Northwest B.C. treaty talks delayed

Federal government has yet to ratify two agreements in principle

NEGOTIATIONS leading to final land claims treaties for Kitselas and Kitsumkalum are being held up by the federal government.

Nearly one year after Kitselas First Nation voters agreed to a treaty agreement in principle and 10 months since Kitsumkalum First Nation voters did the same, the federal government has yet to ratify its acceptance of the two agreements, says Gerald Wesley, the chief negotiator for Kitselas and for Kitsumkalum.

That’s despite negotiators for all three parties signing off on the two agreements in Jan. 2013, an act that lead to the two votes.

“We’re still engaged but there is disappointment from each of our communities,” said Wesley last week.

“Who knows when it might happen. We don’t,” he said of the federal failure so far to ratify. “There are no important issues that we know of and none have been brought to the treaty table.”

Wesley did note that the provincial government has given its approval to the Kitselas and Kitsumkalum agreements in principle.

The approval by Kitselas and Kitsumkalum voters last year of their respective agreements in principle brought on predictions that final treaties, which would also need voter approval, could be ready for ratification within two years.

The agreements in principle laid out the quantity of land and the amount of money that would be provided to Kitselas and to Kitsumkalum as well self government and other powers.

The Kitsumkalum First Nation, based on its proposed agreement in principle, is to receive approximately 44,809 hectares and $44.2 million in cash while the Kitselas First Nation is to receive 35,090 hectares and approximately $34.7 million in cash.

Both first nations were also offered additional land parcels as an inducement to vote in favour of the agreements in principle.

Agreements in principle, even after being approved, however, are not legally binding and details could change once negotiations get underway toward a final treaty document.

Wesley said the federal failure to ratify even affects how members of the two communities regard their own negotiating teams.

“We ratified the agreements in principle and said we were ready but a year later, here we are. That doesn’t do a lot for our credibility,” he said.

One unfortunate byproduct of not being able to negotiate final agreements is uncertainty at a time of potential large scale industrial activity, he added. “The prospect of an oil and gas industry doesn’t specifically address treaties but there are implications for us and opportunities and if there are no treaties, it can cause confusion,” he said.

Despite the federal failure, Wesley said the three parties have made some progress in how the wording of some parts of final agreements might look.

But even that work will come to an end if federal ratification doesn’t take place, said Wesley. He warned that a final hurdle will remain outstanding if not cleared up in a final agreement.

And that’s having the federal government negotiate fish and marine life allocations. To date the federal government won’t negotiate fish provisions, saying it has yet to fully consider the findings of a 2012 royal commission into the 2009 collapse of the Fraser River sockeye run.

“It’s a key issue for all first nations,” said Wesley of the need to include fish in final treaties.

Without fish provisions, Wesley is doubtful first nations negotiators would seek to have final treaties approved by first nations voters.