The chasm separating British Columbia’s political and aboriginal leaders could not have been defined more clearly as the second annual all-chiefs meeting got underway in Vancouver Wednesday.
B.C.’s Minister for Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, John Rustad, opened the two day gathering by calling advances over the past decade “remarkable.”
“You’re seeing our government’s response to the First Nations everyday, in all the things we do: in our negotiations and our discussions and the way we try to build our relationships.”
But for some, it seems, patience is wearing thin. Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillip responded that when it comes to reconciliation, B.C. is at “strike two.”
“We have one strike left,” said Phillip, who pointed to growing anger at the slow pace of change and called for an end to what he termed an antiquated, constipated mindset.
Phillip says all involved must have the courage to move forward, build consensus and silence those who predict Armageddon if First Nations are given an equal voice in building and sharing B.C.’s economic future.
“Very little progress has been made in the last year. We met on June first and second. That was pretty much the first time we engaged the issue in any significant way. Then there was a wavering on the part of the province,” said Phillip.
“We’re hopeful that this time out that all of the parties will acknowledge the gravity of the situation and within the space of the next several months show significant progress on developing a path forward.”
“In the event that that does not happen, there is little doubt that First Nations are going to completely lose patience which they are teetering on the brink of at the moment. They made that abundantly clear yesterday. They cannot afford to wait any longer for some long drawn out processes and talk about talking.”
About 500 aboriginal leaders in British Columbia are meeting this week with Premier Christy Clark with the aim of reaching an agreement on how to move forward together following the historic Tsilhqot’in land rights ruling.
Land rights ruling transformed relations
The June 2014 Supreme Court ruling that granted aboriginal title to the Tsilhqot’in Nation in B.C.’s Central Interior transformed government and First Nations relations, including potentially lucrative and environmentally sensitive resource projects.
Clark has said in the past that ignoring the Supreme Court of Canada decision would put B.C.’s future in peril and she said she wants to use the ruling to work together with aboriginals.
Tsilhqot’in Chief Roger William, who called the ruling a legal weapon, predicted before the meeting it would dominate proceedings at the gathering in Vancouver on Wednesday and Thursday.
Earlier this week, British Columbia’s Environmental Appeal Boardoverturned a water licence granted to a company for shale gas fracking in northeastern British Columbia, ruling the province acted in bad faith when it did not properly consult with the Fort Nelson First Nation, breaching a constitutional duty to consider potential adverse effects of the water licence.
And yesterday the Chiefs of 10 northern B.C. First Nations sent the premier a letter that said the province has ignored significant legal victories by aboriginals and is blocking them from managing their own territories.
Clark said last year’s all-chiefs meeting, which marked the first time First Nations leaders met with a government and its cabinet, was a major step in the long road towards reconciliation rather than a retreat back to courtrooms.
But First Nations leaders left the first meeting disappointed last year, saying the province did not adopt their document, which sought to establish government support for aboriginal rights and title to lands, including revenue sharing.
Historic ruling shifted power
The Tsilhqot’in were granted over 1,750 kilometres of land in the remote Nemiah Valley southwest of Williams Lake. It was the first time in Canadian history that a First Nation was given title to such a vast piece of land.
Chief Joe Alphonse, one six Tsilhqot’in Nation chiefs, said the ruling ensures First Nations are involved and can influence decisions being considered by government and business.
“They’ve had control of our resources, and with this court case that shifted that balance of power back to a more respectful place for First Nations people,” he said.
Alphonse said the Tsilhqot’in and B.C. government are close to signing a separate deal that sets the ground rules for governance decisions from parks, permits and investments in Tsilhqot’in territory.
The agreement was scheduled to be complete last spring, but “we’re coming close to where we want to be,” he said.
Casimer said the talks scheduled for this week include individual First Nations meeting with cabinet ministers and one-on-one meetings between the premier and chiefs.