VICTORIA – The federal government has responded to the strengthening of aboriginal title in B.C. by following the province's lead and focusing on resource use agreements rather than full-scale treaties that have been slow and expensive to negotiate.
A shift in federal policy was announced Monday by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister Bernard Valcourt, endorsing non-treaty and incremental treaty agreements such as B.C. has focused on in recent years.
Valcourt also appointed Vancouver lawyer Doug Eyford as a special advisor, to follow up on his advice to Ottawa last fall on developing West Coast oil and gas export projects.
B.C. Aboriginal Relations Minister John Rustad welcomed the change in federal approach, describing resource agreements as "stepping stones to reconciliation.
"We had been hoping the federal government would come to the table with things like our non-treaty agreements and our incremental approach to treaty for quite a few years," Rustad said in an interview Tuesday. "That has been something they've resisted, but now they're going to come to the table with that, and we welcome that."
B.C. recently signed its first liquefied natural gas resource sharing agreement for facilities proposed near Prince Rupert. On July 11, B.C. reached its 150th forest resource sharing agreement with the Seabird Island Band in the Fraser Valley, and has developed similar revenue deals for mining and hydroelectric projects.
Ottawa is also promising to restart fisheries talks that have been on hold since the Cohen Commission reported in 2012 on the health of Fraser River sockeye salmon runs. The B.C. Treaty Commission has protested for years that Ottawa's foot-dragging has contributed to the slow pace of talks, with only four treaties completed since the three-way structure was set up in 1992.
Chief Commissioner Sophie Pierre has warned of over-emphasis on resource agreements, with Ottawa and B.C. focused on northern B.C. pipeline and energy projects. Rustad said there are resource projects all over the province that can benefit, adding there will be new agreements announced in the near future.
Valcourt's announcement mirrors the main recommendations of Eyford's report last fall. It called for "targeted efforts to build effective relationships, including refinements to Canada's current approach to consultation and engagement, to explore mutually beneficial initiatives that support reconciliation, and to encourage aboriginal communities to resolve shared territory issues."
Rustad said Ottawa is moving on Eyford's recommendations, not in response to the landmark aboriginal title case decided in favour of the Tsilhqot'in Nation in June. The Supreme Court of Canada upheld Tsilhqot'in title to the Nemiah Valley west of Williams Lake, striking down provincial logging permits issued without aboriginal consent.