Sunday, June 20, 2004

Harper win means tougher times for BC treaty talks

VICTORIA - A perfect storm is about to slam into First Nations treaty talks.
Things were already getting bumpier in B.C. Add a Conservative election win and the dramatic treaty policy changes likely to follow, and the skies grow decidedly darker. Successful talks look less likely, and the chance of blockades and lawsuits increases.
The prospect of a Conservative government has cranked up fears. The party doesn't mention B.C. treaties in its platform, but expect at least tougher negotiating line.
Or perhaps much more. Tony Penikett is a former Yukon premier, and a senior fellow on First Nations treaty issues at Simon Fraser University. "If there's a Harper government after June 28, that may effectively end treaty negotiations in B.C.," he says.
Mr. Penikett points to the influence of Tom Flanagan, probably Conservative leader Stephen Harper's closest policy advisor. Mr. Flanagan, an academic, is national campaign manager and certain of a senior role in a Harper government.
Mr. Flanagan has strong views on the treaty process and relations with Canada's aboriginal communities. (Mr. Flanagan rejects the First Nations term, arguing Canada's native groups don't qualify as nations.)
Back in 2001 Mr. Flanagan attacked the basic principles of treaty making in B.C. It's impractical to settle treaties by providing land, he said, because the land is already being used by others.
And he said Ottawa should give the treaty process another three years, and then hand the issue to a federal commission to resolve. Parliament - and the B.C. legislature - would approve the settlements, title would be extinguished and everything would be resolved.
It's an appealing but unworkable solution. The legal issue of title is not so easily swept away. And damaging First Nations' protests and pressure campaigns would be inevitable.
Mr. Flanagan has also argued that collective ownership of land by First Nations should be replaced by private ownership to encourage economic growth. Again, it's an interesting idea. But it is considered poisonous by First Nations, who see shared ownership as fundamental to their identity as a people. Give that up, they believe, and it is the end of their culture. (Mr. Flanagan argues for assimilation.)
Conservatives' aboriginal affairs critic John Duncan says he leads the policy development. But the Vancouver Island MP is vague about the party's plans for treaty talks, promising "productive" changes. But Mr. Duncan was a leading critic of the Nisga'a Treaty, objecting to the amount of land and money provided and the self-government provisions. Future agreements should "compensate aboriginals for what the courts recognize as their modest aboriginal entitlement," he says.
Policy debates are fine.
But this is a dangerous time for the Ottawa to lurch in a whole new treaty making direction.
After two years of apparent progress, relations between First Nations and the provincial government are souring. First Nations have found common cause in the Title and Rights Alliance, which is borrowing the proven tactics of the environmental campaigners.
The alliance is already out warning institutional investors about the risks of operating in B.C. until land claims are resolved.Its first "information blockades" on roads and highways will go up as early as the end of this month.
Tthe First Nations' Summit has just voted to support the alliance. And Dave Porter of the Kaska Dene has just been elected to its leadership group. Mr. Porter was a deputy premier in the Yukon NDP government, an aboriginal affairs assistant deputy minister under the B.C. New Democrats and the province's first oil and gas commissioner. He will be a formidable foe, or friend, for government.
All this comes as the BC Treaty Commission operates without a chief commissioner. Miles Richardson resigned to run as a Liberal candidate in Skeena-Bulkely Valley. First Nations and federal and provincial government have to agree on a candidate. It's unlikely the job will be filled before the fall, leaving a critical vacancy, at a difficult time.
B.C. needs treaties. But the process - already shaky - is facing a flood of changes and challenges that will make progress much tougher.
- From the Vancouver Sun

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