Column: Aboriginal progress

The ceremonies have become common at the B.C. legislature.

B.C. Views column by Tom Fletcher

The ceremonies have become common at the B.C. legislature. Government officials and aboriginal leaders gather to celebrate resource sharing agreements that allow economic development in areas that need employment but are hampered by a century of uncertainty and dispute over treaties, or lack thereof.

This approach emerged a decade ago with forest agreements. The B.C. Liberal government bought back timber cutting licences from big forest firms and made them available for community forests and aboriginal communities who claimed the areas as their traditional territories.

Recently the approach was extended to mining revenues and water licence fees paid by private power developers.

These are substantial steps forward for the only province in Canada in treaty limbo. A 2010 sharing deal worth more than $30 million in royalties for the Mount Milligan copper-gold mine north of Prince George helped the McLeod Lake Indian Band recover from the pine beetle and forestry slump that devastated its business base.

After many years of struggle, Mount Milligan expects to go into production this year. Another agreement with Kamloops-area communities shared revenues from an expanded Afton mine.

Perhaps the most ambitious agreement was concluded in March of this year when the government signed a deal with the Tahltan Nation for mining and hydroelectric development in remote northwestern B.C. The deal clears the way for a major extension of the BC Hydro grid to power the Tahltan village of Iskut and also the Red Chris metal mine, opening up the region to other mining and hydro potential as well.

To get that deal, the province put up $20 million last year to buy back Shell Canada’s coalbed gas leases in the Klappan region, headwaters of the Nass, Skeena and Stikine Rivers. Those leases had become a target of international protest.

Even after these expensive concessions, it would be an error to conclude that all is well between the Tahltan and the province. Stikine MLA Doug Donaldson questioned Aboriginal Relations Minister John Rustad on this point during the recent legislature session.

The Tahltan Central Council was pleased about shared decision-making on resource projects, until they found out that B.C. had handed the environmental assessment of a new open-pit coal mine over to the federal government. The proposed mine is in the Klappan, known around the world as the Sacred Headwaters.

Rustad said shared decision-making deals such as the Tahltan agreement do not cover activities of the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office. Whether the review of that coal mine is federal, provincial or combined, it requires extensive consultation with affected parties.

That’s great, but all that goodwill could evaporate quickly if a coal mine ends up getting a permit despite Tahltan objections.

Rustad’s Nechako Lakes constituency is also a focal point for oil and gas pipeline proposals. Donaldson highlighted another problem. Last year the government signed a reconciliation agreement with the Gitanyow First Nation near Terrace, one of many communities struggling to get through the B.C. treaty negotiation process.

That agreement included a joint land-use plan. Then the Environmental Assessment Office asked the Gitanyow for its input on proposed gas pipelines through its territory, to feed the government’s liquefied natural gas plans. Again, the joint land-use plan has no provision for pipelines.

The Gitanyow hereditary chiefs wrote to the B.C. government in July, threatening to go to court over the pipeline proposal and questioning the value of their hard-won reconciliation agreement.

Resource revenue sharing agreements and shared land-use plans are well-intentioned and represent real progress. But these situations show how fragile they are.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com.