Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Bigger than the Games: One woman's mission to create hoopla for treaty talks

Hat Tip AK48:

Bigger than the Games: One woman's mission to create hoopla for treaty talks
If Sophie Pierre can get politicians and the public excited about the economic benefits of settling treaties in British Columbia, she'll deserve a medal.

JUSTINE HUNTER

VICTORIA — From Friday's Globe and Mail Published on Friday, Jan. 15, 2010 12:00AM EST Last updated on Saturday, Jan. 16, 2010 3:49AM EST

It's bigger than the Olympics: That message will be featured in an ad barrage to be launched next week.

The campaign is meant to draw attention to an issue that generates no hoopla, pulls no cheering crowds. If Sophie Pierre can get politicians and the public excited about the economic benefits of settling treaties in British Columbia, she'll deserve a medal.

When Ms. Pierre took over as head of the BC Treaty Commission nine months ago, she had already concluded that the process of treaty talks is being smothered by complacency. As one of the architects of the present system, she's watched in frustration over two decades as treaty-making has become just another program.

The ad campaign is her latest effort to shake up the institution she now heads.

But it wasn't her first choice. She started her campaign in Ottawa, where she tried last fall to appeal to the economist in Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The pitch: B.C.'s unfinished business of settling aboriginal land claims is holding the province's economy back.

Wherever she spoke, with MPs and bureaucrats, she had to explain why treaties are such a dogged issue in B.C.

Most of the province is still subject to land claims. A handful of treaties were signed in the 1800s, but, with just a few exceptions, the treaty process has been a money pit that has produced little benefit for aboriginal people or the province as a whole.

"First nations have been duped," she said in an interview yesterday. With $350-million in loans to pay for their negotiators, many aboriginal groups are poised at the point where their debts begin to outweigh the potential benefits.

The benefits of certainty are not just for the aboriginal communities themselves. Resource companies routinely find their efforts stymied by outstanding disputes over rights to the fish, the trees or the minerals underground. "We can be a positive force in the economy," she said.

Ms. Pierre, former chief of the entrepreneurial-minded Ktunaxa Nation in the Kootenays, knew that she needed more than her own experience to sell the concept. Her office commissioned a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers that calculated the economic benefits of treaties could more than double the return to B.C. for hosting the Olympic Games next month. That's based on settling with the 60 aboriginal groups now in the treaty process over the next 15 years.

But her call for Mr. Harper to intervene in the name of the economy produced only radio static.

"I do question the Prime Minister's commitment," she said yesterday.

The ad campaign to be launched next week will appeal to Mr. Harper the politician, who has shown a more diligent interest in the province's voters.

The ads are simple. They ask: What has a bigger economic impact than the Olympics? If you want the answer, you're directed to the treaty commission's Web page, unfinishedbusiness.bctreaty.net, where readers can find a dozen arguments in favour of ending uncertainty over land and resources.

Since 1993, the treaty commission process has resulted in one treaty, with the Tsawwassen First Nation. The Maa-nulth First Nations treaty has been approved but is not yet implemented.

Many others, however, have given up. Last fall, two aboriginal communities cut their losses on negotiations to try their luck in the courts. Others are taking the B.C. government up on its willingness to cut deals on resources and shared decision-making.

Ms. Pierre calls those deals progressive, but warns they can't replace the security of a constitutionally protected treaty.

Chief Bill Cranmer, of the 'Namgis First Nation, believes a treaty is the only way to dig his Cormorant Island community out of poverty and misery.

His people first made contact with Europeans in 1792, when Captain George Vancouver came up the Nimpkish River as he charted the west coast for the British Royal Navy. "He found a healthy, industrious people," Chief Cranmer said.

Today, half of the 1,700 'Namgis don't live on reserve because there aren't enough homes or jobs. The band is involved in a gravel pit operation and ecotourism, but it's not enough. "If we continue under the Indian Act, we are just managing poverty," he said.

"The treaty we are looking at is going to allow the 'Namgis to remain a distinct people within our territories." It is within reach, he believes, but it will require just what Ms. Pierre is demanding: a fresh negotiating mandate from Ottawa.

"We recognize we aren't going to get all our land back," Mr. Cranmer said. But with a commitment to settle, he believes he can see within his lifetime a community that is once again physically, spiritually and economically healthy.

******

TREATIES WITHIN REACH

Yale First Nation This deal could be announced any day now, but already there is trouble brewing with other aboriginal groups over fishing rights in the Fraser Canyon. The 145-member band would receive treaty lands of 1,140 hectares and $6.5-million in cash. But the most contentious details regarding fishing rights have yet to be made public.

In-SHUCK-ch Nation The group includes about 900 members living in the Lillooet River Valley between Harrison Lake and Pemberton. The current proposal would provide 14,500 hectares plus $21-million.

Sliammon First Nation A deal with this 1,000-member Vancouver Island community, near Power River, has been hung up over fishing rights, but insiders say a settlement is close. Then again, the Sliammon have been close before - the community voted down a deal in 2001. The new proposal includes about 6,000 hectares, $2-million and a commitment to negotiate revenue sharing.

Yekooche First Nation Most of the 214 band members live on a remote reserve on the shores of Stuart Lake. The proposed treaty lands would work out to about 30 hectares per person - more than 6,400 hectares in total, plus $6.5-million. But the pine beetle epidemic has since wiped out much of the timber stands, and the province is now looking at ways to sweeten the offer.

Lheidli T'enneh Band This Prince George-area band, with 320 members, celebrated an agreement in 2006. But the package, including 4,330 hectares of land, was narrowly rejected by band members in 2007. Now the community may hold a second vote this year on the same package.

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