Two tentative treaties trickle into view just in time for the holidays


Vaughn Palmer

Vancouver Sun

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


VICTORIA - The federal and provincial governments are planning to initial two treaties with B.C. first nations before the holidays.

First up is a tentative deal with the Tsawwassen First Nation, then a similar agreement with the Maa-nulth First Nations on Vancouver Island.

The B.C. Liberal government has approved both proposed deals. Federal approval is imminent, clearing the way for public ceremonies within 10 days or so.

The timing is welcome, given the recent lament by the federal and provincial auditors-general about lack of progress in the B.C. treaty process.

The Tsawwassen and Maa-nulth agreements, along with one initialled earlier with the Lheidli T'enneh band in Prince George, constitute the first tentative treaties under the 13-year-old process.

The largest of the two pending deals is with the Maa-nulth First Nations, an alliance of half a dozen bands, based on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Together they represent about 2,000 people.

The Tsawwassen First Nation has an estimated 350 members, living on and off the reserve adjacent to Delta municipality.

While each deal is tailored to local concerns and aspirations, they are intended by governments to be roughly comparable when costed on a per capita basis.

The agreement with the Lheidli T'enneh, a band of about 320 people, has been valued at $73 million in land, resources, cash and shared revenues.

On that basis -- $230,000 per capita or thereabouts -- these next two agreements will probably amount to more than $500 million.

Though the Maa-nulth agreement involves more people and a larger territory, the Tsawwassen deal will likely generate more controversy because of the proximity to the main population centre of the Lower Mainland.

The terms have circulated informally since my colleague, Miro Cernetig, first reported them in The Vancouver Sun over the summer.

One likely sticking point involves the fishery.

The Tsawwassen band sought and obtained a share of the annual commercial salmon catch, much to the chagrin of critics of so-called "race-based fisheries," some of them federal Conservatives.

"Harvest allocations" is the preferred term among federal officials, confident that the deal will pass muster with the Harper government and a majority of members of the national Parliament.

Another debating point involves agricultural land. Several hundred hectares will be removed from the provincial agricultural reserve and transferred to the Tsawwassen band for development purposes.

The Lheidli T'enneh treaty also provides for the removal and transfer of about 650 hectares from the agricultural reserve.

But the Tsawwassen shift will be more controversial, given the perennial debate over the fate of farmland on the Lower Mainland.

The Liberals considered referring the matter to the agricultural land commission. But they concluded that it was unfair to expect the commission to settle an issue -- native land claims -- that falls completely outside its mandate.

Instead, the fate of treaty settlement agricultural lands will be decided by the legislature, as part of the treaty ratification process.

Not always the preferred forum for debate for the Liberals, witness their decision to truncate the fall session of the legislature. But the right place to debate the broad issues involved in settling native treaties.

The Liberals are anxious about Tsawwassen, more than the other two treaties.

Delta Mayor Lois Jackson is already on record as saying "if they [the natives] want this land, they should farm it, just like everyone else." Some local farmers are trying to tie up the land in a court case, saying it was expropriated from them and they want to buy it back.

The government will defend the selection, saying it was the only available land within what the band regards as its traditional territory.

The transfer, and subsequent development (probably in conjunction with the adjacent Roberts Bank superport) should provide a measure of economic self-sufficiency for the Tsawwassen First Nation.

Those being the battle lines, the New Democratic Party faces a tough call on whether to support the deal, land transfer and all. Agricultural land is to the NDP, what fish are to the Conservatives, as one prominent New Democrat observed recently.

Wisely, NDP leader Carole James says she wants to study the treaties before announcing whether her party is prepared to support the terms.

She and her colleagues have some time to make up their minds.

The initialling ceremonies would clear the way for ratification votes in the new year. The process provides for the natives to vote first, then the provincial legislature, then the federal Parliament.

On that basis, the house won't take up any of these treaties until spring at the earliest.