B.C.'s aboriginal report card

A-: There's progress with natives on almost everything but signing treaties

Les Leyne, Times Colonist

Published: Wednesday, July 19, 2006


More than a year after the B.C. government's new relationship with natives first took hold, a report card, of sorts, has been issued.

There were a number of high-level agreements and announcements of large sums of money committed to aboriginal programs over the past year. But the Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation's service-plan report is an attempt to measure what's going on at ground level.

The service-plan concept took hold in the B.C. Liberals' first term. It's a commendable effort that holds each ministry to specific, concrete performance measures. Minister Tom Christensen can show his report card to his parents with pride, even though everyone realizes it's Premier Gordon Campbell who is running things in that department.

The one gaping hole in the progress report is in the area of treaties, where -- to be blunt -- there aren't any. Twelve years into the formal treaty process -- in which B.C. and the federal government negotiate with individual bands to sign irrevocable modern treaties to resolve land claims -- the parties have yet to reach a final deal.

The public accounts released the same day as the service plans show B.C. is bracing for these deals. Aboriginal land claims are listed as a contingent liability on the government books. And with 47 treaty tables representing two-thirds of B.C. natives, the potential costs are considerable.

Two more bands got to the agreement-in-principle stage last year, which brings the total in the phase to eight. On the charts, the AiP phase looks like the penultimate step toward a final, successful deal. In reality, it's where treaties go to languish for years on end, and sometimes die.

More than 53,000 hectares of Crown land have been committed to bands in that AiP limbo. B.C. generally supplies the land for the treaties, while Ottawa supplies the cash.

But there are other costs expected. The public accounts note: "Upon coming into effect, treaties will also trigger implementation costs and may result in compensation to third parties. Those costs are not determinable at this time."

Ottawa is also making loans to First Nations to cover their considerable negotiating costs. B.C. has committed to covering half the cost of any loans that default, along with half the accrued interest. The same "not determinable" note is attached to that liability as well, along with court cases mounted by bands not in the treaty process.

Meanwhile, on Christensen's report card, progress on other fronts is listed. The Kelowna Accord gets a big splash, even though it doesn't really exist any more. The $100-million commitment to the New Relationship Trust Fund is noted, as is the continued dialogue with the formerly fractured First Nations leadership in B.C.

It's the dozen specific performance targets that give the best glimpse of what progress is being made.

The government wanted to get 38 per cent of Crown land covered by certainty agreements. It achieved 67 per cent, so the ministry earned two check marks. It wanted to reach two or three accommodation agreements or business arrangements with First Nations, and signed four. It wanted four to six new partnership initiatives, and managed eight.

A number of other targets were also met, although by the end of the report card, you get the feeling they were groping around a bit for things to be positive about (number of "best management practices" adopted: four. Percentage of employees with performance management plans: 100 per cent.)

There were two failing grades handed out, with creative explanations as to why. The ministry's target was to help create or assist 150 aboriginal businesses through a commercial First Citizens loan program. They managed 136. But the amount loaned hasn't changed, so it's a case of a smaller number of higher-value loans being provided. "One potential reason for higher value loans being negotiated by aboriginal entrepreneurs is an increase sense of confidence in the economy."

Similarly, the target was to see 350 jobs created by businesses started under that loan program. They only managed 296. But with the same level of funding as before, "One potential reason for the lower employment figure could be an increase in new business start-ups."

So loans are being made, jobs are being created and capacity is being built. But the one thing everyone is looking for, a signed, sealed final treaty, remains elusive.

Another $31 million was spent last year on negotiations by B.C. and an effort was made to accelerate the conclusion of final agreements. Three First Nations moved to another intermediate phase, and two moved to the agreement in principle phase.

But there's still no final deal.