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CONTRIBUTION · 22nd November 2011
Bill wilson - The Province
Guest column: Trouble is brewing if B.C. treaty process dies

Sophie Pierre, chief commissioner of the B.C. Treaty Commission, says the commission process should be shut down but only after she serves a requested one-year extension of her contract. This is so sad for so many reasons, the major being the huge cost of this admitted failure.

I am not speaking just about the billions of dollars already spent on this betrayal of trust and mutual respect, I am speaking about the cost that we will all have to pay if land claims and treaties are not resolved soon in B.C.

The B.C. treaty process was the result of a 150-year struggle by B.C. Indians. It was negotiated and created on the strength of the March 1983 amendment to Canada's then new Constitution, following supportive court cases and a more positive public attitude toward the plight of Indians. The obvious background was the Oka confrontation and the general unrest and militancy among Indians.

Then-prime minister Brian Mulroney and Tom Siddon, his able minister of Indian affairs, deserve credit for working with the B.C. Indian leadership of the day to pressure the B.C. government to join the process. Educated and motivated by the First Nations Congress leadership, the B.C. business community applied the final pressure on Bill Vander Zalm's government to change B.C.'s century-old policy of land-claims denial.

It seemed that the needs of all the parties were about to be accommodated. Ottawa needed B.C. to be involved in the land-claims process. The Indians needed a mechanism to resolve their outstanding claims and the business community required certainty of land title and jurisdiction.

Nineteen principles were negotiated as the foundation of this process. A tripartite commission was established to be "The Keeper of the Process."

A level playing field of negotiations with three equal parties was prescribed. Mulroney had insisted upon a $125-million policy, research and development fund to allow the Indians to prepare their claims. He also insisted on a repayable loan portion of 10 per cent. The future seemed bright.

Sadly, a change of leadership among Indians, unprepared provincial involvement and the long domination of the Department of Indian Affairs killed the process in its infancy. Many Indian groups signed letters of intent and borrowed money to begin "the negotiations," but the $125-million fund disappeared and the loan-repayment portion was hiked to 80 per cent.

Indian Affairs created the Federal Treaty Negotiation office and manned it with their senior bureaucrats, who knew how to control Indians. They actually went so far as to train "negotiators," who would become the chief negotiators for native nations. Indian Affairs was bound and determined to sabotage the process and did.

The province shares blame for the failure as they had no idea what they were doing from the start and mimicked the federal government. Both groups have no real mandates or vision. The possibility of creative solutions is restricted by the dictate that Indian aspirations must be forced into the little square boxes of federal and provincial regulations, the same ones that created the huge problems that still get worse in Indian communities.

Indians are not blameless. The First Nations Summit has provided no leadership. Instead they seem enamoured with federal and provincial programs when they are not jetting off to Ottawa, New York, Geneva and, more recently, China.

They have provided no independent political strength and have allowed the B.C. treaty process to wither on the vine by electing commissioners content to simply collect their honorariums.

The B.C. government is pushing interim measures, which is an attempt to placate Indians, who have lined up for quick handouts instead of demanding and achieving aboriginal title and self-government. Much of this has been made worse by the ever-increasing mass of lawyers and consultants who enrich themselves through the process.

Our new premier, Christy Clark, talks about development, particularly of mines on Indian land, as a solution to B.C.'s economic woes. One would think that we have had enough history to realize there are no magic solutions. All too often, election posturing replaces well reasoned strategies about how we can move forward on these issues.

The B.C. treaty process must be made to work. The premier can help by simply dictating to her negotiators an expanded, creative mandate for all parties at the negotiating table. DIA should be removed from the process and we must re-commit to the 19 principles.

The alternative is to allow the frustration to build among Indian and non-Indian people in B.C. Already we see new court cases that can tie up development for years and unrest that is flowing from land-title uncertainty.

We have a simple choice: We can settle Indian land claims now or later at 1,000 times the expense.

Every B.C. citizen has a basic stake in the just resolution of aboriginal title and treaty grievances. We do not need another Oka or the continuing feeding frenzy at the trough of Indian suffering.

Hemas Kla-Lee-Lee-Kla, Chief Bill Wilson, a lawyer and chief of the Kwawkgewlth people, helped set up the B.C. treaty commission process.

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