Benefits outweigh risks in new deal for First Nations

VICTORIA - Give the Liberals' credit for a bold, somewhat risky, effort to forge a "New Relationship" with First Nations.

The five-page framework for sweeping change has been circulating through First Nations and industry for months, but has just become officially available on the government's web site.

It shows how far the Campbell government has moved since the days of the now ignored treaty referendum.

The New Relationship document promises government-to-government negotiations with First Nations. It commits the province to shared decision-making on land and resource management in areas claimed as traditional territories, and promises a share of the revenue and economic benefits. The government agrees to accept a broad definition of aboriginal title.

And the pact acknowledges that "the historical Aboriginal-Crown relationship in British Columbia has given rise to the present socio-economic disparity between First Nations and other British Columbians."

The agreement even says that the government will work "to ensure that lands and resources are managed in accordance with First Nations laws, knowledge and values and that resource development is carried out in a sustainable manner including the primary responsibility of preserving healthy lands, resources and ecosystems for present and future generations."

That's the kind of promise that's making industry nervous.

The big resource industry groups welcome anything that increases certainty about who owns the land and what the rules are. But they're worried, for example, about just what First Nations laws they're going to have to obey, and where those laws are written down.

And they wonder if the new revenue-sharing commitment means that the government will just cut First Nations in on a piece of the existing royalties and lease charges, or whether industry will be asked to come up with more money.

The worries have increased because this agreement was negotiated between the premier's office and the First Nations' groups. Nobody asked industry, or municipalities, MLAs, or even cabinet ministers, about how this would affect them.

That's not the only cause for concern. Premier Gordon Campbell talks about the relationship in terms of reconciliation and the overall state of life in the province. The government can't achieve its goals for health and education and the economy without a radical improvement in the lives of aboriginal people, he says.

But Ed John of the First Nations Summit, hardly a radical, says the new relationship means big changes on the ground, and an end to an era in which resource companies grew rich at the expense of First Nations.

It's always risky when two parties have such different understandings and expectations of an agreement. Someone is going to be disappointed, and perhaps angry.

Still, this is a positive step.

The Liberal government has moved a long way. In 2001, Campbell eliminated the aboriginal affairs ministry, placing the responsibility under the attorney general. (A mistake - the attorney general represents the province's legal interests. Hard-line positions are necessary in legal battles, but destructive in terms of building relationships.)

Now Tom Christensen is the new minister of aboriginal relations and reconciliation, reflecting the new relationship themes. The province is working with First Nations on new institutions to develop the government-to-government agreements on land use and revenue-sharing, and has promised funding to support the process.

There are risks in all this, but bigger potential rewards.

Treaty-making is proving to be slow, difficult and expensive. The resulting lack of certainty about land use has been a major drag on the B.C. economy.

And the lives of aboriginal people, as a whole, are a disgrace. Being born Indian means that it is much more likely that you will be poor, under-educated and sickly. The odds that you will end up in jail, or a suicide, are sharply higher. It's the kind of social disparity Canadians are quick to condemn in other countries.

It's time every child had a chance to make the most of the future.

The new relationship could be a start.

Footnote: The impetus for much of this work was last fall's Supreme Court of

Canada ruling that the province had a duty to consult First Nations before

making decisions affecting lands they claimed. The level of consultation

required would vary with circumstances, the court ordered, and it

recommended some sort of dispute resolution method to avoid more court

cases. That lead to the much broader effort.

Bridge River Lillooet News AUG 24th 2005.

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