Thursday, November 30, 2006

A wake-up call on treaty progress and costs

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.


Anonymous said...

Hi Paul
The reason there has been no backlash about treaties is because the public has never bothered to find out how the system is supposed to work. I mentioned before ,that after over 70 main tables I went to as an observer,and supporter of modern treaties, I never once saw a media person in the room except when Sechelt signed onto the third stage. The media were never allowed at the long house ceremonies, and of course very few taxpayers ever got into them either. We went as invited guests, and it was real eye openers. Many public meetings heard the same argument. We don't know what's going on. Someone would mention the piles of information in the back of the room, The folks would leave empty handed. when the Standing Committee toured the province , most of the folks attending represented one side or the other. A number were very short of understanding the basics. So even now as the costs mount, the average taxpayer simply hopes it will all go away. You have written more on the process lately than most. Palmer has raised the issue a few times as well. In response we get DeJong telling us how well things are coming along. The annual reports of the Treaty Commission are not exactly best sellers. If anyone actually notices their concern seems to be, how come so much money and so little done. The ex socred AG , in his new job on railways, spent a lot of time explaining things to business folks at every chance he got. The court cases continue as bands are hoping for a few words giving them more leverage. I followed the system for ten years as a observer and a member of the Regional Advisory Committee. We finally sold our home at a loss and moved down town. I still keep an eye on the lack of progress but it saddens me to see how some folks sort of like to keep things the way they are. A quick read of the Indian act should convince anyone the status quo doesn't work. Books have been written on the subject but the movement is frustratingly slow. On Voice of BC last evening someone mentioned that a large number of the negotiators are nearing retirement age, who will replace them? The province has cut funding for treaty work. So do we expect results soon? Figure it out.

Anonymous said...

I doubt that the current treaty process is going to do much to improve the lives of aboriginals, even if every treaty ends up being settled to the most advantageous terms possible for aboriginals. Money is not the solution - accountability is the solution. The money that is already spent needs to be spent in a way that delivers results, and the local governments need to be truly accountable for the results they produce. I'm not even sure that the concept of a reserve system can survive in the 21st century. Rural economies just don't provide opportunities anymore, at least not for lucrative professions. I suspect that the best way for young aboriginals to better their lives is to get off the reserves, get a good education, and start turning the reserves into something of a retreat to which they can return to celebrate their heritage.

Anonymous said...

I notice in the T/C today( saturday) that the sacred place hole the Songeees were so convinced should be saved up in the middle of a development on Bear Mountain is to be forgotten by somebody coming up with cash for a casino. A few words over the cave and start digging.Things take on a different prospective when cash shows up. No wonder some bands arn't too keen to resolve issues with treaties. Threaten a court date and wait for the dollars is the name of the game. Makes the ones who are trying look like losers.The Songhees and the Esquimalt band got 35 million from the province when they decided the Legislative precinct belonged to them , the province caved as they really didn't want a court case to go on till the big game in 2010. Unfortunate but money talks.