B.C. Premier Christy Clark and her cabinet have set a tentative date of Sept. 11 to meet with First Nations leaders and discuss the Supreme Court of Canada's recognition last week of aboriginal title in the Tsilhqot'in decision.
The date was set at a meeting in Victoria on Thursday between senior provincial bureaucrats and the B.C. First Nations Leadership Council (FNLC), made up of the First Nations Summit, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the B.C. Assembly of First Nations.
FNLC members said the province admitted at the meeting it was taken by surprise by the top court decision.
"There were two things that they said. One, that they didn't expect it [the court's Tsilhqot'in decision]. Secondly, it wasn't something that they hoped for," recounted Grand Chief Edward John of the First Nations Summit, an umbrella group for B.C. First Nations involved in land claims negotiations with the government.
On June 26, the court granted a declaration of aboriginal title to more than 1,700 square kilometres of land in British Columbia to the Tsilhqot'in First Nation. The decision was described as a game changer in relations between First Nations with unextinguished title rights — basically, groups that never negotiated treaties with the Crown — and the government.
Most of British Columbia consists of unceded territory for which treaties have yet to be negotiated. The same situation exists in parts of Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes.
Thursday's meeting started out as a tense affair, according to Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the B.C. Council of Indian Chiefs. Negotiations between First Nations and the province have been slow and unproductive since Clark took over as premier, he said.
"They [the provincial bureaucrats] were a bit back on their heels. We [the Leadership Council] vented and expressed our frustrations with their lack of engagement over the last couple of years.
"They were quite defensive about that and were trying to suggest that perhaps there has been some progress, when really, there hasn't.
"But you know they had to admit that everything we were saying was true," he said.
Phillip described the meeting as a very initial discussion, once the venting was done. He said there is a lot of work for both sides to do over the summer.
He also played down expectations for the Sept. 11 meeting. He can't see a full plan being ready until next spring.
"When we get to Sept. 11, we may only be in a position to acknowledge the infirmity of the work and make some general commitments to engage the issue."