Treaty overhaul aims to speed up talks

New federal minister Carolyn Bennett agrees to work with B.C. on 'stepping stones' approach to aboriginal land claims

Aboriginal Relations Minister John Rustad

The B.C. government’s demand for a new approach to treaty negotiations has been heard by the new federal government, Aboriginal Relations Minister John Rustad says.

The province signalled its discontent with the slow progress in settling treaties last year, when it abruptly refused to appoint former B.C. cabinet minister George Abbott to lead the B.C. Treaty Commission. Rustad noted that at the current pace, it would take 600 years to negotiate all the agreements B.C. still lacks.

Federal, provincial and B.C. First Nations Summit representatives have been meeting since then to seek improvements to a system that has completed only four treaties in two decades. They released a report Tuesday that Rustad says adopts a key change pioneered in B.C. – “stepping stones” to agreement.

The report also proposes negotiating “core treaties” with the main elements, then adding side agreements later on, he said.

“It’s the idea of trying to advance and complete components of treaties and implement them, rather than trying to get it all done at once, so that nations can start seeing the benefits and help to build support and momentum towards completing the negotiations,” Rustad said.

In a joint statement, federal Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett promised to work to implement the changes. The federal government has been repeatedly blamed by aboriginal and B.C. representatives for slow progress, in offering cash settlements for historic resource extraction and assigning shares of federally regulated salmon harvests.

First Nations Summit representative Cheryl Casimer agreed with Rustad that adopting the changes clears the way to the three partners appointing a new chief commissioner, a position left vacant for the past year.

B.C. began its “stepping stones” strategy a decade ago with forest agreements, transferring Crown forest lands to aboriginal communities. It then introduced mine royalty sharing agreements.

Rustad said the previous federal government resisted the incremental approach to settling aboriginal land claims and expected final agreements to be complete before they were endorsed by Parliament.

Since the Nisga’a treaty was established in 2000 outside the B.C. process, the B.C. Treaty Commission has produced treaties with five communities negotiating jointly as the Maa-Nulth First Nations on Vancouver Island, the Tsawwassen First Nation in the Lower Mainland, the Yale First Nation in the Fraser Canyon and the Tla’amin First Nation in the Powell River area.