Indigenous

Revamped B.C. treaty negotiation process drawing mixed reaction from First Nations

The First Nations Summit, province of British Columbia and federal government unveiled a new policy approach to the way treaties are negotiated in B.C. on Wednesday, anticipating more Indigenous groups will seek agreements.

New approach brings the B.C. treaty process 'into the 21st century,' says Cheryl Casimer

Robert Phillips of the First Nations Summit addresses the media alongside Kathryn Teneese in 2017 following the Supreme Court judgment related to the Jumbo Glacier Resort. He says the new B.C. treaty process is more like a marriage than a divorce. (Chantelle Bellrichard)

The First Nations Summit, province of British Columbia and federal government unveiled a new policy approach to the way treaties are negotiated in B.C. on Wednesday, anticipating more Indigenous groups will seek agreements.

Those involved in developing the new policy are touting this as an "opportunity to make profound improvements to how treaty negotiations are approached in British Columbia," according to a news release. 

The B.C. Treaty Commission and the treaty negotiation process were established in 1992 and have long been criticized for the low number of treaties finalized since then. 

According to the new policy document, "Between 1992 and 2019, three treaties were concluded with seven Indigenous Nations in British Columbia through the British Columbia treaty negotiations framework."

Cheryl Casimer, a member of the First Nations Summit political executive, said her own nation has been at the treaty table for over 20 years and is still "slogging away."

She said the new approach brings the B.C. treaty process "into the 21st century" and should help expedite a number of agreements. 

Cheryl Casimer says her own nation has been at the treaty table for over 20 years and is still 'slogging away.' (CBC)

The First Nations Summit represents 65 First Nations involved in the treaty process, which is about half of all Indian Act bands in the province.

When asked what British Columbians should know about the new policy approach, Cheryl Casimer said it boils down to the outstanding land question in B.C. that's gone largely unresolved for centuries. 

"British Columbians need to know that Aboriginal rights and title exist in this province. It's not a scary thing," she said. 

"I know that government is always talking about certainty to be able to entice investment and continue to do development on these lands. And so, what is different now is we're equal players at the table."

Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett takes part in an event in Iqaluit in March. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said the changes mean First Nations will no longer have to give up their rights to self-government and negotiators will automatically recognize those rights.

Bennett said that change — along with the federal government's move to forgive or reimburse First Nations about $1.4 billion in legal costs — may convince other Indigenous groups to come to the negotiating table.

Critics anticipate 'a lot more lawsuits' over overlapping territories

The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, which has opposed the B.C. Treaty Commission process since its inception, made clear its disappointment with the new policy. 

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said among his biggest concerns is the unresolved question of overlapping territories between First Nations. He said he worries the rights and title of those who aren't participating in treaty could be in jeopardy. 

"This so-called policy that was ratified just a few days ago is going to ensure that there will be a lot more lawsuits because there's no options left for the communities that are not in the treaty process," he said. 

"The situation is you have a treaty First Nation claiming territory and negotiating territory over a particular footprint, and the adjacent First Nation interest is not in the treaty process and they're finding that a substantial amount of their territory is compromised."

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs says he's concerned the new policy will lead to increased lawsuits between B.C. First Nations. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

While the policy document released Wednesday mentions the issue of territorial overlap, Phillip said it doesn't go far enough to ensure those outside the negotiations are protected. 

"If they were going to address overlap, they could have simply added language that would say that both neighbouring, adjacent nations would have to sign off on the final agreement," he said. 

Robert Phillips, a member of the First Nations Summit political executive, said they've heard from many chiefs in and out of the treaty process that the issue needs to be dealt with and a forum is planned for next March to find solutions.

New treaty process like a 'marriage'

Bennett said she wants critics of the treaty process to read the policy changes.

"It will, I think, allay a lot of fears," she said.

"We're dealing with the cynicism that's rightfully there of 150-plus years of broken promises."

Phillips said he's hopeful the changes will lead to more treaties because the policy is based on principles from the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

He said one of the biggest criticisms of the treaty process in the past has been lack of recognition of Aboriginal title.

This treaty process won't be like a divorce separating the governments and First Nations, Phillips said.

"It's actually a marriage where we can work together nation-to-nation with Canada and government-to-government with British Columbia."

with files from Canadian Press