PROVINCIAL aboriginal affairs minister John Rustad

PROVINCIAL aboriginal affairs minister John Rustad

Handshakes key to treaty negotiations

The chief negotiator for the land claims treaties of the Kitsumkalum and Kitselas First Nations is working to finish both in 2017.

  • Jun. 6, 2016 4:00 p.m.

THE CHIEF negotiator for the respective land claims treaties of the Kitsumkalum and Kitselas First Nations is working to conclude both in 2017 in line with a challenge sealed last year with a handshake.

But it has been nearly a year since Gerald Wesley shook hands with provincial aboriginal affairs and reconciliation minister John Rustad in August 2015, and he is worried about meeting that goal.

“If I was a betting man I’d say we’re not at that point with the timeline with the province,” said Wesley.

And with the provincial Liberal government increasingly focused on the upcoming May 2017 provincial election and soon to be campaigning to be re-elected, Wesley said that may affect the progress of continuing treaty talks.

“Before any election the province starts shutting down its decision-making process,” he said.

Both Kitsumkalum and Kitselas members voted to approve agreements in principle in 2013, providing land, cash and governing powers and the province followed suit shortly thereafter,  however the federal government did not sign on until last August.

Negotiators for all parties since  then have been fleshing out the agreements in principle with technical and legal language.

It’s a slow process, said Wesley, and he is hoping talks can move along more quickly.

The Kitsumkalum and Kitselas treaty negotiations are somewhat unique in B.C. as for the most part they are being conducted together with side talks as necessary on individual issues for each First Nation.

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 mostly east of Terrace, and $34.7 million (to be adjusted for inflation), once a final agreement is reached.

The talks underway now,  however,  could  also  result in minor increases in both  money and land for each First Nation.

Wesley did acknowledge there is a complicating factor which does not involve the province and that is  fish, over which the federal government has jurisdiction. It has yet to fully embark upon negotiations with Kitselas and Kitsumkalum.

Any treaty agreed to by the two First Nations  must take in food, ceremonial and commercial allotments chiefly along the Skeena River system,  he said.

“We just don’t know yet what the federal government will talk about and in what fashion,” Wesley added.

Speaking separately, provincial aboriginal affairs and reconciliation minister  John Rustad acknowledged Wesley’s comments.

“We have a real desire to complete treaties with both,” said Rustad of Kitselas and Kitsumkalum.

He added that key First Nations leaders and the federal and provincial governments met last week to explore ways of speeding up talks of all treaties in B.C. under negotiation.

As for Kitselas and Kitsumkalum specifically, Rustad expressed optimism that negotiators could reach broad agreement by Christmas on elements to be contained in final treaties.

“I’d like to get to a handshake if not legislation,” he said.

That latter reference is to treaty-enabling legislation  that would need to be passed in both the provincial legislature and in Parliament in Ottawa.

Kitsumkalum and  Kitselas members would also vote on accepting or  rejecting their respective  treaties.

Whether or not   all of the above could happen before next  May’s provincial election is still unknown.

Rustad did caution that some outstanding issues need to be dealt with and that includes having the two  First Nations agree on fishery allocations and fishery jurisdictions with the federal government.

Kitselas and Kitsumkalum also both need to resolve outstanding territorial overlaps with neighbouring First Nations, both Tsimshian and non-Tsimshian.

Rustad said treaty making would be better conducted by solving overlap issues before agreements in principle are negotiated but that’s not how negotiations have been structured.

Overall, Rustad said a way must be found to advance negotiations  in B.C. as just seven have been concluded in  the  past 23 years.