Fish a renewed focus for treaty talks

Separate talks over salmon and migratory birds to inform next stage of Kitselas and Kitsumkalum treaties

While last week saw the landmark signing of agreements-in-principle outlining the key framework leading toward final treaty negotiations for both the Kitselas and Kitsumkalum first nations, another set of talks is also taking place.

That’s because provisions for fish allocations and use aren’t contained within the two agreements-in-principle although they do contain provisions for land, money, other resource use and governance.

Negotiations around fish are instead contained within those separate talks.

Fish provisions had been missing from the agreements-in-principle because of a general federal government policy dating back several years that they wouldn’t be negotiated within those agreements.

That stems from a federal royal commission into the decline of the Fraser River sockeye runs of 2009 and the federal government wanting to first consider the Cohen Commission’s recommendations.

But that changed last year, says Hilary Lightening of the Tsimshian First Nations Treaty Society which represents Tsimshian First Nations in those talks.

“Canada opened up the fisheries mandate in late December of 2014, and the Kitsumkalum, Kitselas and Metlakatla are currently negotiating the fish chapter,” said Lightening.

“Basically the feds just said it’s currently under review and it’s off the negotiating table,” she said of the implications following the release of the Cohen report.

Individual Tsimshian First Nations will negotiate specific allocations based on their own requirements, said Lightening.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Each nation has its interests in the fisheries component, but they are all at the table together,” she said.

Although Metlakatla is not as advanced as are the Kitselas and Kitsumkalum overall treaty negotiations, it did decide to join the overall talks through the Tsimshian treaty society.

Also in negotiation now are provisions surrounding migratory birds and how hunting and conservation of these species would be regulated within Tsimshian treaty lands, something which is  now a federal domain.

Tsimshian negotiators had warned that final treaty talks, even if agreements-in-principle were reached, could not be concluded without an agreement on fish.

The Aug.4 signing of the Kitselas and Kitsumkalum agreements-in-principle confirmed details first reached two years ago.

That was when both the Kitselas and Kitsumkalum held votes to approve of the agreements in principle and both were passed with the Kitselas agreement, for example, receiving a 67 per cent ‘yes’ vote.

The provincial government at the time also gave its approval to the two agreements but federal approval wasn’t officially recognized until last week.

The Kitsumkalum Agreement-in-Principle provides for approximately 45,406 hectares of land, north and west of Terrace, and $44.2 million (to be adjusted for inflation), once a final agreement is reached.

The Kitselas Agreement-in-Principle provides for 36,158 hectares of land east of Terrace, and $34.7 million (to be adjusted for inflation), once a final agreement is reached.

Both First Nations also received specific parcels of provincial Crown land not included with the agreements-in-principle after their ‘yes’ votes.

Pending negotiator agreement on final treaty provisions, the documents will once again be subject to a vote among Kitsumkalum and Kitselas voters.

Officials were saying that could happen within two years.

The two treaty documents must also be approved through legislation by the provincial and federal governments.

Representatives from the two First Nations and the provincial government spoke at the signings.

“We’ve been waiting 20-some years, it’s a long time to wait,” said Kitselas Chief Councillor Joe Bevan. “I mean, having two people decide on the right course is tough enough, but getting three governments all wanting to position themselves, well that’s tough.”

The waiting time between the Kitselas vote in favour of the agreement-in-principle in 2013, and the recent federal signing off on the terms, was also drawn out.

“This is a huge step, we’ve been waiting two-and-a-half years for them to review the document,” said Bevan.

“It’s all up for negotiation. We can’t assume anything is a given,” he added of the next steps in negotiation.

To honour the step forward, and to indicate Kitsumkalum’s desire to keep progressing, Kitsumkalum Chief Councillor Don Roberts gave the province and the federal government each a hand-painted paddle.

“It is to signify that we will paddle together,” said Roberts.

The federal government was to have been represented by Conservative Member of Parliament Mark Strahl from the Fraser Valley in his capacity as the parliamentary secretary to the federal aboriginal affairs minister.

But the federal election call of Aug. 2, which dissolved Parliament two days before the signing of the agreements, ended Strahl’s official role and his trip here was cancelled.

A senior federal negotiator instead represented the federal government.

The provincial government was represented at both signings by aboriginal affairs and reconciliation minister John Rustad.

He said the agreements were not only important to the Kitselas and Kitsumkalum but important to all northwest residents.

And he expressed hope final treaty talks can now move quickly forward.

“We have a team in place looking at how we can accelerate the treaty process, and we are expecting the initial component of the work to come out perhaps by mid December, and then we will take that and move forward and see what we can do,” he said.

Rustad hoped other B.C. treaty talks can also be accelerated.