A change of focus

By Katherine Palmer Gordon, October 2015

As she leaves us, our correspondent reflects on a decade of First Nations treaty negotiations, court rulings and attempts at reconciliation.

Eleven years ago, I wrote my first article for this magazine. A profile of author Sylvia Olsen, it appeared in the June 2004 issue of what was then called Focus on Women.  

Now, with considerable sadness, I am writing what will be my last piece for the magazine—at least for now. Next month, having worked previously in both New Zealand and in British Columbia as a treaty negotiator, I am returning to New Zealand as a Chief Negotiator for that government. In my new role, I will be helping to conclude some of the remaining Maori land and marine settlements in the country.  

New Zealand has successfully settled many significant treaty agreements, and the government there has committed to completing the rest of them, if possible, over the next three years. While that will be challenging, I’m pleased to be going to work in a political and cultural environment where there is every chance of success. At the same time, as my departure date nears, I have been reflecting on the state of treaty negotiations in BC by comparison, and reconciliation efforts in this province and Canada in general. 

On the treaty front, in 2007, Tsawwassen First Nation in Delta and the Maa-nulth Nations of Vancouver Island’s west coast successfully concluded treaties with BC and Canada, after more than 15 years of hard effort (see the October 2007 issue of Focus, available online). To describe that as a significant achievement for Tsawwassen and Maa-nulth is a massive understatement. Nearly 60 other First Nations and treaty groups, mired in intractable government policies, were still struggling to reach even preliminary agreements at the time.

Unfortunately, by September 2012, the twentieth anniversary of the BC treaty process, little had changed. “Sometimes it seems that for every step forward in the treaty process, we take two steps back,” lamented then Chief Treaty Commissioner Sophie Pierre. 

Last year, things seemed to be looking up at last. Two more treaties were concluded with Yale First Nation and Tla’amin, at Powell River. Several preliminary agreements were signed. With Sophie Pierre about to retire, both the First Nations Summit and the federal government gave their unqualified approval to the appointment of former BC Liberal Cabinet Minister George Abbott to replace her as Chief Treaty Commissioner. 

Confirmation of his appointment by the provincial government last March was expected to be a mere formality. Instead, with no explanation, Abbott was arbitrarily dumped at the eleventh hour. Reactions from First Nations were predictable: anger, disgust and a sense of utter betrayal. Premier Christy Clark later insisted that the government’s decision was well-considered, and based on the lack of progress to date. The entire process needed an overhaul, claimed Clark, and the provincial government wanted to take the time to do that in partnership with First Nations.

Eight months later, however, there is no sign of any such overhaul and still no Chief Commissioner in place. Three more Agreements-in-Principle have been signed, but that still only brings the grand total to seven. Two of those AIPs go back to 2005 and 2007. If any of them are close to being finalized, there is no obvious sign. Where that leaves other First Nations and tribal councils still desperately hoping for their own agreements is an open question.  

Whether through the embattled treaty process or otherwise, the need for reconciliation of the relationship between First Nations and other Canadians has also become increasingly urgent over the last decade. In BC, the Campbell government—after initially stumbling over its widely condemned public referendum on treaty policy in 2002—took what appeared to be a significant step in that direction when it launched its “New Relationship” platform in 2005, promising strong, respectful relationships with First Nations in future. 

Under the New Relationship umbrella the government has focussed its efforts on economic reconciliation, creating several economic development funds aimed at creating business opportunities and jobs in First Nations communities and devoting considerable effort to fostering relationships between First Nations and the private sector. 

An increasingly strong body of Supreme Court case law affirming Aboriginal rights and title, including a 2014 Supreme Court decision that found the Tsilqhot’in people hold title to a large tract of land in their territory in central BC, has also contributed to a significant shift in the business culture in BC. Ten years ago it remained exceptional for companies to regard First Nations’ interests as integrally linked to their own. The owners of the Bear Mountain development in Langford illustrated that painfully in 2007 when they bulldozed a cave sacred to local First Nations with no apology (see June 2007). At the time, they were one of many developers in BC trampling roughshod over Aboriginal interests. 

In 2015, however, things look quite different. It is almost unthinkable now for any developer or government in the province to proceed without consulting local First Nations. The norm instead is to seek out mutually beneficial partnerships with First Nations, with increasing success as relationships improve and the benefits become obvious to both sides. 

A handful of companies, like Taseko Mines Ltd, still seem to believe they can get away without cooperating with First Nations. But Taseko’s continuing failure to successfully garner a permit to proceed with its New Prosperity mine in Tsilqhot’in territory clearly illustrates the folly of that approach. Just last month, Nexen Inc also had its water licence cancelled after the Fort Nelson First Nation proved Nexen and the provincial government had both failed to consult them before the licence was issued.

First Nations still have to fight to protect their lands, and they do not always win the battle. In the Peace country, for example, First Nations have not been successful in halting BC Hydro’s proposed Site C dam. As well, the government continues to promote an LNG plant proposed by Malaysian petrochemical giant Petronas Inc on Lelu Island near Prince Rupert, despite the high-profile rejection earlier this year by Lax Kw’alaams of a billion dollar benefits package offered by Petronas in return for their cooperation. A group of concerned Lax Kw’alaams citizens have now occupied the island, fearful that the environmentally sensitive area is under threat. 

The Grace Islet debacle, covered extensively by this magazine over the past year, also demonstrates that there is still a way to go in giving culturally important sites the protection they need and deserve. Under threat of litigation it was likely to lose, the provincial government finally stepped in at the beginning of the year to stop further damage to Grace Islet. But it has done nothing since to prevent the desecration of the graves of Aboriginal people by developers elsewhere in BC.

As to the federal government, in 2008 it apologized to the survivors of Canada’s residential schools and created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with the goal of publicizing the sad history and providing survivors an opportunity to have their stories heard. In both cases, the gesture was well-received by many First Nations people across the country. 

But as a step towards reconciliation, as I pointed out in Focus in November 2013, the TRC cannot be characterized as a success story. It has been plagued by a lack of cooperation from the federal government, and any sense of goodwill it may have generated has been deeply eroded by that same government’s failure to address other serious issues that continue to plague Aboriginal communities, including poor housing and water supply, high suicide and TB rates, and abject poverty. 

In June 2012, then National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Shawn Atleo, told me adamantly that the parties needed to “smash the status quo” in terms of the relationship between them. Atleo raged: “Our collective failure to address the long and lamentable list of challenges affecting First Nations means First Nations lurch from crisis to crisis with governments’ responses motivated more by headlines than by actually achieving change.” The relationship between the federal government and First Nations had to change; the well-being of Canada’s future generations depended on it.

But it hasn’t. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have refused to confront the systemic issues behind the massive numbers of murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada. Day attendees at residential schools had to go to court against the federal government to gain the right to seek compensation. Children in Attawapiskat and similar remote communities are still living in shacks. These are symptoms of a relationship that has foundered on the rocks of intransigence and neglect. 

Whether that will change in the foreseeable future is something I will now have to watch from afar, at least for the next few years. I am sad to leave, even if temporarily, a province where I have learned so much and, I hope, contributed in small part to a better understanding of some of the issues that make it tick. My heartfelt thanks to Focus’ outstanding publishers, Leslie Campbell and David Broadland, and all of its wonderful readers. See you again sometime soon. 

Katherine Palmer Gordon is a former BC Chief Treaty Negotiator and the author of six books, including We Are Born With the Songs Inside Us (Harbour, 2013). The book features just a handful of the thousands of young, bright, and inspiring First Nations men and women who she believes are part of creating a better future for everyone in BC.