B.C. treaty commissioner expects UNDRIP bill to speed treaty talks, more deals

VICTORIA — The often bumpy and slow path toward treaty making in British Columbia has a new tool that can help glide over major obstacles and potentially help produce more than three dozen agreements near completion, says Treaty Commissioner Celeste Haldane.

The B.C. government’s recent passage of Bill 41, legislation implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, should result in smoother and less cumbersome treaty negotiations, she said.

“I also think it’s complementary to the negotiation process because everything that’s envisioned in the declaration is available in the treaty process, and UNDRIP and Bill 41 provide a framework to move forward in B.C. and that’s whether in treaty talks or not,” said Haldane.

She said the B.C. legislation could provide the final impetus for reaching 37 treaty agreements with Indigenous nations who are in the final stage of talks with the provincial and federal governments.

Haldane said Indigenous nations from Vancouver Island, the northwest coast and the Interior have reached stage five in the six-stage process.

“I would say the treaty negotiations process will be complementary to the legislation in B.C., and why I say that is because in our process our mandate has changed to include the implementation of UNDRIP,” she said. “We are already seeing that happen at treaty tables where treaty negotiations are incorporating the declaration into negotiations and into their treaties.”

Haldane said she did not want to put time estimates on when the 37 nations will reach treaty settlements, but suggested once stage five is reached, final treaties are signed within two years.

B.C. introduced modern-day treaty making in the early 1990s and seven Indigenous Nations have reached treaty agreements since then. The Nisga’a Nation in B.C.’s northwest negotiated a treaty outside of the process.

Of B.C.’s more than 200 Indigenous nations, only about two dozen have signed treaties, with most dating back to the 1800s when the province was a British colony.

Last month, B.C. became the first province in Canada to pass legislation to implement the UN declaration, mandating the government to bring its laws and policies into harmony with the declaration’s principles.

The federal government said in its throne speech this week that it will also introduce legislation to implement UNDRIP.

“I see the legislation finally putting a place marker in B.C. to level the playing field when it comes to human rights issues,” Haldane said. “I don’t think we’re taking away from anyone. I think in B.C. we’re looking at ensuring there’s equity and equality between everyone.”

The declaration was adopted by the General Assembly of the UN in 2007 after 20 years of debate. Canada was originally one of four countries that voted against it. Among other things, the declaration says Indigenous Peoples have the right to self-determination, which means they can determine their political status and pursue economic, social and cultural development.

The declaration requires governments to obtain “free and informed consent” from Indigenous groups before approving any project affecting their lands or resources, but B.C. Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Scott Fraser said neither the legislation nor the declaration includes wording that grants a veto over resource development projects.

Haldane said the B.C. legislation brings all parties in treaty talks closer together.

“It’s not about a veto,” she said. “I believe it’s about moving to consent. It’s about having a seat at the table at the same time as everyone else when you are looking at decision making. It’s not something to be scared of.”

Haldane said recent moves by the federal and B.C. governments to reform the negotiation process have also improved the climate and flexibility to reach settlements.

A Recognition and Reconciliation of Rights Policy for Treaty Negotiations in B.C. announced last September features a B.C.-specific policy that Indigenous rights guaranteed in the Constitution cannot be modified, surrendered or extinguished when a treaty is signed.

Haldane said federal forgiveness of loans for Indigenous groups to fund treaty negotiations this year also eased the financial burden involved in negotiations.

Judith Sayers, president of the 14-member Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council on Vancouver Island, said provincial adoption of the bill is a step forward but many are waiting for the federal government to implement UNDRIP legislation.

Sayers says five of the tribal council’s 14 nations have signed modern treaties and the Ditidaht First Nation is in the final stage, but the eight other nations are not ready to enter treaty talks.

“I’m assuming as long as we’ve got the provincial government on side, that is going to make it easier,” she said. “The federal government says it’s going to pass legislation. They are all promising UNDRIP legislation, whether they get it through is another question.”

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