On one hand, it's good that there has been no great public uproar over the latest reports on the B.C. treaty process.
The reports, by the federal and provincial auditors general, aren't encouraging. Since the current treaty process started 13 years ago the participants have spent about $1 billion, about $5,900 per native in the province.
And all that effort and money haven't produced a single treaty. The Lheidli T'enneh First Nation near Prince George has signed an agreement, but it still needs ratification by members. Several other deals are reportedly close.
Despite the lack of results, the public appears ready to press.
That's good. There's a legal obligation to compensate First Nations for land that was taken from them without their consent. Negotiated treaties are the best way to do that.
And the lack of treaties has left big questions about land ownership and management across much of the province. Until those are resolved, investors are going to be nervous about projects in B.C., costing jobs and economic activity.
Finally, there is an obvious need to improve the lives of natives, erasing the huge gaps in health, education, economic circumstances and social stability. Treaties are part of that process.
So it's welcome that British Columbians and Canadians appear ready to press on despite the high costs and lack of progress.
But it's also important that we learn from these reports and push all three parties to the treaty process to do a better job. It's one thing to accept the need for treaties and acknowledge the reality that the job is complex. It's another to watch complacently as the parties churn through another $1 billion over the next 13 years.
When the B.C. Treaty Commission was proposed in 1991 it was supposed to bring together representatives of the federal and provincial governments and First Nations. The commissioners were to help fast track treaty settlements. They were to oversee talks and keep the parties on track.
The governments predicted that with the commission's help and goodwill all outstanding claims would be settled by 2000.
So what's gone wrong?
The commission hasn't worked as planned. It has been a timid watchdog. When it has pressed the parties for more effective approaches, it's been politely ignored. Back in 2002 the commission suggested moving some big issues - like taxation questions - to regional or provincial negotiations. That way, the two governments and First Nations could attempt to set out some broad principles for settlement instead of tackling the same questions at 47 different treaty tables. The idea went nowhere.
The auditors' reports found governments haven't done their part to push things forward. The Liberals' foolish and now-ignored treaty referendum stalled talks. Both governments have sent negotiators to the table with mandates so limited that settlement would be impossible. Governments have chosen to focus on a few treaty tables, partly to save money, and other talks have stalled as a result.
Even positive moves, like Premier Gordon Campbell's attempts to create a new relationship with First Nations, have created problems. The interim agreements on land use and revenue-sharing reached as part of the new relationship provided First Nations with the benefits of treaties without having to give up any of their claims.
There are no easy solutions. It makes sense to reach interim agreements, for example, both for First Nations and to allow economic development, even if they make treaties harder to reach. And there is no escaping the reality that the courts are always looming over the process, an alternate battleground when things go badly for any party. First Nations are tempted to wait and see what the next legal ruling brings.
But the reports suggest a bigger problem. Despite the big money being spent, there has been little sense of urgency or commitment to getting deals done. That focus needs to be much sharper.
Footnote: The reports note that First Nations now have borrowed about $290 million to fund their role in treaty talks, money that was to be repaid from cash settlements. Repayment was to start 12 years after the first loans were made to a First Nation, but governments have not enforced the provision. The expectation now is that loans will be forgiven.