By Lloyd Dolha
The BC FNLC will host a series of regional information sessions over the next three months on the proposed Recognition and Reconciliation legislation, starting in Prince George on May 28th. In February 2009, the First Nations Leadership Council (FNLC) and the government of British Columbia released an outline of the proposed legislation, which was discussed at the All Chiefs meeting on February 25th and at both the Union of BC Indian Chiefs meeting and the First Nations Summit meeting in March.
The FNLC received a considerable amount of feedback at the sessions and through meetings and correspondence with First Nations. Specifically, they seek direction from First Nations in order to establish a framework for negotiating agreements that fully implement BC’s commitment to recognize Aboriginal title and rights in the legislation.
In particular, the FNLC will be seeking advice regarding “comprehensive agreements” (determining who should be involved in negotiations, what provisions should be included with respect to shared-decision making and revenue and benefit sharing, and defining the role of an indigenous nations commission). The FNLC hopes the advice provided by First Nations during these regional sessions will be used to inform further development of the legislative proposal. Following the regional sessions, the FNLC intends to bring the legislative proposal to an All Chiefs meeting for further review.
The BC FNLC and the province decided to postpone introduction of the proposed Aboriginal Title Recognition and Reconciliation Act until after the May 12th provincial election. After congratulating Premier Gordon Campbell, British Columbia’s First Nations leadership took the opportunity to remind the premier of the importance of the new Recognition and Reconciliation Act.
The proposed legislation will provide for the provincial recognition of Aboriginal rights and title. Recognition would not require proof or “strength of claim” and will help pave the way for long-term economic stability based on sustainable practices and joint decision-making. It will also promote shared decision-making in regard to planning, management, and formal decisions over lands and resources and lead to the completion of revenue and benefit-sharing agreements between First Nations and the province. The legislation will make it clear that First Nations and not the Province will be responsible for and determining what constitutes an Indigenous Nation.
Meanwhile, B.C. Conservative Party leader Wilf Hanni has threatened to launch a province-wide referendum. “My party will fight this action all the way to the Supreme Court if Premier Campbell refuses to either abandon his plans to enact this legislation or refuses to hold a binding referendum to let the voters decide,” he said. Hanni, a 61-year old oil industry consultant, warned that such legislation “could result in the loss of title to your own home.”
Such concerns were addressed on April 27th by Geoff Plant, the former Liberal attorney general and minister for Aboriginal relations, in a speech to the Association For Mineral Exploration BC. “Existing land and resource interests including fee simple are expressly protected,” said Plant, who has worked as an advisor and negotiator to devise the new framework. “Crown title is expressly protected,” he added.
Penticton Conservative candidate Chris Delaney commented that the legislation could impact private property rights. Speaking to Astral Media Radio News, Delaney said the act will give First Nations people “an effective veto on all resource development, all land development, all re-zoning, any kind of oversight to do with any land, including private property.”
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip with the BC Union of Indian Chiefs said the legislation is designed to protect private property rights, and the BC Conservative Party’s promise to oppose the Recognition and Reconciliation Act will move BC backward. Chief Phillip says, “There is nothing in this act that is designed to extinguish the rights of other groups and individuals. That’s absolutely a falsehood, and it’s a malicious interpretation of the facts of the matter.” Phillip says the BC Conservatives are simply misinformed, and calls their reaction “alarmist rhetoric.” “It’s fear-mongering,” he said. “It’s a deliberate and willful distortion of the facts.”
According to the BC Treaty Commission, the re-election of the Liberals to a third term in government is good news for the British Columbia treaty process. “The momentum we have gained in treaty negotiations over the past two years can be built upon given the priority the Liberal government has placed on First Nation issues,” said Chief Commissioner Sophie Pierre. “The economic benefits that can be achieved through treaties are essential to the overall economic recovery and to the future well being of our province.” Pierre feels that the BC government, under the leadership of Premier Campbell, has demonstrated a commitment to advance relationships with First Nations both inside and outside the treaty process and expects that First Nation issues and treaty negotiations will be given a high priority now that the election is over. One of the immediate challenges for the provincial government will be explaining to British Columbians how the proposed Recognition and Reconciliation Act can help progress in treaty negotiations. Pierre wants to “make sure the hard work of the parties at the negotiation tables is maintained and supported.”
Several First Nations are close to concluding final agreements, including In-SHUCK-ch Nation, Sliammon First Nation, Yale First Nation, and Yekooche Nation. Nine others are moving to conclude agreements in principle including K’omoks First Nation, Namgis Nation, Nazko First Nation, Northern Shuswap Treaty Society, Oweekeno Nation, Te’Mexw First Nation, Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, and two of the Tsimshian First Nations. Tsawwassen First Nation and Maa-nulth First Nations are taking a close look at the two completed treaties with a view to moving ahead.
Premier Campbell said he will forge ahead with his controversial plan to formally recognize Aboriginal rights and title, but signaled a willingness to accept input on the plan from his business critics. These First Nations issues, along with the economy, are among his top priorities for the coming months. “There’s been a lot of misinformation that has been put out by some for whatever reason,” Campbell said in an interview. “The fact of the matter is [the legislation] is simply reinforcing what is already constitutional law in Canada, constitutional rights in Canada.” Asked about rewriting the direction, Mr. Campbell said his government is open to other views.