British Columbia: a testing ground
British Columbia is a special case in the treaty process. There are more First Nations negotiating treaties in the province, but their populations are smaller and the areas in question are much more limited than elsewhere in Canada.
Following an agreement between the governments of Canada, British Columbia and the First Nations Summit, a Treaty Commission was established in 1992.
The treaty process in British Columbia is less formal than elsewhere in Canada, but it is just as slow. In 18 years, only two agreements have reached the implementation phase: Tsawwassen First Nation and Maa-Nulth First Nations.
However, some 60 land claims, covering two-thirds of the province's geographical area, have been accepted.
According to Sophie Pierre, chief commissioner of the BC Treaty Commission, the three parties must make a more concerted effort to conclude the treaties.
In her view, only the province has kept up the pace over the years - for example, by concluding interim agreements with certain communities. Pierre also enjoins First Nations to settle overlapping claims and the sharing of land, since these problems could prevent agreements with the federal and provincial governments from being concluded.
A delicate matter
What frustrates the commissioner most is the federal government's attitude.
"They haven't had a fish mandate for six years. Their position is that you can't have a treaty without everything in the package. If they can't finalize fish, they can't have a package."
Fish is, indeed, a delicate matter. Fisheries are an important part of the provincial economy, and fishing is also an integral part of the First Nations' way of life.
This issue long stalled negotiations with the Sliammon First Nation before a final agreement was reached in June 2010. As planned, British Columbia and the First Nation have signed the agreement, but the federal government has yet to do so.
"Canada is currently completing a review of the agreement and will then be able to draft a final agreement," explains Geneviève Guibert, spokesperson for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, in an email.
This attitude annoys Sophie Pierre, who notes that Aboriginal groups are going into debt to cover costs incurred during the negotiation process.
"If something is negotiated and you shake hands, then you have a deal. If they don't have a commitment to negotiate, it would be simpler to be honest on that."
According to Ms. Pierre, this delay is having an adverse effect on other negotiations, with parties wondering whether it is worth their while to remain at the table.
In the meantime, the Tsawwassen have been implementing their treaty since 2009. The treaty of the Maa-Nulth First Nations came into effect on April 1, 2011. It now begins the implementation phase of the treaty process.