British Columbia

B.C. native treaty process has cost $1B with little success: report

More than $1 billion has been spent on negotiating treaties with B.C. First Nations with little success, says a report released Monday by the Fraser Institute.

More than $1 billion has been spent on negotiating treaties with B.C. First Nations with little success, says a report released Monday by the Fraser Institute.

The B.C. Treaty Commission was set up in 1993 to facilitate negotiations between governments and First Nations in British Columbia, where, unlike in other provinces, lands were never legally ceded by First Nations.

In the 15 years since the commission opened its doors, the Vancouver-area Tsawwassen First Nation became the first to have a treaty fully ratified by Parliament earlier this year.

Another treaty with five Vancouver Island bands known as the Maa-nulth First Nations is expected to be ratified soon.

The Nisga'a First Nation signed B.C.'s first modern-day treaty in 1999, though it wasn't part of the B.C. Treaty Commission process.

That leaves 56 First Nations still in the negotiation process, despite the $1.1 billion already spent by Ottawa, the provincial government and First Nations communities themselves, says the report by the Fraser Institute, a research and education think-tank that focuses on a free-market economy with less government intervention.

"It's money that has been spent without a tremendous amount to show for it," Mark Milke, author of the report, said in an interview.

Bureaucracy drags treaty process: report

Milke said even in cases in which treaties have been reached or are nearing completion, they often call for further consultation and negotiation that require a complicated bureaucracy and extend the process.

For example, he cited the deal with the Tsawwassen First Nation, which gives the 300-member band more than 700 hectares of prime land in Delta, south of Vancouver, about $14 million in cash, self-government provisions and fishing rights.

Milke's report notes 38 areas where the agreement calls for further consultation.

"Many people may well be happy to spend more money to finalize treaties in the event that are actually final," he said. "Much of what is being portrayed as final is not in fact final in the manner that it could be."

But Doug McArthur, a professor of public policy at Simon Fraser University, said the Tsawwassen agreement and others that will follow do, in fact, settle fundamental treaty rights.

McArthur said that while the treaties offer processes for settling issues that will arise further down the road, it's misleading to suggest there are substantial issues left unsettled.

"The treaties, by and large, do not set up the need for further negotiations down the road," he said.

"They set up co-operative relationships, which mean there must be ongoing relationships between governments. But virtually all of those things are to simplify and make the relationship between First Nations and the governments work more effectively."

Treaty decisions difficult: SFU professor

McArthur shared concerns about the length of the treaty process but he said there are several reasons it has taken so long.

First, it took several years to set up the process under which negotiations would operate, and talks were stalled several times due to major court cases and changes in governments, he said.

Even when negotiations are actually happening, McArthur said, it's not easy for First Nations to decide to sign treaties.

"These are really complex and difficult decisions to make," said McArthur. "They also see the treaties as replacing the historic and traditional rights and this gives them a great deal of cause for thought."

No one from the B.C. Treaty Commission was available to comment Monday on the Fraser Institute report.

The federal Department of Indian Affairs said it needed more time to review the report before responding, and a spokesperson for B.C.'s minister of aboriginal relations said he wasn't available.

The B.C. Treaty Commission says seven B.C. First Nations are in the final stage before reaching agreements, and another 42 are in the negotiating phase. Eight others are in earlier stages.