Ever-richer treaty deal rejected by small Prince George band


Vaughn Palmer

Vancouver Sun

Tuesday, April 03, 2007



VICTORIA - The Lheidli T'enneh first nation was part of the B.C. treaty process from the beginning.

The band filed a statement of intent to negotiate a settlement in late 1993, becoming one of the first bands to enter the six-stage process under the then-fledgling B.C. Treaty Commission.

Two years later, the band had cleared all the initial hurdles to commence formal negotiations, thereby completing stage two of the process -- "readiness."

The negotiating partners, the federal Liberal-led national government and New Democratic Party-led provincial government, were ready as well.

Both wanted to demonstrate "progress at the table" well before the end of the decade of the 1990s.

The government teams lost no time identifying the smallish (population 300) Prince George-based band as a good candidate to advance through the process to completion.

In the summer of 1996, the two governments and the band wrapped up stage three, with a signed framework agreement that specified what would be discussed and settled in subsequent negotiations.

By then, the Lheidli T'enneh was regularly cited by the independent treaty commission as among the bands that were "most likely to settle."

The NDP government was especially keen to deliver signed agreements with first nations as a mark of accomplishment during its second term.

The Lheidli T'enneh was one of a half-dozen bands targeted for the big push in the years 1998-2000.

Native leaders, believing they were likely to get a better deal from the New Democrats than from the then-hostile B.C. Liberals, went along.

But the drive fizzled out, after governments tabled offers that were regarded as disappointing, if not insulting.

In the case of the Lheidli T'enneh, the "beefed-up" second offer from Victoria and Ottawa, presented on Aug. 2, 2000, was 2,900 hectares of land and $7.5 million cash.

The band rejected the offer out of hand -- "inadequate," "essentially meaningless" -- and was soon dropped from the list of first nations most likely to sign a deal under the NDP.

But following the change of government -- and the lost year arising from the B.C. Liberal administration's ill-advised referendum on the treaty process -- the Lheidli T'enneh was soon back on the "most likely to settle" list.

In August 2003, the band became one of the first to complete stage four of the treaty process, signing an agreement in principle with the two governments.

The terms were significantly better than the last offer under the NDP: $12.8 million in cash, 4,000 hectares of land, plus greater access to timber, fish and other resources.

Then last summer came the news that the band had entered stage five of the treaty process, with a proposed final settlement, prelude to a formal treaty.

Again, the deal was richer. The cash component was boosted to $27 million and there was another 330 hectares of land, with the option to purchase a further 1,100.

More timber, more fish and other elements put the total value in the range of $70 million, or more than $200,000 per band member.

Still, on Friday, band members turned down the deal, their vote (47 per cent) falling well short of the 70-per-cent approval required by the band council.

Band members have kept their own counsel in casting what was a secret ballot. But speculation about the reasons for the defeat include native opposition to paying taxes, and concerns about giving up claim to most of the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh.

The deal was complex. Native people have valid historical reasons for mistrusting governments. It is tough to be the first into any unproven process like this one.

Plus there's the expectation, encouraged by some native leaders and borne out by experience at the negotiating table, that rejection will force governments to offer more land, money and resources next time.

After all that effort -- a deal pursued under five successive provincial premiers and three prime ministers -- the government players are understandably disappointed.

The provincial ministry of aboriginal relations and reconciliation was said to be collectively depressed Monday.

At the same time, neither government is poised to head back to the table.

The politicians believe that any effort to "tweak" the agreement and seek another vote would send the wrong message to other bands involved in the process.

It would also reinforce the perception that a "No" to current offers will boost the price for settling in the future.

So there'll be no stage six -- treaty implementation -- for the Lheidli T'enneh any time soon.

Indeed it remains an open question whether anyone will ever get to the final stage under the current B.C. treaty process. But that's a topic for another day.