BC Gov't Made First Nations Deals for Votes: Grand Chief Phillip

Okanagan First Nations chair accuses BC Liberals of courting FN votes by pushing through land, revenue agreements.

By Katie Hyslop 25 Apr 2013 |

Katie Hyslop is part of the Tyee's election coverage team. She regularly reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee and Tyee Solution Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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Okanagan First Nations Chair Grand Chief Stewart Phillip sees parallels with 'ethnicgate.' Photo: David P. Ball.

Since January, the Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation has announced the signing of 18 non-treaty agreements, surpassing their BC Jobs Plan goal of 10 non-treaty agreements by Jan. 2015.

They also announced votes in favour for Kitsumkalum and Kitselas agreements in principle, the second step of a six-step treaty process.

But instead of celebrating the achievement, Grand Chief Stewart Philip, chair of the Okanagan Nations Alliance (ONA), likens the uptick in agreement signing to the ethnic memo scandal earlier this year.

"The Province did a tour throughout the province [this spring] and were handing out agreements like gum sticks for that very reason, attempting to enhance their relationship and positions with First Nations people, hoping somehow that would translate into votes," he told The Tyee.

But the move may do more damage than good. Almost a month after signing an incremental treaty agreement with the Ktunaxa Nation on March 28, Phillip and the ONA are threatening legal and political action against the government and possibly the Ktunaxa Nation Council for a treaty process they say failed to consult them.

"The province has been aware of this for decades because there's just such a volume of correspondence in regard to concerns being expressed by those parties vis a vis any move towards a treaty settlement on the part of the Ktunaxa Nation Council," he said.

"So the notion that they weren't properly informed is just bogus."

'Chong has her facts completely wrong': ONA

On Monday The Tyee interviewed the minister of aboriginal relations and reconciliation, Ida Chong, regarding a press release the ONA had released alleging they were not consulted by either the federal or provincial governments before the Ktunaxa agreement was signed.

Chong said she found that hard to believe: "They may not have come to a final resolution, but I cannot see where the First Nations community would not have been asked to sit at a table: whether they wanted to, or came, or were able to or not, I don't have those statistics. But I know it is a practice of ministry staff to ensure that consultation is quite fulsome."

ONA responded with another press release criticizing Chong.

"Ida Chong has her facts completely wrong. Despite numerous requests for meetings by the ONA and its member communities to discuss this matter, the Province never met with the ONA, never responded to a number of letters seeking a meeting and raising serious concerns about the proposed agreement, and never engaged in any consultation and accommodation," read the release.

A representative from the Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation confirmed in an emailed statement that the ministry had been in contact with the ONA.

"Consultation began in October, when B.C. and Canada sent letters to ONA and all the Okanagan Bands, initiating the consultation. ONA subsequently responded to the letter and B.C. responded back," reads the statement.

"Canada and B.C. will continue to engage once we have confirmed that we are consulting with the appropriate parties."

But ONA says they received no response to a Jan. 18, 2013 letter signed by all eight chiefs, urging consultation as soon as possible.

Agreement signals direction, not final treaty: Chong

In another interview with Chong on Thursday, she maintained there was ongoing correspondence between her former ministry and the ONA, adding a face to face meeting might have been too difficult to arrange since provincial, federal, and ONA officials would need to be present.

The ONA has maintained some of their traditional villages are included in this land package. But Chong responded, "I can tell you if traditional village sites had been raised immediately when they were provided with the maps, I think that would have been cause, as I say, to determine whether the strength of claim was as strong as it was.

"There's answers to everything, whether people like the answers or not."

Chong added overlapping land claims isn't a reason not to sign an incremental treaty agreement.

"It's not that everything comes to a standstill until we get the final agreement sign off of everyone; that's why I indicated that sometimes where there are overlaps we still move ahead but at the same time move ahead and try to resolve some of the differences that exist," she said.

Kathryn Teneese, chair of the Ktunaxa Nation Council, went further by saying the agreement is only an indication of where they need to go in the future if they want to sign a treaty agreement.

"All the agreement does is sets out that we're going to move forward in this direction, but there's a whole bunch of work that needs to occur. If you were to look at the agreement, you'll see that," she said.

But Stewart compares the agreement to the Nisga'a's final agreement signed under the New Democratic Party government in 2000.

"Final agreement compromised 85 per cent of Gitanyow territory, and that was done for political expediency reasons also, and in the aftermath of that the government of Canada and the province of British Columbia, in their largess, said 'we can still talk about this,'" he said.

"But the Nisga'a final agreement took effect and all of the legal agreements and conditions took effect, and the Gitanyow people were denied any colour of rights, so to speak, within that 85 per cent of their compromised territory."

Gov't insisted on timing window : Teneese

Chong denies the agreement was rushed through as Stewart suggests. In fact she says the Ktunaxa, who have been negotiating their treaty for 20 years, were so eager to sign their agreement that they couldn't wait until after the election to have a formal signing event.

"That was not fair that they would have to wait for an event just to have an ITA signed, which is one of the reasons why it was announced and put out there. But basic legal requirements have not been ignored as the claim and this was not something that was rushed forward either," she said.

But the Teneese says they were in the middle of arranging talks with the ONA to discuss the agreement when the provincial government pushed them to sign it.

"The thing about it is we've been talking about this ITA for a couple of years now, and the unfortunate thing is the present government wanted to get it done before the writ was dropped, and obviously that's been cause for concern," she said.

"They wanted to get it done, this government wanted to get it done."

Phillip said Cheryl Casimer, former chief of the St. Mary's Indian Band, represented the Ktunaxa Nation Council at the ONA tribal council meeting in Osoyoos on March 28, where she was told by ONA chiefs not to sign the agreement.

"Our chiefs were very pointed, saying 'stand down from your discussions with Canada and British Columbia, and let's establish a dialogue.' We were absolutely shocked and deeply angered to find out that the day before, March 27, they had signed this incremental treaty agreement, and furthermore Cheryl Casimer did not disclose that," he said.

The Tyee spoke to Chong before interviewing Phillip, but attempts made to reach her again for comment on Phillip's allegations of pushing through other agreements were unsuccessful by press time.

Phillip doesn't just blame the Liberals, however, for the agreements. He says the whole treaty process is set up for failure.

"The comprehensive claims policy is completely deficient in terms of acknowledging and recognizing Aboriginal title," he said.

"The Prime Minister, twice now -- at the Jan. 24, 2012 Crown First Nation gathering over a year ago, and more recently three months ago at the Jan. 11 meeting -- has committed publicly to prioritize reforming the comprehensive claims policy so that it will be in line with all of the court cases that went to the Supreme Court of Canada. Just sharing that information with you demonstrates just how flawed the BC Treaty Process is."

In the meantime, the ONA is seeking legal opinion on their next move against the B.C. government and the Ktunaxa nation.

"This is a very serious development," he told The Tyee. "Needless to say, if you were in our shoes, you would canvass all your options."  [Tyee]

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