Kitselas leaders criticize province on treaty commission decisions

Future of the B.C. Treaty Commission is in doubt as the province withdraws its support for George Abbott as new chief commissioner

The chief negotiator for Kitselas and Kitsumkalum, two First Nations deep in the treaty process, is criticizing the provincial government’s decision to withdraw its support for the appointment of George Abbott as the new chief commissioner for the BC Treaty Commission.

“It’s disappointing and disheartening that the province of British Columbia has taken such unilateral action that can impact so many First Nations including our local efforts,” said Tsimshian Treaty Society chief negotiator Gerald Wesley in a statement today. The Tsimshian Treaty Society represents Kitselas, Kitsumkalum, Metlakatla, Gitga’at and Kitasoo communities through the treaty process.

In a surprising move late last week, the government announced it would not be appointing former cabinet minister George Abbott, set to take over from outgoing commissioner Sophie Pierre, as the new commissioner. And yesterday in a press conference, premier Christy Clark called into question future of the commission, citing money spent and a process that isn’t fast enough.

This built on a March 20 statement from aboriginal affairs minister John Rustad which said, “There are a number of important treaty tables that are reaching milestones that will bring long-term reconciliation with the Crown to their communities. However, I have also heard from many First Nations that the treaty process, mandates and negotiations take far too long and they are looking for a better way.”

Pierre, in a statement from the BC Treaty Commission, criticized the decision to cancel Abbott’s appointment, as did the First Nations Summit – one of three principal players, along with Canada and B.C., for which the commission acts as an independent facilitator for treaty negotiations.

And Kitselas chief Joe Bevan said Kitselas and other First Nations were not consulted about potential changes to the treaty process by the province.

“They didn’t consult with the principals, or First Nations Summit, nor have they consulted with us,” he said. “The province is demonstrating a total lack of commitment to the treaty process, if they are to come out with a new policy on treaty making wouldn’t you think it right to inform the First Nations of what that may look like so that we too can adjust our approach?”

Welsey indicated the province is on shaky ground.

“Let’s hope the new direction that Premier Clark talks about does not lead to economic disaster and clouds of uncertainty for the province of British Columbia,” he said. “First Nations have a strong voice in how developments in this province proceed, we want certainty and opportunities which will provide best options and balance for First Nations, business, and government. Treaty-making is a strong component of that.”

This isn’t the first time Wesley has criticized the government with regards to its commitment to treaty negotiations. Last year he said the province was too focussed on LNG to properly engage in its treaty commitments.

Meanwhile, Skeena NDP MLA Robin Austin said he felt sorry for Liberal aboriginal relations minister John Rustad who told Abbott at the last minute he wouldn’t be the new chief commissioner.

“Of all the cabinet ministers, he’s done the most traveling. I think he’s been living out of a suitcase these last two years,” said Austin of Rustad’s contact with First Nations around the province.

“And now this. It puts him in just a terrible position.”

Austin said it was obvious Clark didn’t want Abbott because he ran against her for the Liberal party leadership in 2011.

“I guess the politics from then are still around,” he said.

Austin added that he did not disagree terribly with Clark’s statements that a new direction was needed to settle treaties in B.C. but that the last-minute decision to abandon Abbot cast doubt on her commitment.

“She was actually quoting from our election platform,” said Austin.