Carrier Sekani Challenge Premier on New Relationship

By Lloyd Dolha

The Carrier Sekani Tribal Council of central B.C. is challenging Premier Gordon Campbell to publicly clarify his position on the New Relationship commitments he negotiated with First Nations four years ago in 2005. “Four years ago, the premier committed himself and his government to work with First Nations to finalize shared decision-making agreements on land and resources, including legislation and policies to implement those agreements, as well as the broader vision of the new relationship itself,” said tribal chief David Luggi.

The tribal council is taking the premier to task in the wake of fruitless talks between the First Nations Leadership Council (composed of the First Nations Summit, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, and the regional AFN leadership) and the province on recognition legislation—a key to-do item from a comprehensive list of commitments found in the New Relationship document. Discussions about the New Relationship have been ongoing since March 2005 to deal with Aboriginal concerns that are “based on openness, transparency, and collaboration…that reduces uncertainty, litigation, and conflict for all British Columbians.” Following the 2005 agreement, it was intended that a number of subset commitments would be fulfilled under the auspices of cutting-edge agreements between the province and local First Nations, based on “respect, recognition, and accommodation” of Aboriginal title and rights.

A five-page document outlining the vision and principles of the New Relationship was developed as a result of those meetings. It broaches the topic of a new government-to-government relationship with First Nations, including new processes and structures for coordination, as well as shared decision-making on land use and resources. The document also proposes discussion of revenue sharing that reflects Aboriginal title and rights interests and assists First Nations with economic development. The document also sets out a plan for developing scenarios under which those concepts could be made to work.

“Now the province is saying the action plan is no longer a common objective,” said Chief Luggi. “Instead of pursuing government-to-government agreements and recognition legislation with us, it’s offering inferior community economic development agreements with no shared decision-making on lands and resources.” Luggi says this “represents an about face by the premier” and calls it “another example of his erratic approach to major public policy.”

The tribal council and the province have been at odds over several issues in the last few years. Last year, the Carrier Sekani withdrew from the B.C. treaty-making process with the province and the federal government. They have expressed widespread concern over large-scale industrial development in their traditional territories, current forestry practices, and the province’s environmental approval process.

Chief Luggi said he outlined his concerns in a letter he personally gave to the premier in January at the Northern Economic Summit held in Prince George. The tribal council dismissed the economic summit as a public relations exercise. In the hand-delivered letter, Chief Luggi points to “an invisible, yet unconcealed obstacle present” that prevents the province from engaging in honest, meaningful negotiations in the New Relationship discussions. That obstacle, asserts the chief, is that the province “asserts de facto control, ownership, and jurisdiction while denying the existence of unextinguished Aboriginal title and its constitutional consequences.”

In the area of forestry, the province has made amendments to forestry legislation, introducing a program called Forest and Range Agreements (FRAs) without First Nations consultation. The program is meant to take back five percent of tenures from large forestry companies for First Nations use. The FRA program involves a fixed sum of money that would be offered as revenue sharing on a per capita basis. As a condition of receiving resource and revenue sharing benefits, the province requires that First Nations must agree that they have been consulted in advance about administrative and operational decisions that have yet to be made, including the renewal of large-volume forest licenses.

The letter points out the province has made it clear that these FRAs, now known as Forest and Range Opportunities (FRO) agreements are a “take it or leave it” one-size-fits-all proposition in the sense that the formula used to establish to distribute these benefits is non-negotiable. The FRO template was dismissed by the BC Supreme Court in 2005, which held that the FRA program fails to meet the province’s constitutional duty to consult First Nations. It rejected the “quick and easy” population-based formula contained in the policy and directed the province to consider the individual interests of an affected First Nation. The court ruled that the process and terms of the FROs violate the duty to consult and accommodate First Nations. The court rejected the take-it-or-leave-it negotiating tactics of the provincial government.

Unbelievably, the province is still promoting the FROs as a program to accommodate First Nations interests in forestry. “The Crown is not really doing anything different in ignoring these decisions,” said Luggi. “It’s like business as usual.” Luggi said that before the provincial legislature convenes this spring, he hopes the Liberals and New Democrats will release their Aboriginal policy platforms framed in the context of today’s challenging economic times. “The desires and efforts of British Columbians to address the urgent economic crisis will become even more challenged if our voices go unheard.”