Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The big question about treaties

VICTORIA - Three draft treaties in less than two months. Not a bad way for First Nations and the provincial and federal governments to end the year.
And at the same time, the latest deals are a reminder of the need to get moving on treaties across the province.
The Maa-nulth First Nations from Vancouver Island's west coast were the latest to initial a treaty, days after the Tsawwassen band agreed to tentative terms. Add in the deal reached with the Lheidli T'eneh in October and you've got a large chunk of the province covered - a coastal group of First Nations, an urban band and one from the northern Interior.
First Nations don't like the idea that these agreements are setting patterns for future settlements. Each of the 47 sets of negotiations is different, they maintain.
But practically, these deals are setting benchmarks. Or they should be.
These aren't yet treaties. The federal and provincial governments have to approve them - a formality now that the Campbell Liberals have abandoned their past objections to treaties. There have been complaints about provisions that would see land taken out of the Agricultural Land Reserve as part of the Tsawwassen deal and concerns that non-
natives leaving on reserve lands won't have votes on all decisions.
But without a political party leading the opposition, as the Liberals did in trying to kill the Nisga'a treaty, speedy government approval is assured.
The bigger risk lies in the membership votes each First Nation will hold. The band members are making an enormous decision. The treaties are final settlements of all outstanding claims. There's no chance to try again if a mistake is made. The members know that their vote will affect the lives of future generations.
They will be looking at the fairness of the agreements, in terms of what's been lost and what is offered. And members will be wondering if their negotiators have left anything on the table - whether waiting could produce a better deal.
That's more of a problem. Broadly, these agreements look fair. The five first nations that are part of the Maa-nulth group, for example, will get about $300 million over the next 25 years.  They'll get about 240 square kilometers of land - figure 60 Stanley Parks - including some high-value oceanfront with development potential. That's about eight per cent of the traditional territory they claimed.
But Maa-nulth voters s will be wondering if they could get more by waiting.
It's a fair question. Setting a value on a treaty deal is difficult, but estimate this agreement at $200,000 per member in land and cash over the next few decades.
That's significantly better than the Nisga'a did with their agreement, approved in 2000. And it's much better than a tentative agreement reached on behalf of the Maa-
nulth and other Vancouver Island First Nations in 2001, just before the election. That agreement fell apart and led to a breakup of the native negotiating group.
The lesson - for First Nations voting on these treaties and others still bargaining - could easily be that waiting pays. That's especially true, as B.C.'s acting auditor general noted in a report earlier this month, if interim agreements developed as part of the province's "new relationship" provide some of the benefits of treaties without any commitments. There are benefits to First Nations in getting treaties done quickly. The sooner the agreements are signed, the sooner they can begin working towards what should be a better future.
But federal and provincial government negotiators are also going to have to be clear. While First Nations can still expect meaningful negotiations at treaty tables, the compensation pattern, in broad terms, is being set now. The Tsawwassen, Maa-nulth and Lheidli T'eneh need to know that it will not be a mistake to lead the way.
If they have that confidence, B.C. could be on the brink of an important step forward on treaties.
Footnote: The rising costs of settlement raise again the question of how different things might be today if the B.C. Liberals had not fought the Nisga'a treaty and given up at least two years of potential progress while they conducted the now-ignored referendum on treaty principles.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Don't get large expectations. The Sechelt signed off on their AIP years ago after many main table negotiations, where a fairly large number of band members showed up. A couple of us showed up as well and got to know a number of the participants. We never missed a main table when they were held on the lower mainland. Our association supported the modern treaty idea with great vigour.
The subject of taxation was well covered as was the other things to sort out the "bundle of rights" It wasn't the least bit secretive in fact the Chief( Feschuck) insisted that things be kept very open. He used to invite us to side table meetings as well. That was unheard of at other tables we routinely attended. So what happened? When it came time for the membership vote it was defeated, the chief was I believe voted out, the financial guy and the lead lawyer was terminated.( The guys had been in place for years) Excuse? Nobody told us we would be paying taxes. Nothing was further from the truth. I recall the financila guy telling us a numnber of times. If we have the authority to tax non Indians we certainly expect to tax ourselves. The records of decisions spelled it out, and of course the policy papers on the subjects covered, disappeared when the present government showed up. A pity as that group had worked very hard to resolve the issues. Self government for the Sechelt wasn't some new concept, They have had a self government system for a large number of years. All three parties at the table wanted a solid treaty, they didn't get it.