Yale treaty is B.C.’s toughest test yet

Aboriginal Relations Minister Mary Polak

VICTORIA – The treaty with the Yale First Nation in the Fraser Canyon was hastily approved as the B.C. legislature adjourned for the summer last week.

This treaty was by far the most significant work of the legislature session, and it may make or break the hugely expensive B.C. treaty effort. Yet it received all of four hours of debate during the abbreviated spring legislature session and will probably get little attention when it reaches the House of Commons for final approval.

A few eyebrows were raised when Chief Justice Lance Finch of the B.C. Court of Appeal entered the legislature to give royal assent to the treaty and a handful of other bills. This would normally be the duty of Lt.-Gov. Steven Point, but he was on a four-day visit to promote literacy at reserves in the Quesnel and Williams Lake area.

I’m advised by the lieutenant-governor’s staff that this trip had been scheduled for some time, and his absence had nothing to do with the treaty awaiting his signature. It is purely a coincidence that Point is a former tribal chair of the Sto:lo Nation, which sent a delegation to the legislature to protest the Yale treaty just before it was tabled.

The only substantive scrutiny of the treaty, and the only vote against it, came from independent Cariboo North MLA Bob Simpson. He stressed that he supports the Yale’s right to a treaty, but detailed the Sto:lo’s objections.

Their central objection is that the 150-member Yale band is an arbitrary creation of the Indian Act, a splinter group of the larger Sto:lo Nation. The treaty formalizes the Yale’s control over key canyon fishing and rack drying sites that were vital to survival for thousands of years.

Ottawa outlawed transfer of native hereditary property rights in its notorious potlatch law of 1884, and native fish sales in 1888. This disrupted whatever order had been imposed by Sto:lo clans on the fishing sites. Some Sto:lo people were moved south to reserves in the Fraser Valley, where they were expected to abandon their traditional ways and become farmers.

Sto:lo Nation president Joe Hall put it to me this way: “I don’t want to be like Donald Trump and look at people’s birth certificates, but the Yale are a Sto:lo band. They would have been chased out of there a long time ago if they weren’t.”

In the treaty debate, Simpson put it to Aboriginal Relations Minister Mary Polak that the federal and provincial governments have resorted to a “first-past-the-post” system to force progress on treaties. He said the tiny Yale community gets a huge advantage by completing a treaty, while some Sto:lo bands remain at an early stage of negotiations and still others aren’t in treaty talks.

Polak cited a section that is now standard in modern treaties. It protects the constitutional rights of other aboriginals where a court upholds a claim to Yale territory, which they will soon own as fee-simple property.

Polak insisted the Yale treaty will ease tensions in the disputed fishing sites, where violent incidents have taken place. She argued that exclusive access to the main areas of dispute was long ago included in the Yale’s original reserves. The treaty will provide a process for temporary access by other people, native and non-native.

We will see if she is right, perhaps as early as this summer.

There are two regions of B.C. where the encroachment of European settlers led to shooting wars with aboriginal people. One was the Cariboo-Chilcotin and the other was the Fraser Canyon.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com

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