Crown relations with First Nations in British Columbia have a long history of on-the-ground conflict and divisive litigation. The negotiation of treaties, used elsewhere in Canada as the primary means of reconciling aboriginal and Crown interests, was never completed in B.C.
Historical treaties were agreed to with the Treaty 8 First Nations in the northeast portion of the province and the Douglas treaties were established on Vancouver Island, but until recently no effort was made to establish treaties with the balance of the province’s 200 First Nations. Today, a potentially productive new approach is being used.
In 1992, the British Columbia Treaty Commission was established to conclude the treaty process. In 2000, the Nisga’a treaty negotiations, which began before the Treaty Commission, were successfully concluded. Today, two-thirds of B.C.’s Aboriginal population are represented at one of 47 on-going treaty negotiations. Recently, the Tsawwassen First Nations and the Maa-Nulth First Nations treaties were approved by the legislature, representing the first modern-day urban, and the first multi-nation treaties negotiated under the treaty commission process.
While these successes are significant and more are probable, the reality is that negotiations have taken much longer than expected and it could be decades before treaties are in place throughout the entire province.
In the absence of treaties, Aboriginal rights and title issues remained unresolved and contentious. In late 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada, through landmark decisions in the Haida and Taku River Tlingit First Nation cases, directed government to consult, and where necessary accommodate, First Nations in matters that might affect Aboriginal rights. These decisions resonated enormously in B.C., where 94 percent of the land is publicly owned. Permission from the province to access Crown land is essential to much of B.C.’s economy, including mining, forestry, aquaculture, agriculture, hydroelectric power generation, tourism, transportation and communication. Thousands of day-to-day transactions support this economic activity, many of which need to take into account Aboriginal interests.
Early in 2005, intensive discussions and meetings were held between the government and the First Nations Leadership Council, a landmark alliance among the province’s main Aboriginal political organizations – the First Nations Summit, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, and the BC Assembly of First Nations.
This led to the development of a vision statement for the New Relationship based on mutual respect, reconciliation, and recognition of Aboriginal rights and title. Declaring, “we are all here to stay,” the vision statement laid the foundation for breaking new ground in how the province and First Nations would embark on moving away from an era of litigation and confrontation towards reconciliation. The New Relationship was a precursor to an agreement known as the Transformative Change Accord, which was formalized during the First Ministers’ meeting at Kelowna in November 2005. It addresses closing the socio-economic gaps between Aboriginal people and other British Columbians.
The fundamental goals established in the New Relationship and the Accord inform B.C.’s Aboriginal agenda. They include: reconciliation of rights and title; enhanced economic opportunities; closing gaps in areas of education, health, housing and infrastructure; shared land and resource decision-making; benefits-sharing arrangements; and effective procedures for consultation and accommodation.
The Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation was established in 2005 to lead the development of the New Relationship and the Transformative Change Accord, create strategic policy and establish the framework required to implement the vision across government – in addition to its existing mandate to negotiate treaties and other long-lasting agreements with First Nations and Aboriginal people.
Government recognized that new institutions and practices would be needed to implement such a significant shift in its day-to-day operations. To achieve New Relationship and Accord goals, collaborative forums, committees and internal working groups were established at a variety of levels, both political and bureaucratic, to engage ministries and agencies across government and review existing approaches to consultation and accommodation. These processes were instituted to identify approaches that would help facilitate and fast track change and close socio-economic gaps, and to ensure implementation is coordinated throughout government.
The Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation works with groups, line agencies and individual ministries. For example, working in partnership with the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Aboriginal Relations assisted with the development of Canada’s first Tripartite First Nations Health Plan. Last November, the Ministry of Education introduced historic legislation recognizing First Nations’ jurisdiction over education on First Nations land. Through this agreement, and subsequent federal enabling legislation, B.C. has recognized First Nations’ power to make laws over education on their own lands.
The ministry is addressing early childhood development, a priority outlined in the Accord, with the First Nations Leadership Council and the ministries of Children and Family Development and Education. The ministry also ensures that Aboriginal viewpoints are incorporated in cross-ministry initiatives, including mental health and substance abuse, off-reserve housing, language and culture preservation, literacy, and services for persons with disabilities.
As part of the broader cross-ministry advisory and information-sharing process to support these decision-making bodies within government, an interagency committee was established with designated senior representatives from land and resource and related ministries. It is chaired by the Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation and meets bi-weekly. The committee has addressed information and decision coordination, First Nations economic development, ministry consultation processes and issues, staff training, funding for First Nation projects, Cabinet and Treasury Board submissions, linkages between the New Relationship and the Accord and government’s strategic planning process.
Reconciliation and the success of the New Relationship depend critically on political leadership. Premier Gordon Campbell and provincial ministers have been actively involved in setting the direction for this work and ensuring that it remains a key priority. A cabinet committee coordinates progress at the political level.
A central premise of the New Relationship is that government will no longer unilaterally undertake work that affects the interests of Aboriginal populations. Meaningful collaboration with First Nation and Métis communities is essential and underway across a broad spectrum of public policy. There are many joint working groups focused that meet regularly to move the agenda forward, monitor progress, and recommend policy and legislative change.
While work continues across government to meet these social and economic goals, First Nations continue to demand an effective role under the New Relationship and the Accord – one in which they participate meaningfully in land and resource management, have access to lands and benefit from major development projects. The government is developing additional tools to address and further advance the provincial Aboriginal ag