Long ignored, Indian tribes win recognition

They persisted, and now, the native peoples of British Columbia are starting to see some results. The longstanding issue of their land claims is finally coming to resolution.

The treaties being worked out with federal and provincial governments will "initiate a new relationship between ourselves and the rest of the world," one chief said.

And even among nonnatives, "The majority of the people recognize that there's an issue that needs to be rectified," says David Lawson, a local elected official in Seton Portage, B.C.

Around the world, indigenous peoples are struggling to find the right accommodation with modern mainstream society. The particular challenge for the indigenous of British Columbia has been that, in legal terms, provincial authorities long denied their very existence.

An official appointed in 1864 declared the colony terra nullis, empty land, with no native inhabitants to be taken account of. Treatymaking came to a halt. (The same approach was taken in Australia.)

For decades, British Columbia natives tried to get the attention first of British and then Canadian governments, but in vain. There was even a dark period earlier in this century when it was illegal for Indians even to consult with a lawyer in pursuit of land claims.

But by the 1990s, the provincial government began to have a change of heart - helped along, presumably, by Indians' blockades of logging roads and other tactics that threatened to shut down the local economy. The British Columbia Treaty Commission (BCTC), an independent body, was established in 1992 to facilitate treaties among Indian bands and federal and provincial officials.

Now, with 116 Indian bands involved in 51 "tables" of negotiations, the commission is celebrating a success: the first agreement in principle to be reached under its auspices. The Sechelt Indian band and the governments have a deal whereby natives will get land (from the province), cash (from Ottawa), and an economic development plan.

Half a dozen additional agreements in principle are expected over the next three years; each is expected to be made final in a treaty within 18 months after that. They're "some of the toughest negotiations in North America," one official said.

They are playing out against a series of controversial court decisions that have led to an evolving theory - critics would say an ever-expanding theory - of aboriginal rights. "The courts are not predictable, not only not for governments but not for native peoples either," says Robin Dodson, a federal negotiator. "You could spend your entire time in court, valley by valley, tree by tree."

Nevertheless, about a third of the province's Indians remain outside the treaty process. Other challenges loom, too, such as concern for a backlash from the nonnative community if treaties are seen to be "giving away the farm," as Mr. Lawson puts it.

Another part of the backdrop here has been the Nisga'a nation's treaty, reached and ratified last year. Originally begun in the 1970s as a negotiation with just the federal government, the treaty is outside the BCTC process. But should it fail to win ratification in the provincial legislature, where it is currently being debated, consequences for other negotiations would be serious.

Observers of the treaty process have long identified the Sechelts, the Tsleil-Waututh, and the In-Shuck-ch/N'Quatqua as three bands likely to be among the first to sign treaties. All three are credited with strong, pragmatic band leadership as a factor in getting them this far.

Sechelts

A lot of hopes are riding on the little community of Sechelt, a few hours north of Vancouver. The Sechelts' agreement in principle, announced Jan. 26, will give the band 1,613 acres of urban lands, approximately 720 acres of rural lands, and $42 million in cash.

Mayor Bruce Milne ticks off advantages that have made the Sechelt negotiations relatively easy: "There were no overlapping claims to the land. The Sechelts have already had a self-government program since 1986. The goodwill within the [nonnative] community was well-established."

Sechelt is home of the "largest gravel extraction site in North America," says Mr. Milne. Gravel may not be diamonds or gold, but it's an essential element of the concrete that builds the modern world. The treaty will give rich gravel lands to the Sechelts, who number more than 1,000. Royalties on extraction should continue until 2038, when the resource will be exhausted, Milne estimates.

"The settlement will mean a level of investment something like this area has never seen," he says. "Who better to invest this than the people who have been here all along?"

Tsleil-Waututh

Tsleil-Waututh means "people of the inlet" - in this case, the Burrard Inlet. Now numbering about 350, they face the challenge of making a treaty, and a future for themselves, in the heavily industrialized area of North Vancouver.

Their traditional homeland covered 720 square miles. Their ancestors once lived off the abundance of seafood in the inlet. "When the tide went out, the table was set," the expression goes.

But pollution makes it tougher nowadays. "I learned to dig clams with my grandparents," says Leah George, research officer for the band. "But I can't teach my children to do that, because we can't eat the seafood from the inlet."

Cleaning up the inlet is a main focus of her people's treaty strategy. And, Ms. George and treaty manager Marilyn Van Bibber suggest, their environmental agenda is not that much different from that of their nonnative neighbors.

Rather than seeking large tracts of undeveloped land, as the Nisga'a and others have done, the Tsleil-Waututh are developing a "variable-interest" concept. They seek to share jurisdiction and economic benefits. The band, for instance, could help manage a provincial park and run its concession stand. "We're trying to put the face of the Tsleil-Waututh throughout the area."

In-Shuck-ch/N'Quatqua

"When [the BCTC] opened their doors," says Gerard Peters, chief negotiator of the In-Shuck-ch/N'Quatqua, "ours was the first submission they received."

Only about 10 percent of his 800-member band actually live on the reserve now. And so when they met on their traditional land to plan their negotiations, "We camped out, we cooked out, we met outside," Peters says. "We passed resolutions; we sent letters off saying we wanted to negotiate a treaty."

With talks well under way, he rides a "treaty circuit" regularly so he can brief band members in Vancouver and elsewhere. "I live in motels," he says, because it's important to keep everyone looped in. "One of the treaty criteria is representation by all First Nations [Indian] members, off or on the reserve."

Peters's reserve is accessible only by an unpaved service road. It lacks power and phone service. "Third-world conditions," he says. Housing that occupants have abandoned for the cities has become dilapidated.

Yet Peters sees economic pressure building in the region, especially if Whistler, the nearby ski resort, wins the 2010 Winter Olympics. "The world is closing in on us," he says, fretting about what could happen "if we can't organize ourselves to maintain some control."

He is hopeful, though, that an agreement in principle will be reached by September. "I can't think of a better way to go into the future."

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