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B.C. Treaty Commission urges First Nations to resolve overlapping land claims

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VANCOUVER - Despite the glacial pace of negotiations, the British Columbia treaty process remains a viable option for First Nations to pursue self-determination, says the provincial treaty commission.

But commissioner Sophie Pierre said Tuesday that overlapping land claims are an ongoing and thorny issue for negotiations.

"We have consistently identified overlapping claims as one of the biggest challenges that a First Nation, reaching final agreement, must overcome," Pierre said in the commission's annual report.

It's a barrier to more than treaties, she added in an interview.

"It's also for all the major development that's being talked about," Pierre said.

Well over 100 per cent of B.C. Crown land is claimed as the traditional territory of one or more of the province's 198 First Nations.

Treaties are even more necessary in light of a recent high-court ruling recognizing land title for the Tsilhqot'in Nation, she said.

"In fact, what Tsilhqot'in has said is that the best way of moving forward is through negotiated settlements, and that's what we need to do," Pierre said.

The report includes recommendations from several high-profile mediators and arbitrators, including Vince Ready.

Judith Sayers, former chief of the Hupacasath First Nation and its chief negotiator for 16 years, said treaties were never supposed to proceed to even an agreement-in-principle stage until boundary issues were resolved.

But "these governments want settlements so bad that they don't care about overlap," said Sayers, who is also an assistant law professor at the University of Victoria.

"It is first-come, first serve."

There have been several court cases over disputed boundaries set by treaty, such as a lawsuit by the 6,000-member Sto:lo Nation over the treaty signed with the 200-member Yale First Nation, which includes fishing rights in the Fraser River.

Pierre said progress had been made but she blamed a lack of funding from the provincial and federal governments for the failure to resolve disputes among nations.

The commission does not negotiate treaties but allocates funds and facilitates negotiations. Since it was established in 1992, nine First Nations have fully ratified final agreements.

Thirty-eight others are in various stages of negotiations, while 18 are no longer negotiating.

The First Nations Summit, which represents bands involved in the treaty process, echoed the commission's call for action.

Among all the First Nations in B.C., 102 have taken part in the treaty process and 96 have not.

The commission report said a limited federal mandate is another stumbling block, but Pierre expressed some hope that a change in approach announced by federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt over the summer may jump-start stalled talks.

Those include a mandate to negotiate fishing rights and the re-appointment of special representative Doug Eyford.

Eyford was originally enlisted to try and salvage discussions with aboriginal groups over the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal.

Over the past two decades, the commission has allocated approximately $627 million to First Nations to negotiate treaties.

Eighty per cent is a loan from the federal government, and the tally has become crippling, the commission said. Outstanding loans totalled approximately $486 million as of March 31, 2014.

The commission is pushing the federal government for an exit plan that would provide some relief to First Nations that have incurred massive debt at negotiations that have gone nowhere.

"We'll never have the federal government say, yes, we were the problem but everybody knows they were the problem," Pierre said.

"There are tables that are never going to reach treaties and they should not be left with this debt."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2014
The Canadian Press

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