By Bob Barnett
There was a sort of imperfect symmetry to Reform party leader Bill Vander Zalm’s massive defeat in the Delta South by-election on Dec. 7.
Nine years earlier, on Dec. 3, 1990, a task force representing First Nations, the federal government and then-premier Vander Zalm’s government was struck to establish a process for treaty negotiations in British Columbia. Today that treaty negotiation process, like Vander Zalm’s plans for a political comeback, appears to be going off the rails.
While recent media attention has focused on legislation to implement the Nisga’a treaty, and the federal Reform party’s attempts to prevent passage of that legislation, the dormant state of the treaty negotiation process in B.C. has been largely overlooked.
Last month 28 B.C. First Nations formed the First Nations Treaty Negotiations Alliance to demand that the federal and provincial governments "take immediate action to save the treaty process." They feel the federal and particularly the provincial negotiators haven’t been given a mandate to address First Nations’ needs, including land, cash compensation, resource management and certainty — a full and final settlement of aboriginal rights.
The frustration level is reaching the boiling point, as seen in the Okanagan with members of the Westbank Nation exercising their aboriginal right to log their land without a permit.
Closer to home, the In-SHUCK-ch N’Quat’qua — who were the first First Nation to enter the treaty negotiation process when it opened in 1994 and have been at the forefront of negotiations — completely rejected a land and cash proposal from the federal and provincial governments at the end of October.
Gerard Peters, chief negotiator for the In-SHUCK-ch N’Quat’qua, says that given "a lame duck premier and a lame duck provincial government" the proposal was simply an attempt to limit the provincial government’s political exposure.
"Governments aren’t usually creative, they’re reactive," Peters says. "At the end of October it became clear B.C. and Canada weren’t going to be creative with an election looming.
"I’ve been an NDP supporter but they’ve done me dirty," he says.
Peters is now considering supporting the Liberals, a move which may have been hastened by the defeat of both Vander Zalm and the NDP last week at the hands of Liberal Val Roddick.
"It occurs to me that if the Reform party goes the way of the dodo bird the Liberals will probably move more towards the centre," Peters says. "The NDP have shown the extent they’ll go to, and it’s not far enough."
The proposal to the In-SHUCK-ch N’Quat’qua on Oct. 29 included approximately 18,114 hectares of land, spread over 11 different parcels between Lillooet Lake and Harrison Lake and in the D’arcy area, and $29.75 million in cash, to be paid over a number of years.
The fact that the proposal was characterized as an offer further incensed Peters. He defines an offer as something parties propose to negotiate. He has since received a letter from Aboriginal Affairs Minister Dale Lovick clarifying that it was a proposal — a starting point — rather than a take-it-or-leave-it offer, but he has refused to respond to the proposal, saying there is no rationale for it.
"We indicated specifically and comprehensively our land interests. Their proposal showed they weren’t listening," Peters says.
Given the state of the NDP government, the debate over the Nisga’a treaty, public fears and the complexities of treaty negotiations in general, it’s perhaps not surprising that treaty negotiations across the province have reached an impasse. But the In-SHUCK-ch N’Quat’qua appeared to be a different case.
The In-SHUCK-ch N’Quat’qua have made extraordinary efforts to apprise their community and neighbouring communities of the state of negotiations right from the start. With the federal and provincial governments they have initialed 10 chapters of a treaty — indicating substantial agreement — on such subjects as government, police services, child protection and adoption. Another 11 chapters have been released for public consultation. But the political landscape, both internally (see related story) and in Victoria, is changing for the In-SHUCK-ch N’Quat’qua.
"I’ve consistently supported the NDP, except I supported David Mitchell when he was MLA," Peters said. "But I’m considering my support for the Liberals. I’m feeling it out, seeing the possibilities."
In fact, at the First Nations Summit earlier this fall Peters advocated First Nations announce their support for the Liberals in the hopes of getting the province’s attention. Neither that idea nor his proposal for First Nations to exert their aboriginal rights was supported. But he says it may take some sort of confrontation across the province to get all sides — First Nations, federal and provincial governments and the general public — to see treaty negotiations as something that have to be dealt with.
Peters has committed the In-SHUCK-ch N’Quat’qua to join the First Nations Treaty Negotiation Alliance and to work with other leading tables, such as the Gitanyow, Sechelt, Nanaimo and Sliammon, to pressure the federal and provincial governments to break the deadlock in treaty negotiations.
"There are three ways to our goals," Peters says. "Declare war, which is silly; go to court, which takes money we don’t have and leads to a narrow definition in law; or negotiate, to secure for ourselves a place we see as appropriate.
"What does it mean if negotiations grind to everyone’sa halt, for other communities, for industries, for our own people? If treaty negotiations are suspended, it’s necessary for me and my people to engage in dialogue with these groups. We have to give due consideration to interests." Peters continues.
"Our focus is how to improve our lot given the current jurisdictions. It means joint venturing, partnering etc.
"The alternative is to make a complete break, and I can’t see that. We’ve spent too much time building relationships. We’ve reached out, we’ve got friends and broad-based support."