June 30, 1995 Features & Images » Feature Story

feature 226 

Oh Canada, our home and native land By Bob Barnett Ownership of land. For generations of Canadians it has been considered a right. But for the native people of British Columbia it has been a contentious issue since the mid-1800s, when the influx of miners and settlers first began to threaten native territories. Now, on the eve of the country's 128th birthday, federal and provincial governments are finally ready to sit down and negotiate treaty settlements with the First Nations. Or are they? Two months ago the province appeared to be manoeuvring toward an early settlement with the Nisga'a. June 30 was the self-imposed deadline, in order to give the government enough time to explain the deal before an election. But as awareness and apprehension of treaty negotiations increased — and as the provincial government was left reeling by leaked documents and one political mishap after another — the deadline was quietly dropped. Now, with NDP credibility suffering and the government still having to go to the voters in the next 17 months, any kind of agreement appears to be out of the question until after the next provincial election. Still, there is general agreement among most people that there have been many past injustices inflicted on B.C.'s Native people — including the appalling residential school system — some kind of negotiated settlement is long overdue. The Treaty 8 settlement, covering a small pocket of land in north-eastern B.C., is the only treaty in British Columbia. Virtually all other lands have been in dispute since before British Columbia entered Confederation. Native claims to land proceeded at a snails pace — until December 1990. That's when the province, the First Nations Summit and the federal government created the B.C. Claims Task Force to recommend a process for negotiating treaties. In June of 1991 the seven-member task force, which included Squamish Nation Chief Joe Mathias, produced 19 recommendations for treaty negotiations. Among the recommendations were the establishment of the B.C. Treaty Commission and a six-stage process in negotiating treaties. Stage one is a submission of a statement of intent, which includes a description of traditional territories. More than 40 First Nations, representing more than two-thirds of the reserve-based aboriginal population, have filed statements of intent. But a Vancouver Sun story earlier this year estimated those statements of intent, and the traditional territories outlined in them, represent 111 per cent of the province's land. And some Native groups, such as the Lil'wat Nation in the Mount Currie area, have still not filed statements of intent. The Squamish Nation, whose traditional territory includes Stanley Park, Point Grey, Howe Sound, the entire Squamish River watershed, the Cheakamus River watershed, all of Whistler and beyond where it overlaps with traditional Lil'wat territory at Green Lake, is expected to be the first nation to begin treaty negotiations, likely in September. Mathias has said traditional territories are only an opening position in the negotiations, but he has also indicated the Squamish Nation may reject the principle of fee simple lands, that is, lands being subject to federal and provincial laws. Mathias is currently on a three month leave. Gilbert Jacobs, who is also part of the treaty negotiating team, did not respond to Pique's written questions about the Squamish Nation's position. In contrast to the Squamish Nation, the In-SHUCK-ch/N'Quatqua Nation, which includes the Anderson Lake, Skookumchuck, Samahuam and Port Douglas bands, has said it welcomes a full and open public debate on treaty issues. The In-SHUCK-ch, whose traditional territory includes most of Garibaldi Park, will participate with federal and provincial negotiators in a public forum in Pemberton July 10. The different approaches to treaty negotiations from three First Nations in the Sea to Sky area — participation but negotiations in private, participation with public updates on the status of negotiations, and non participation — has done little to curb anxiety among non-natives. Linda Jolsen, Lower Mainland treaty negotiator for the provincial government, says private land is not on the table. Third-party holdings are open to discussion. "The principle is rights will not be expropriated," she says. Permits will be respected and no one will lose their livelihood, but if someone has a Crown lease hold in an area a First Nation is interested in the prospects of maintaining the lease are not good. Another area of contention is interim measures agreements. Negotiated by ministries, interim measures are intended to make sure the business and economy of the province continue to function during the negotiation process. In certain cases interim measures agreements are made to protect and balance the province's interests in lands and resources with those of First Nations. As of Feb. 1, the province had signed 54 interim measures agreements, but critics charge they will be interpreted by courts as permanent, legal contracts. The provincial government's negotiating hand was tipped on May 18 when a confidential document was leaked that indicated the Aboriginal Affairs ministry had set total land settlements at less than 5 per cent of B.C. A week later Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Cashore announced that the total area of land First Nations will receive will be proportional to their population. There are roughly 50,000 status Indians in B.C., and a total provincial population of 3,747,000. According to the Vancouver Sun, the Squamish Nation has a population of 2,552 and it claims 6,950 square kilometres as traditional territory, or .73 per cent of the province. The Sun says the In-SHUCK-ch Nation has a population of 701 and claims 3,099 square kilometres as traditional territory, .33 per cent of the province. The Mount Currie Band refused to participate in the 1991 census and did not allow census takers onto reserve land, but the population of the community is said to be between 900 and 1,200. At the same time the provincial government is trying to negotiate treaties it is also in the process of doubling the area of protected land in B.C., from 6 per cent to 12 per cent. The April announcement that a series of provincial, regional and municipal parks would be created in — ironically — the Indian Arm area to help meet the 12 per cent goal certainly raised the ire of Mathias. West Vancouver-Garibaldi MLA David Mitchell says he can understand Mathias's consternation. "How can they trust the treaty process when the government unilaterally announces a new park?" he asks. The problem is there are a multitude of people and government policies staking claims to a limited amount of land with little co-ordination or constructive communication among the interested parties. Mitchell says he is worried the lack of co-ordination could lead to clashes, perhaps along racial lines. But that has been a problem in British Columbia since its days as a colony. As the writer George Woodcock noted in his book British Columbia: A History of the Province, "Land, it must be remembered, was far more precious in British Columbia than on the prairies, since so little of the mountainous and forested colony was fit for farming or even for grazing." While Canada celebrates its 128th birthday as a nation this weekend, in British Columbia establishing ownership of land once and for all — for all Canadians — remains the issue.

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