Reflections on a missed opportunity


By Trevor Proverbs

B.C. Chief Negotiator

Lheidli T’enneh Final Agreement

Apr 27 2007

On the evening of March 30, 2007, I was in attendance for the counting of the ratification vote on the Lheidli T’enneh Final Agreement. As the votes were counted, and the no votes steadily accumulated, it became clear that the Final Agreement was not going to be approved. Along with the obvious feeling of disappointment that I experienced, was the immediate question of why? Here was an agreement that was the result of 13 years of negotiations, countless meetings of the Lheidli T’enneh Community Treaty Council, numerous offers, revisions of government mandates and meaningful compromise by all the parties to reach solutions that allowed everyone involved to take pride in what had been accomplished. But still, the no votes carried the day.

In the days following the vote numerous commentators offered their views on why the vote failed - the agreement was too complicated to understand, there were better opportunities available or Lheidli T’enneh as a community simply wasn’t ready. It is difficult to respond to these views. They focus primarily on fear and doubt rather than the substance of the agreement. Most importantly, they suggest that the Lheidli T’enneh community had cause to question itself, its ability to negotiate on its own behalf and its ability to define a vision for the future. This does not reflect the community I came to know during the negotiations and if these truly were the motivations behind the no vote, I can only respond with sincere disappointment that the real strengths of the Final Agreement and the strengths of the community that negotiated it may have been overlooked.

Lheidli T’enneh consistently demonstrated leadership during its involvement in the treaty process and the Final Agreement is a demonstration of this leadership. The agreement secures Lheidli T’enneh’s presence in its traditional territory through the establishment of treaty rights to hunt, fish, and gather plants in the Lheidli T’enneh Area and Fish Areas and the right to participate in planning processes in the Lheidli T’enneh Area. Treaty jargon - it is difficult to avoid it - but what it means is that Lheidli T’enneh would have a voice in its territory and the right to practice its traditional pursuits across 4.5 million hectares of the province.

Some critics have argued that the treaty approach to rights in the traditional territory is outdated and that there are new and better initiatives to pursue. In response I simply point to the provisions of the Final Agreement that leave the door open for Lheidli T’enneh to benefit from programs that support a new relationship between the province and Aboriginal people in British Columbia. Far from being severed from its traditional territory through the Final Agreement, Lheidli T’enneh secured clear and meaningful connections to it that are agreed to by British Columbia and Canada.

The Final Agreement also provides Lheidli T’enneh with the right to govern themselves and to free themselves of the restrictive paternalism of the Indian Act. This would not, however, mean that on the effective date of the treaty Lheidli T’enneh would have been cast adrift, solely responsible for all of the programs and services provided by government. The Lheidli T’enneh Government would have had the opportunity to determine when they were ready to take on these responsibilities. This flexibility, together with the continuation of existing social programs for aboriginal people (for example health), allowed for an effective transition to self-governance on terms that would work for Lheidli T’enneh and its membership.

Lheidli T’enneh’s rights in its traditional territory and the rights to govern themselves and their lands can be seen as two sides of a triangle that represents the Final Agreement. The third side of this triangle, characterized by the economic opportunities presented by a close association with the City of Prince George, is a clear vision for the economic future for Lheidli T’enneh. The Lheidli T’enneh Lands at the airport, on Cranbrook Hill and in Harper Valley place Lheidli T’enneh at the heart of the city’s growth. All around the city there are signs of opportunities to come, whether it is from the expansion of the airport, the establishment of the CN container terminal, partnerships with UNBC or residential development. The Final Agreement made Lheidli T’enneh a key partner in these opportunities and, through Lheidli T’enneh Governance over these lands, gave Lheidli T’enneh full control over its involvement in these opportunities. This was no coincidence or chance occurrence.

The links to the city and the opportunities they presented were the product of astute negotiations in support of the community’s vision for a future that provided the opportunity for its members, and in particular its youth, to become successful participants in the provincial economy while maintaining their identity as Lheidli T’enneh. The negotiators were also mindful of the capacity and education required to take advantage of these opportunities, and starting this year, the College of New Caledonia is introducing a program specifically designed to ensure Lheidli T’enneh persons have access to the necessary education upgrading to support their participation in these opportunities.

There are far more details in the Final Agreement that could be highlighted, but there comes a point where the details are simply more details. The real story, the real meaning in the Final Agreement, was the opportunity it presented for the Lheidli T’enneh community to continue to grow and govern itself, to reconcile events of the past, to protect and strengthen its identity and to realise its vision for the future. The tools and resources to support this were there.

I was born and raised in Prince George. My childhood home was on the bank of the Nechako River just up from the confluence of the Nechako and Fraser Rivers. I know the community of Prince George and I have come to know the history of the Lheidli T’enneh people – a people alienated from their rightful place within the community of Prince George. This agreement, strongly supported by the Prince George community, provided an opportunity for Lheidli T’enneh to once again take their rightful place in this community. I remain proud of the work that was done at the Lheidli T’enneh table and I remain proud of the Final Agreement that was negotiated. I also feel privileged to have had the opportunity to work with the Lheidli T’enneh community and to have shared a glimpse of the future they are seeking.

I had planned to close this letter with a few comments on the strength that I had seen in the Lheidli T’enneh community and in particular the great sense of community that I saw at the special Assembly on March 25. It is always difficult for an outsider to make such comments so instead I provide the following quote from a recently published letter by Carl Frederick. Anything I might write would pale in comparison.

“So hold your heads up high and be proud that you are Lheidli T’enneh, and most of all, a First Nations people. United we can overcome. We are the people of the confluence of the two rivers.”

© Copyright 2007 Prince George Free Press