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At the Table

A 'new relationship' perhaps, but Stó:lō frustrations are mounting. Last in a series.

Sandra Shields 27 Apr

Sandra Shields lives on a farm in the Fraser Valley with photographer David Campion. Their first book won the 2003 Hubert Evans Prize; Where Fire Speaks looks at how development arrived for one African tribe. Their second book, The Company of Others, explores the power of caring relationships in the lives of people with disabilities and their families and friends. If you enjoyed this series and would like to support more journalism of this quality, please click here.

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Forestry information meeting, Deroche Community Hall. Photo by David Campion.

[Editor's Note: Two years ago, the government of British Columbia and First Nations leaders laid out a vision for a "New Relationship," spurring initiatives aimed at "closing the gap" between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal British Columbians. This is the last article in a five-part Tyee Solutions Reporting Fellowship series by Sandra Shields, who is looking at steps being taken in her home community of the Fraser Valley. To learn more about Shields, her series and Tyee fellowships, go here.]

Chief Alice Thompson of the Leq'á:mél First Nation has no trouble finding the farm where I live. When she was a girl, she picked raspberries here in the summer. Many locals remember spending hot days amid the raspberry canes in these fields. The berries are gone now, as is the couple who came from Europe after World War II, cleared the fields and built this farmhouse where, on an overcast spring day, Thompson and I sit down for a conversation.

Before completing this series, I wanted to learn how the B.C. treaty process is affecting this out-of-the-way corner of the Fraser Valley. After more than a decade of slow progress ("like watching paint dry" as Grand Chief Clarence Pennier once described it), treaty making in B.C. got interesting last October.

The week before Halloween saw the signing of the first final agreement -- a 200-page document that needed only community approval by the Lheidli T'enneh to become a treaty ready for acceptance by the B.C. legislature and the Canadian Parliament. That same week the leaders of more than 40 communities involved in the treaty process gathered in Nanaimo to sign a "unity protocol." They were all encountering the same obstacles to settling treaties and said it was time for Canada and B.C. to change their mandates on key issues.

In November, the auditors general of Canada and B.C. released reports criticizing the treaty process for costing too much and delivering too little. Within days, two more final agreements had been signed by the Tsawwassen and Maa-nulth.

Treaties took a hiatus from the headlines until the end of March when the Lheidli T'enneh surprised the province by voting not to accept their final agreement. A week later, the unity protocol hit the news again. Now half the nations in treaty negotiations were pressing Canada and B.C. to fix the treaty process and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, historically opposed to treaty, had passed a resolution in support of the protocol.

Treaties in B.C. seem to be moving through a critical make-or-break year. In this final piece, I was interested in connecting the dots between the provincial headlines and the place that Chief Alice Thompson and I both call home. The dots led to Mike Harcourt, the former premier of B.C. who is about to leave the Treaty Commission after four years of facilitating treaties. The dots also led to Robert Morales, spokesperson for the nations that have signed the unity protocol. But the dots began in my living room with Leq'á:mél Chief Alice Thompson.

Getting past paternalism

You could say Alice Thompson was born to politics. Her dad was chief when she was a toddler, and by the time she was a teenager, her mom was into a 20-year stint as chief. Over the years, Thompson has been band manager and served on council. She was elected last spring and took on the challenge of leading a growing community in uncertain times.

"Unofficially we have 400 members," she says, "and the majority of our population is under 30." She explains that many of their youth grew up with parents who had low self esteem and it's become an intergenerational problem.

"My struggle always is how do we encourage our youth to believe in themselves. A lot of people say their future is in our hands; I believe my future is in their hands. I don't think they realize how much power they have."

Thompson and the Leq'á:mél council have made it a priority to engage community members, young and old. "We are struggling to get out of that paternalism of the past," she says. "My belief has always been that in order for us to succeed we need to have community participation. We can't go around all the time telling people what they need, we need to hear from the community what they need and how we can go about making it happen."

Is the provincial government's new relationship with First Nations helping out? "I think it's dissipating before it even reaches the ground," Thompson says. "The words in the New Relationship document, they're shiny, they look good on paper, but unless they're in motion they don't mean anything." Instead, she finds herself trying to build capacity while grappling with Indian Affairs programs that fail to meet the needs of her community.

"There are just so many areas that need attention," she says. As well as dealing with everything from reserve infrastructure to social programs, cultural activities and economic development, she is increasingly pulled away from community work to deal with external issues. Consultation on forestry matters is ongoing, there is the pressing issue of the dykes along the Fraser, and a major upgrade of transmission lines has the band involved in urgent meetings with BC Hydro.

Together with the band council, Thompson has been making efforts to reach out to the local community, attending regional district meetings and connecting with the city council in nearby Mission. She is heartened by the way the Leq'á:mél community centre has become a hub where people from outside the band feel comfortable.

As for treaty, Thompson says, "It's been a long haul and we've still got a long haul to go." The Leq'á:mél joined the treaty process in 1994 as part of the Stó:lō Nation alliance. A few years ago, the alliance fractured and treaty talks were suspended. Recently, seven of the bands (with a combined membership of about 1,200 people), returned to the table with the ambitious agenda of completing an agreement-in-principle (or AIP) by April 2008.

"We did at one point think about pulling back and going on our own, but it would just be too overwhelming," Thompson says. Sharing the cost is an advantage, as is the opportunity to share resources and knowledge, and to be able to discuss issues.

"I've always said we need to be in charge of our own destination and that translates over to self government." She remembers bringing the subject up in the 1980s when her mom was still chief. "My mom said: What are you talking about?! She was almost mad at me. She said it would never happen -- not in her lifetime."

Twenty years later, Thompson has just helped wrap up the governance chapter of the Stó:lō Nation AIP. If everything goes according to plan, that chapter will become part of the treaty that will enable the Leq'á:mél to move out from under the Indian Act and begin to govern themselves.

The big thumb

The amount of work involved in modern treaty making is staggering. While Thompson and others participate in working groups where chapters are drafted, Chief Joe Hall, president of Stó:lō Nation, is on the four-person team that sits down and does the actual negotiating with Canada and B.C.

"As much as we'd like to believe these treaties are about negotiating a new relationship that will allow us to co-exist," he says, "the governments' approach often demonstrates that for them it is more of a devolution and a liability prevention exercise." Basically, it's about covering the Queen's butt.

Still, he finds the process exciting. "I call the Indian Act the big thumb," he says. "The notion that we can get out from under the Indian Act in the not-too-distant future certainly has its attractions."

"If it's a good treaty, then down the road you will see the health and welfare of communities improve. Lower unemployment, lower social assistance, lower health problems, longer lifespan, a self-generating economy. Those would all be hallmarks of a good treaty."

A critical part of the process, he says, is community outreach to ensure members participate in discussions about the treaty process. "The constituents who are going to be voting on the treaty, they have to be knowledgeable. We want to make sure they understand all facets of the treaty. There are going to be areas of give and take, there's going to be mitigation, and if they don't understand the mitigation that was involved, then all they see is that 100 per cent of our desires haven't been met."

How is the mood at the table since talks resumed? "We're still in the honeymoon stage," he says. "We have been dealing with process issues like dispute resolution and the ratification process, but we all recognize that on the horizon there are some substantive issues that are going to be difficult and they could be potential show stoppers."

Other First Nations have been running into the same show-stoppers and Stó:lō Nation joined them in signing the unity protocol asking the governments for a joint table to discuss solutions.

"Right now, the biggest obstacle to treaties is the mandate that the federal and provincial negotiators bring to the table," Hall says. "The unity protocol is an effort to try and work together as a whole rather than work at individual tables. There seem to be some watershed issues here and once we come to a resolution that is going to work, then we'll see these treaties flow a lot more quickly."

Unity table

When I talk to Robert Morales, our conversation is punctuated by the sound of the BC Ferries' horn. Morales is traveling from his home in the Cowichan to the mainland to meet with First Nations and business leaders about fixing what his recent news release called the "crumbling treaty process."

Morales has spent six years as the chief negotiator for the Hul'qumi'num treaty group. He is also the chair of the Chief Negotiators Forum for the First Nations Summit. He moved into the spotlight last October with the unity protocol.

The unity group is asking government to engage them collectively to find mutually acceptable positions on six complex and contentious issues at the heart of treaty making: certainty, constitutional status of treaty lands, governance, co-management of traditional territories, fiscal relations and taxation, and fisheries.

To date, B.C.'s approach to treaties has been more divide-and-conquer. "If you read the attorney general's report for B.C.," Morales says, "they were quite critical about B.C.'s approach of using the lead tables, Lheidli T'enneh, Tsawwassen and Maa-nulth, to develop the policy."

The reverse approach was taken in the Yukon where treaty negotiations began with discussions that included all First Nations and resulted in an umbrella agreement covering key issues like land, compensation, self-government and co-management of resources. The umbrella agreement became the framework within which each nation could create its own final settlement.

"In B.C. the first agreement off the ground becomes the umbrella agreement for the whole province," says Morales, "so whichever one of those agreements gets ratified becomes the umbrella agreement for everybody else. We didn't have any input into it. It is just not acceptable."

Another concern raised in the auditor general's report is that government mandates are set by bureaucrats who remain behind the scenes and are not up to speed on the new relationship. The report called treaty negotiations "one of the most controlled and inflexible processes in the federal government." A unity table where the chief negotiators come together with high-level government officials would be a way to bypass this inflexible process and create what Morales calls "a real negotiating decision-making process." One with "compromise on all sides."

"Our challenge as First Nations," he says, "is to come up with a common vision on those six issues." Not an easy thing, he points out, when dealing with the diverse opinions and circumstances of 60 First Nations. "What I expect we will end up with is two or three policy positions on each of the key issues so there is some opportunity to choose." This multiple choice approach would offer both governments and First Nations room for give and take.

Does Morales still believe in treaties? "If we expect to resolve the land question and overcome our present socio-economic position, then I think treaty is a worthwhile process," he says. "It is probably the only process that will get us there. We can piecemeal it, which is the new relationship approach, getting little bits of certainty here and there for five or 10 years but then you're back to the drawing boards again."

He points out that the process is expensive for First Nations and they would like to get on with it. Many First Nations, Morales says, would like to see treaties settled before the 2010 Olympics.

"If the government keeps putting it off, then I suspect the costs will just continue to escalate. I think everyone loses if we can't resolve this."

Harcourt on treaties

Mike Harcourt has been a supporter of treaty making in B.C. since his days as a law student. When he became premier in 1991, one of the first things he did was sign the document that set up the treaty process. Four years ago, after a remarkable recovery from a near-fatal fall, Harcourt came full circle as the federal appointee to the BC Treaty Commission where one of the tables he facilitated was Stó:lō Nation. Harcourt is leaving the Treaty Commission in two weeks, so this seemed an auspicious time for a conversation about treaties.

When we speak on the phone early one morning, Harcourt says that BC's relationship with First Nations was the issue that got him out of the mayor's chair and into provincial politics. As mayor of Vancouver from 1980 to 1986, Harcourt watched confrontation and bitterness increase across the province. "I was getting frustrated that we weren't acknowledging that Aboriginal rights and title existed and that we needed to sit down and negotiate."

He is heartened by how things have changed, but believes the relationship with First Nations people is still the key issue in B.C. He advocates patience, pointing out that the old relationship, "which didn't work for anybody," was 150 years old. "We're into a new phase," he says. "It's new and it's tender and we're still in trial and error."

What about the unity protocol? "I think the Commission can play a role there in terms of dialogue and information exchange about the points that have been raised and whether they can be worked out on a province-wide basis."

He says that not only is signing treaties the right thing to do, it comes with huge economic benefits for both First Nations and B.C. He estimates that $150 to 200 billion will flow through the provincial economy in the next two decades as a result of treaties.

Are we ready?

For several years now, Harcourt has been asking whether we are ready for treaties and answering his own question with a resounding No. There is much to be done, he says, if we want to prevent crash landings once treaties are signed.

"The province has got to get its co-management regime in place and make it do-able," Harcourt says. And together with the feds and First Nations, B.C. must get on with closing the socio-economic gap.

The federal government "has got to get ready to dismantle Indian Affairs out here in an orderly way." Under the present system First Nations are drowning in paper. "The Attorney General Sheila Fraser did a review. She was shocked and reported that the average First Nation, which is 500 people with probably five to 10 leaders doing all the work, has to prepare 162 different reports every year to the federal government."

First Nations face "huge challenges" to be ready, and Harcourt identifies three key things. "First, they've got to do a long-term vision through a comprehensive community plan," he says. He is excited about the results of a recent pilot project the Treaty Commission helped facilitate and sees these plans as the foundation for successful self governance. Second on his list is the need to develop a government structure to replace the band council which is really a service-delivery body. And third is the need to build the human capacity to carry out these responsibilities.

Municipalities need to ante up, too, and Harcourt says the last five years have seen some municipalities take the lead on finding ways to share services and infrastructure with their Aboriginal neighbors.

"Business has got to up its game to genuine joint ventures and partnerships with First Nations." And he doesn't let the public off the hook either, stressing that the work of "cross-cultural understanding" must continue.

His final message? "I remain optimistic because I think we're going to do it, but more importantly, we have to do it. We have to have the new relationship and treaties are a huge means towards that end."

Back on the ground

Whatever unfolds over the next six months, 2007 seems set to become a watershed year in the history of treaty-making in B.C. The outcome will have significant implications for every one of us, even though the complex drama playing out in the headlines remains far away from most of our daily lives.

In concluding this series I returned to Leq'á:mél territory for a conversation closer to the ground, this one at my picnic table with a friendly young man sporting a grim reaper tattoo on one brawny shoulder and a clown on the other. Jason Glover is 20 years old and graduated from high school in 2005. He works for Stó:lō Nation doing cultural tours in the Coqualeetza longhouse and says his mom, Chief Alice Thompson, is his biggest role model.

He grew up on the Leq'á:mél reserve. "When I was a kid this was a really good place to live," he says. "Everyone was so together and you could always depend on each other. But over the years with drugs and alcohol and the effects of residential school being passed from the parents who went to residential school on to their kids and on to their kids' kids, eventually it just sent our reserve into a downward spiral. Now if you don't have your car parked right beside your dog, your gas tank might be empty in the morning."

Why does he choose to stay? "This home needs more people to fight for it," he says and adds that even though there are conflicts between families, whenever there is an emergency everyone comes together. He'd like to see the community get back to being that way all the time.

How does he feel about treaties? "There is a negative vibe to treaty," he says. "The treaties today are a lot different from the old ones in the rest of Canada, and sure someone's flashing a high million in your face, but I still don't think much of treaty and it's going to stay that way until the federal and provincial governments can prove that they're going to continue to work alongside First Nations fairly."

He is angry about what has happened to his people, and says that many of the youth in his generation are angry too. "I try to control it because I know if it comes out the wrong way, it's not going to benefit anybody." Lots of things make him angry. The way some of the teachers he had in school expected First Nations students to fail. The way in the summer you can't see across the river because of the smog from Vancouver. The way that when people drive past skid row, the first person they point at is the First Nations person.

Last year in a geography course at UCFV, he encountered a non-Aboriginal professor and another student who "saw things the way First Nations do."

"I was just blown away," he says. "It's been so rare to hear non-Native people talking like Native people have been talking for the past 100 years. It's a relief. It's reassuring to know that someone outside of our community cares."

The experience made him feel like things might be slowly turning around. "As time goes on First Nations communities and non-First Nations communities are going to end up having to walk together on the same path," he says, "and why not try and learn something from each other so we can walk together in a positive way? That's the idea of the new relationship, I think, being able to walk forward together."

A long walk

Last fall, I walked out my back door to explore whether a new relationship with Aboriginal people was unfolding in the Fraser Valley. The ensuing journey was often as sobering as it was hopeful. As the Delgamuukw decision says: "We are all here to stay." And as Jason Glover said at the picnic table in my backyard: "It's going to be a long walk to get First Nations and newcomers to see eye to eye."

The much-needed systemic change promised by treaties remains in the future, and the pain of the past continues to color many lives, but out here in Leq'á:mél territory, I think the ground beneath our feet is beginning to shift.  [Tyee]

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