A sudden cancellation of George Abbott’s appointment to lead the B.C. Treaty Commission (BCTC) has thrown the whole future of the commission in to question.
Yet Chief Councillor for the Haisla Nation Council Ellis Ross says many people seem to have a misinterpretation of the organization and a cloudy future for it doesn’t spell trouble.
Recently Premier Christy Clark said in its current form, the B.C. Treaty Commission would need a century to settle all the aboriginal land claims that are before it.
She was taking questions for the first time about the sudden cancellation of former cabinet minister George Abbott’s appointment to lead the commission, Clark said she doesn’t know yet if the organization will continue. She emphasized that having only 50 out of 200 B.C. First Nations involved, and painfully slow progress with those, is not enough.
“There have been some results, but four treaties in 22 years for $600 million is not enough result,” Clark said. “We have to be able to move faster, and we have to find a way to include more First Nations in the process.”
The Haisla have not been at the treaty table since about 2010, said Ross, but added the commission is essentially a flow-through for money and that they don’t have real power to implement any documents.
“I am surprised at the amount of importance that is being put on this,” said Ross. “Everybody seems to be up in arms about it and I don’t see why.”
He said the BCTC is “mainly a flow-through for money that comes from the feds and the province. That’s all they are.”
As for the future of the commission in general, Ross is sure it will continue, and it does have a role in essentially chairing treaty negotiations, but the real work happens with the other parties.
“It’s [Treaties] one of the most complicated documents ever put together,” he said. “A treaty, in today’s context, is actually a document that describes how a First Nation is going to exist within the borders of B.C. and Canada.”
He said the only way for the treaty process to change, with or without BCTC, is for Canada, the province and First Nations to “take a good, hard look at mandates and make efforts to change the mandates.”
The Haisla, for instance, had a mandate lands, but treaties are more than just that issue, he said.
“Haisla, for instance, we knew what we didn’t want, but at the same time we never had a hard mandate like what B.C. and Canada had.”
As it is, he said the only way he could envision the treaty process proceeding under his watch is with an interactive community meeting with his membership to talk about what treaty is.
Such an event is something he said he’s promised to his membership but hasn’t had enough time to host given the work making agreements with companies and the province on revenues, land issues, and decision making, “to achieve the same things treaty promised, by the way.”
As for treaty’s future, Ross doesn’t see restructuring the process as a problem and in fact could be a good thing for everyone. He sees the B.C. government as possibly trying to find ways for people to achieve goals off the treaty table.
“I think it’s being proven, especially in our territory, that it works…I don’t think people realize how hard it is to move back from a mandate that you’ve been living under for 30 years.
“If that’s the reason why BC wants to reconsider BCTC, then it’s actually a good move.”
He said he’ll wait to see if the government takes the successes seen so far and applies those lessons to the treaty process, which he said would be significant.
“This could affect so much if B.C.’s looking to change their approach to reconciliation,” he said. “That would probably be the first significant move in treaty negotiations in the last 10 years. Without a doubt.”
Meanwhile, the rejection of Abbott came with surprise and disappointment from outgoing chief commissioner Sophie Pierre and commissioners representing the other two parties it represents, the federal government and B.C.’s First Nations Summit.
NDP leader John Horgan said the B.C. government’s sudden decision to leave a key position vacant is a violation of trust with aboriginal communities and Ottawa, which provides the cash for treaty settlements. B.C. provides Crown land once claimed territories are defined.
“I don’t disagree with those who suggest the treaty process can be revitalized,” Horgan said. “You don’t do it by blowing it up without talking to your partners.”
Pierre and others have expressed their own frustrations with the slow pace of progress, particularly from Ottawa. Treaty deals involving a share of salmon runs were put on hold for years while the federal government held an inquiry into the state of Fraser River sockeye runs.
Pierre has also called for forgiveness of the debt piled up by First Nations as negotiations drag on — Ross said the Haisla have an $8 million bill due to the treaty loan funding. Money to continue talks is borrowed against future cash settlements for resources extracted from aboriginal territories, leaving the parties with little left to invest in communities.
– Files from Tom Fletcher