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Native Anger about to Catch Fire

Expect a long, hot summer of protests and blockades. First Nations leaders vow, 'We're going to make uncertainty'.

Will Horter 18 Jun 2004TheTyee.ca
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As B.C. heads into the forest fire season, another potential inferno is smoldering unattended. First Nations' growing discontent with Gordon Campbell's government has the potential to become a conflagration affecting forestry, mining, energy exploration and even the Olympics in this province.

Flames became visible to the public on May 20, when more than 2,400 aboriginal people marched on the provincial legislature to oppose a slate of new government policies that disregard their rights and title. The rally -- organized by the new Title and Rights Alliance -- was the largest First Nations demonstration in decades. It finished a series of events including a conference and caravan of elders, youth and leaders from all over B.C.

"We were at the legislature today to demonstrate our complete disappointment with the federal and provincial governments' continued denial of the existence of aboriginal peoples, aboriginal title and aboriginal rights," Grand Chief Edward John, a member of the First Nations Summit task group and the Title and Rights Alliance steering committee, told the rally.

B.C.'s current government has negotiated some interim agreements with aboriginals, giving the appearance of progress. Yet those agreements are highly controversial, and two years after the Liberal referendum on aboriginal land rights, relations with First Nations are actually deteriorating further.

That became evident when, moments before the May 20 rally began, Minister of Forests Mike de Jong called reporters into his office to attack Alliance leaders as misinformed, lacking courage, and mere fringe elements.

But at the rally, representatives from virtually every B.C. First Nation participated, and the Alliance includes leaders from the major First Nations umbrella groups in B.C. -- the First Nations Summit, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, Coastal Nations of the Turning Point Initiative, Northwest Tribal Treaty Nations and the Treaty 8 Tribal Association.

Liberal quest for 'certainty'

This growing unity is a rare and significant achievement, produced by shared opposition to the Campbell government's sweeping changes to forestry and land-use legislation and policy. The Alliance views the changes as a regressive, interlocked scheme to avoid the Crown's obligations to First Nations by turning over decision-making to resource corporations.

The government says, that it wants "certainty" for tenure holders.

Indeed, "certainty" has become a Liberal mantra.

Unfortunately, the government has staked its political future on supporting resource extraction companies. At least there is no pretense about the government's intention. The Ministry of Forests policy states that the province's aim in addressing "asserted aboriginal rights and title" is to "create certainty on Crown lands and promote economic development."

Yet growing "uncertainty" so concerns the Business Council of B.C. that it released a report last month on the issue. The British Columbia Treaty Process: A Road Map for Further Progress acknowledges that the approach to resolving First Nations land disputes is broken and suggests some solutions.

All of which comes too late to prevent a political scorcher of a summer.

First Nations have legal power the government can't dismiss, and the Alliance has grown rapidly. Now, with the full spectrum of B.C. First Nations behind it, the Alliance has begun to implement a far-reaching legal, political and financial strategy to challenge the province's approach to creating "certainty."

Nothing creates more uncertainty than First Nations challenging tenure holders' right to operate. And now with the Alliance's help many First Nations are doing just that, using recent court decisions that require the Crown to accommodate Aboriginal interests.

"Only Aboriginal Peoples can provide the certainty that the provincial Crown and resource industries are craving," said Chief Stewart Phillip, President of Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and a member of the Alliance steering committee, at the Victoria rally.

Natives decry 'accommodation agreements'

The provincial Crown has attempted head off such ire by persuading Aboriginal leaders to sign "accommodation agreements" of various forms. These agreements appear to be a way for indigenous groups that are desperate -- after years of fruitless negotiation --to improve the economic health of their communities. They provide a small, one-time only tenure with a five-year term and money based the band's population -- the same dollars-per-person approach that the provincial and federal governments have used in treaty negotiations.

In return, aboriginal leaders must agree that some or all aspects of their title and rights have been accommodated in relation to a broad range of future land tenure and forestry decisions. The Crown downplays this commitment, saying it's an interim solution. For bands facing extreme economic hardship, the offer is tempting, and about 20 bands have signed.

But the inequity of these agreements -- and the Crown's real intentions -- are becoming clear.

Take the case of Chief Roger Williams of the Xeni Gwet'in First Nation in the Nemiah Valley. In December 2003 the Crown offered him an accommodation agreement. In early January, the Crown's lawyer used this offer (which was ultimately rejected) to challenge Chief Williams on the stand, during his testimony in the Xeni Gwet'in's longstanding title case. The Crown argued that by merely offering an agreement, the Crown had satisfied its duty to "seek workable accommodation" with the First Nation.

If this tactic succeeds, government's incentive to negotiate treaties that create real certainty for all concerned will virtually disappear. Justa Monk, coordinator of the Title and Rights Alliance's steering committee, cautioned First Nations at the rally to not give up their rights for token economic benefits. "It is shameful for the government of B.C. to take advantage of the poverty of aboriginal communities with take-it-or-leave-it accommodation deals."

Brushfires in the making

The Victoria rally put the government on notice that B.C.'s often-divided First Nations are working together -- itself a singular achievement -- and that the Liberals' whole approach to First Nations could be unraveling. A series of other First Nations actions are already fanning long-smoldering fires.

First Nations leaders in Victoria supported ratcheting up the pressure even further. Justa Monk expects blockades across the province. "We're going to make uncertainty."

'Days of action' planned

Many leaders and community members are planning province-wide "days of action," which will begin with Aboriginal Day on June 21. This could include disrupting transportation near regional centres and oil and gas activity in the Peace region.

"If the Gordon Campbell government continues to pursue its policy of denial and delay as opposed to recognition and accommodation we shall be forced to close this province down," Stewart Phillip stated is a press release following the rally "Without question, if the issue of unresolved aboriginal title in B.C. remains outstanding, we can look forward to many hot summers leading up to the 2010 Olympics."

Chief Liz Logan of the Fort Nelson First Nation has indicated that billions of dollars in oil and gas revenue are at risk if First Nations issues are not properly addressed. After the May 20 rally, political columnist Paul Willcocks wrote that "governments should be, as the young people say, freaked.... United First Nations will be a huge problem in the next year for the Liberals."

Coordinated challenges to forest legislation and tenure transfers, expanded fossil fuel exploration, the BC Rail sale, and ultimately the 2010 Olympics will create a volatile political climate.

There is a fire in Gordon Campbell's political future. How big will it be? Only time will tell.

Will Horter is executive director of Dogwood Initiative, a non-profit organization that works with First Nations, labour, environmental, and community leaders to implement sustainable land reform.  [Tyee]

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