishery]' — Al Macdonald, spokesman for the DFO
"When will that review be completed? We've asked and we are not certain, and they haven't given us a specific answer, but we will definitely press them to have that answer sooner than later," Wilson said.
At a treaty ceremony last week at the B.C. legislature, Yale First Nation Chief Robert Hope said a fish agreement between the federal government and Fraser Canyon aboriginals is also delaying their treaty ratification.
Department of Fisheries and Oceans spokesman Al Macdonald said the review of the fishery is necessary to get detailed information about current salmon numbers and the sustainability of stocks.
He said recent salmon returns have been poor and conservation is a major issue.
"We have to be satisfied that what we are negotiating is sustainable and is enduring," said Macdonald, the department's senior negotiator for treaties in the Pacific region.
He said he doesn't know when the review will be ready, but that doesn't mean treaty negotiations should stall.
Treaty commission wants timetable for report
"In the interests of conservation of the resource, we need to thoroughly review the status of it," Macdonald said. "We understand the interests of First Nations to proceed as quickly as possible, and that's factored into our review process."
Treaty commissioner Jerry Lampert said the commission is calling on the government to set a timetable to delivering the report in order to speed up treaty negotiations.
"Negotiations are being held up," he said. "The time has come to complete the review."
Lampert said at least seven B.C. First Nations would be close to signing a final treaty agreement if the fish issue had been settled.
There are seven First Nations left waiting because of the issue: Sliammon First Nation, Namgis First Nation, Northern Shuswap Tribal Council Society, Tsimshian First Nations, Katzie First Nation and Winalagalis Tribal Group.
Wilson said the pace of treaty talks after more than 15 years has been slow, but resolving the issues is a necessity.
There are about 200 First Nations in B.C. and only about two dozen have treaties.