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Rob Shaw: Treaty settlement reveals the slow, often painful reconciliation process

The settlement announcement Saturday was also an opportunity for the NDP to score political points over its predecessors

The highs and lows of B.C.’s First Nations reconciliation process were on stark display Saturday with the announcement of a historic settlement with Treaty 8 nations from the province’s northeast. 

Canada and British Columbia agreed to settle wrongs that date back 100 years, which deprived five Indigenous nations of their land, resources and way-of-life for generations. 

The amount was significant: Almost $800 million from Ottawa, combined with 443 square kilometres of provincial Crown land (the equivalent of the cities of Vancouver and Surrey combined). 

But it took almost 30 years of negotiation and court battles to reach the deal. 

“It’s been a long road for my people,” said an emotional Blueberry River First Nations Chief Judy Desjarlais. 

“In that timeframe we lost a lot of honourable elders who contributed greatly with their wisdom and knowledge to this settlement. I wish they could be here today.” 

Blueberry River was joined by Doig River, Halfway River, Saulteau and West Moberly in the deal. 

Federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller admitted the country had “failed” the nations by never properly honouring the Treaty 8, signed way back in 1899.  

“The promise made under Treaty 8 to provide land was broken,” he said. “Because of the Crown’s failure your communities received less reserve, less land, than was agreed by your nations when you signed the treaty with Canada.  

“We’re here today to acknowledge the importance of those historical losses and to acknowledge land debt owned by the Crown.” 

The government had promised 128 acres of land per person to members of the five Nations in 1899, but did not follow through. Then, for more than a century, successive provincial and federal governments allowed logging, mining, gas exploration and other natural resource development on the land without consent, benefiting others while damaging the way of life of the Indigenous peoples. 

In 2021, Blueberry River won a landmark BC Supreme Court decision that its treaty rights had been violated by decades of government approval of new resource development projects. 

The BC government did not appeal the ruling, choosing instead to sign revenue-sharing agreements with Blueberry River and other local nations in January. 

“A century has passed,” Premier David Eby said at Saturday’s press conference. “It's more than past time to make this right.” 

The provincial and federal governments were hesitant to make the size of the deal known publicly, for fear of backlash. And on Saturday they refused to say how much of the $800 million will flow to each nation. 

“There is extreme reticence, and perhaps one of the chiefs wants to speak about this, in communities about the effect of a cash influx and the stigma that occurs with the perceived ‘windfall’ that this could be for communities,” said Miller. 

“And let me say this: This isn't a windfall. It is not free money. It is a bill that has gone unpaid for over one hundred years by the government of Canada. 

“So if there is any stigma and prejudice to be levelled on anyone it is on the government of Canada and not on our treaty partners whose obligations we disrespected for one hundred years.” 

But there remains real tension in the community over how the provincial shift to Indigenous consultation on natural resource projects has led to delays on renewals of water rights, Crown land leases and gas permits. 

The uncertainty of permitting over the past two years has led to hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars of lost development projects, and affected many locals looking to renew existing access to things like water rights on their own land, according to Peace River South MLA Mike Bernier. 

The province attempted to address that in January by inking new resource development guidelines with local nations, which includes areas protected from new industrial activities, limits on new oil and gas projects, defined areas for forestry, and an extensive planning process for watershed management. 

B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Murray Rankin, who has acknowledged the tension in the past, said this new deal will also benefit the wider community. 

“This is about righting an injustice, it’s also about restoring what was promised under the treaty, but it will bring prosperity to all of the northeast of British Columbia,” he said. 

“Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities will benefit from what we’ve done, and should have been done long ago.” 

Leaders from each of the five nations also singled out the NDP government for praise in the deal, under both John Horgan and most recently Eby. The shift in tone under the NDP helped get the settlement done, they said. 

“Provincially, this would not have been possible without the change in direction that came with the election of the Horgan government,” said Justin Napoleon, chief of the Saulteau First Nations. 

“Premier Horgan promised us that our voices would be heard. We were skeptical, but the negotiations around other issues persuaded us that this government was different and they wanted to resolve these issues.” 

He cited the success negotiating the protection of local caribou herds (also a contentious local issue) with the NDP, and said ministers like Rankin and Ravi Kahlon have been “true to their word” with “your honesty, your integrity and your willingness to work with us on tough, long-standing issues.” 

Eby’s NDP government tends to get a rough ride in rural B.C. for his government’s reputation as focused primarily on a power base in urban B.C. But in this announcement, he was singled-out with praise. 

“In your short time as premier, your even-handed approach has worked toward protecting the environment in Treaty 8 territory while promoting economic prosperity, as well as promoting economic opportunities for First Nations across the province, as noted with the Haisla LNG announcement,” said Napoleon. 

“It is quite impressive, Mr. Premier, that in a matter of months you have championed the causes of environmental, economic and social reconciliation. Your commitment to reconciliation is refreshing and it instils hope for the future.” 

That gave Eby’s hyper-partisan speech-writing team the opening it needed to craft a few partisan swipes at the previous BC Liberal government. 

“We have seen in this province what doesn't work,” said Eby. “Endless court battles, transactional relationships, short-term arrangements. We can't afford to go back to that approach.” 

Sounded a bit like an election ad — but in this case Eby had the bona fides to back it up. 

Even with the deal, the government has more work to do, said West Moberly elder George Desjarlais, who as chief of the nation 25 years ago wrote a letter to the prime minister that kickstarted his nation’s process. 

“I’d like to say thank you very much,” he said to the premier. “And we’ll see you again because our fight ain’t over yet.” 

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. 

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