Historic B.C. treaty vote could transform future of Lheidli T'enneh First Nation

Voting is underway to determine the fate of a groundbreaking treaty in north-central British Columbia, 11 years after it was first rejected by members of the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation.

Self-governance, millions of dollars, over 43 square kilometres of land on table

The Lheidli T'enneh First Nation has turned down a proposed treaty with the provincial and federal governments. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Voting is underway to determine the fate of a groundbreaking treaty in north-central British Columbia, 11 years after it was first rejected by members of the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation.

At stake is more than 43 square kilometres of land in and around Prince George, millions of dollars and the nature of the Lheidli T'enneh's relationship with the federal and provincial governments.

It's largely the same document that was defeated by a vote of 123 to 111 by the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation in 2007, fizzling hopes it would be the first of many agreements adopted under the B.C. Treaty Commission.

To date, only four treaties have reached the implementation stage.

There are approximately 600 members of the Lheidli T'enneh Nation, most of whom live in the Prince George area, but also scattered throughout western Canada and the U.S.

Members of the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation as well as representatives from the B.C and federal governments initial a treaty agreement in Prince George, B.C. in May. (B.C. Treaty Commission/Facebook)

Pros and cons

David Luggi, former chief of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, which represents several First Nations neighbouring the Lheidli T'enneh, doesn't want the treaty to pass and says the First Nation is entitled to more land than is being offered.

Luggi argues the political and legal landscape of Canada has changed since the treaty was first negotiated in 2007, pointing to the federal government's adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the 2014 Supreme Court ruling granting the Tsihlhqot'in First Nation title to more than 1,700 square kilometres of land.

Luggi said the Lheidli T'enneh are entitled to more that 15,000 square kilometres of territory — far more than the 43 square kilometres on offer — as well as revenue from economic activity in the region, ranging from fishing and forestry to the building of pipelines for liquefied natural gas.

Members of the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation are voting on whether to accept or reject a treaty with the governments of Canada and B.C. Carolina de Ryk speaks to Rick Krehbiel, one of the lead negotiators for the Lheidli T'enneh, about why he thinks it's a good deal, and former Carrier Sekani Tribal Chief and current consultant David Luggi about why he believes it falls short. 13:45

However, Rick Krehbiel who's worked for the Lheidli T'enneh as a treaty consultant and negotiator since the mid-1990s, favours the treaty.

Krehbiel said one of its key benefits is that it removes the Lheidli T'enneh from the Indian Act and ushers an era of self-governance under a constitution.

That constitution would, among other things, allow the Lheidli T'enneh to collect taxes on their land and set rules around citizenship. 

The Lheidli T'enneh currently have about seven square kilometres of reserve land outside of Prince George. If the treaty is ratified, reserve land, along with another 36 square kilometres in north-central B.C., will be converted to land privately owned by the First Nation.

"It's very difficult to get ahead under the Indian Act," he said. "It's an old, outdated piece of legislation that gives First Nations the weakest order of government in Canada."

Educational efforts

To pass, the treaty needs 50 per cent plus one of all eligible voters in the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation. If defeated, it will be taken off the table altogether. There will be a voting station in Prince George June 17 and June 23, and one in Vancouver on June 22.

Tamara Seymour has spent most of the past three years encouraging people to get informed.

"It's important that every Lheidli T'enneh member makes their own individual choice," Seymour said.

The Lheidli T'enneh Treaty Team has been working to educate members of the First Nation about what's at stake in this month's vote. Tamara Seymour, left, says she hopes young people turn out to vote. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

She and her team have been working to distil the agreement into easily understandable points through a Facebook page, website and hundreds of community meetings across western Canada.

She said presenting the treaty in plain language is important because many people, herself included, were confused when they voted in 2007.

"It's a hard read," she said of the over-200 page document.

The Lheidli T'enneh are also holding a homecoming this weekend, welcoming members from across North America to encourage voting.

Seymour said whether the treaty is adopted or not, her main hope is people feel educated — particularly younger generations.

"It's about them," she said. "It's their future."

Over the next week, members of the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation will be voting on a treaty deal with the governments of B.C. and Canada. It's a second chance for the deal, which was first rejected in 2007. The CBC's Andrew Kurjata explains the history of the deal, and what's at stake for the future. 9:09

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About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

@akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is a radio producer and digital journalist in northern British Columbia, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George.