B.C. Aboriginal Relations Minister John Rustad signs agreement in principle with five Vancouver Island First Nations April 9. It establishes land and cash settlement, but a lengthy legal text and federal fisheries shares remain to complete.

Treaty cash cow may dry up

Some B.C. Treaty Commission negotiations are making slow progress, while others have seen little or no movement

VICTORIA – The B.C. Treaty Commission and its federal and provincial financiers put on a brave show last week, celebrating a “milestone” in negotiations for a modern treaty with five Vancouver Island First Nations.

A regional group representing the Songhees, Beecher Bay, T’Souke, Malahat and Snaw-Naw-As (Nanoose) First Nations have reached the “agreement in principle” stage of negotiations with Canada and B.C., after 20 years of treaty talks.

This is similar to the treaty finalized in 2007 with another five-member Vancouver Island group called Maa-Nulth Nations. The Te’mexw Treaty Association agreed to accept 1,565 hectares of provincial Crown land and $142 million in federal cash to settle its historic aboriginal title.

Alas, agreement in principle is but the fourth of sixth stages. Now a platoon of lawyers takes over from the roomful of negotiators to produce the final legal text. It will be years before this treaty can be presented to the B.C. legislature and the House of Commons in Ottawa, if it ever is.

These elaborate ceremonies will never be viewed the same again after the release of federal treaty advisor Doug Eyford’s report last month. The Te’mexw event seemed to have an extra urgency after Eyford’s observation that much of this costly activity has become a job creation program for those involved.

These Vancouver Island communities deserve credit for setting aside their own territorial disputes. It’s more than most have done. Eyford concluded after a long summer of meetings last year that many treaty negotiation teams in this province and across the country show no such inclination.

In B.C. and elsewhere in Canada, there is a “conspicuous lack of urgency in negotiations” and “sharp divisions” between parties, most of which have been at the table for a decade or more, Eyford found.

This is what has come to be known as the “aboriginal industry,” where lawyers and consultants have a seemingly endless supply of lucrative work, much of it of questionable value. For some aboriginal participants, attending treaty meetings year after year is the best paying job they have ever had.

Indeed, a common feature of the province’s dealings with aboriginal communities is that their leaders demand meetings, and then demand to be paid to attend them.

This latest Vancouver Island treaty, assuming it is ever finalized, would at least in part replace the Douglas Treaties, signed by B.C.’s colonial governor James Douglas in the 1850s.

These treaties around Fort Victoria were quickly concluded if nothing else. The Beecher Bay Band was paid 45 pounds, 10 shillings for most of Sooke and another 43 pounds and change for its Metchosin territory.

One of the biggest missing pieces in the latest agreement in principle is the share of federally-regulated fisheries. This has been a theme of B.C. Treaty Commission reports in recent years, as Ottawa holds up treaties for years because it is unable or unwilling to offer shares of salmon in particular.

Hunting and fishing rights are acknowledged even in historic treaties, and reaffirmed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Sharing these rights while maintaining conservation of fish stocks has been more than Ottawa, and in some cases neighbouring aboriginal communities, have been able to manage.

Eyford’s findings, and the B.C. government’s sudden refusal to keep staffing a B.C. Treaty Commission that shows so little progress, have sent one overdue message.

If participants aren’t prepared to make real compromises and show a willingness to conclude agreements rather than drag them out, they should leave and come back when they are ready to do so.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc

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