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BC bands bogged down in treaty talks: report

VICTORIA - Ottawa needs to consider a flexible exit strategy for British Columbia First Nations frustrated and debt-challenged by slow-moving treaty negotiations, says a special report prepared for federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan.

The 47-page report by former Campbell River, B.C., mayor James Lornie, appointed Duncan's special B.C. treaty representative last year, states First Nations treaty negotiations debt now tops $420 million, which is insurmountable and an unsustainable barrier to reaching treaties.

The report doesn't suggest dumping the treaty process after more than 20 years of negotiations, but states First Nations need the option to leave the table without feeling intense pressure to pay off debts and with nothing to show after years of talks.

First Nations should also be allowed to return to negotiations at a later date, it adds.

"I consider that the single most important response that the federal government can make is to re-commit to treaty-making as a federal priority, and to commit to that priority at every level of the federal system," stated Lornie in the report.

Lornie submitted the document to Duncan last November, but it was only made public last week.

Duncan could not be immediately reached for comment, but his office issued a statement, noting the minister, department and treaty-process partners are reviewing the report.

"Canada will continue to explore concrete, specific ways to address many of the issues and recommendations raised in the report through existing initiatives," said a statement from Duncan's director of communications Jason MacDonald.

There are more than 200 First Nations in B.C. and there are fewer than 20 treaties, with the majority of the treaties dating back to the mid 1800s when the province was still a British colony.

In the past 20 years, B.C. treaty negotiations have produced two treaties.

Lornie's report also recommends giving federal negotiators more leeway to accept proposals at their local negotiating tables without seeking approval from Ottawa. Other recommendations address fisheries issues, aboriginal revenue policies and cost-sharing arrangements.

The B.C. Treaty Commission's chief commissioner, Sophie Pierre, said in a statement that Lornie's recommendations, if implemented, will improve the prospects for treaties. The commission overseas the federal, provincial and First Nations government-to-government negotiation process that has been in place since 1991.

Pierre said Lornie's report recommends more flexibility when it comes to fisheries issues other than sockeye salmon and relaxing of federal financial deduction rules of First Nations revenues as two major changes that will speed up and ease treaty talks. She said fish negotiations in treaties are severely limited while the Cohen Commission of inquiry examining the collapse of Fraser River sockeye salmon stocks continues.

Pierre said First Nations want negotiations on fish issues other than sockeye salmon to continue.

Chief Douglas White, of the First Nations Summit, B.C.'s largest aboriginal organization, said Lornie's report means a government appointee has formally told the aboriginal affairs minister what Ottawa needs to do to fix the treaty process. He said many First Nations have borrowed millions to participate in the endless treaty talks and are now looking for a way out.

"Many First Nations felt they could stomach the costs for five or six years, but after 20, it's getting to be a bit much," said White.

White said he's concerned recent federal government budget cuts will further impact federal treaty negotiations. The majority of First Nations are willing to stick it out "because of a trust and belief that Canada is coming with a proper mandate to negotiate in an open way," said White.

White said Lornie's recommendations, if implemented, will send the message that Ottawa has listened and is more interested in negotiating treaties than exit strategies.

"We're pushing 20 years now and the summit is very concerned now about a lack of substantial progress," he said. "We expect action to be taken at this point, and there has been no substantial action since the report's been released."

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