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Sunday, April 02, 2006

NDP Agenda Keeps BC Treaty Making on Hold

In human affairs it is all too often the dead hand of history that keeps progress from being made. For instance in British Columbia, unlike most other jurisdictions in North America, few treaties were ever signed with the original native inhabitants.

Thus the crown came to occupy land that in essence it cannot show how it came to have legal title over it. This despite a Royal Proclamation issued in 1820 which made it clear that land was not to be occupied unless treaties had first been obtained.

This has left British Columbia with a legal uncertainty that it is conservatively estimated costs BC several billions of dollars per year in lost investment. After many decades of negotiation the Nisga’a were finally able to conclude a modern treaty with the governments of British Columbia and Canada.

After this success, there followed the establishment of the BC Treaty Commission and a modern treaty making process that has spent hundreds of millions of dollars but has so far failed to produce a single ratified treaty agreement.

Again the dead hand of history comes into play. It was an NDP government that established the treaty process and in setting it up they made sure that the NDP's tax and regulate agenda was front and center. So one caveat was that within eight years of signing a treaty the band members who ratified the treaty would have to start paying sales taxes to the government and within 12 years they would have to start paying income taxes.

Just to be clear here natives who earn income off reserve pay the same income taxes as everyone else regardless of whether or not they live on a reserve. I have written before in previous columns about this so called 8 and 12 formula has helped kill several potential treaty agreements including with the Sechelt who pulled out of the BC Treaty process over this issue.

But there is another part of the NDP agenda that lives on in the BC Treaty process. It is the insistence by the government of British Columbia on moving the status of reserve lands from federal ‘91(24)’ authority to provincial ‘92’ authority. The big driver behind this issue is to have provincial laws, including those governing the Agricultural Land Reserve and Forest Land Reserve apply to treaty lands.

Thus First Nations who ratified a treaty with this provision in it would face the prospect of not being able to develop their lands as they see fit but be forced to remain undeveloped areas of agricultural and forest green belt. This is clearly unacceptable to most First Nations currently within the treaty process.

Yet public and industry perception is that it is First Nations rather than the intransigence of federal and provincial negotiators that is holding up the settlement of treaties here in British Columbia.

It is this misperception that must be corrected if we are ever going to see the federal and provincial negotiators move from their current bargaining position. The message also needs to be driven home to the Campbell government in Victoria and the Harper government in Ottawa that is an NDP tax and regulate agenda that has caused the BC treaty process to stall.

The only people benefiting from these stalled treaty talks are consultants, lawyers and bureaucrats, who are all making a healthy living off of a process that is going nowhere fast. Meanwhile it is the private sector, the general public and first nations members themselves who are on the losing out because of foregone private sector investment.

In order to help bring these issues into sharper focus the Westbank First Nation is hosting a conference on May 30th at the Sensiuyusten Community Centre. The title of the conference neatly sums up its purpose, “Making or Breaking the Treaty Process: The Constitutional Status of Treaty Settlement Land.”

Senior executives from a variety of resource sector companies, key federal and provincial government officials, as well as a variety of First Nations leaders have been invited to attend. I sincerely hope this conference is a success, because if it is not we as taxpayers of British Columbia can look forward to many more years of fruitless treaty negotiations.
Mike Geoghegan is a government and media relations consultant based in Victoria, BC

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