Provincial aboriginal relations minister Ida Chong

Provincial aboriginal relations minister Ida Chong

LNG push holding up northwestern B.C. treaty talks

“It’s creating a little bit of uncertainty in all of our levels of discussion now," says Tsimshian negotiator

The province’s single-minded focus on developing a liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry is getting in the way of treaty negotiations, according to the chief negotiator for Kitselas and Kitsumkalum, two local First Nations trying to craft final agreements.

“It’s taking resources that normally, I feel, would have been addressed to treaty making and they’re going into LNG requirements,” said Gerald Wesley, who is also working with the Metlakatla First Nation on treaty talks as Tsimshian chief negotiator. “It’s creating a little bit of uncertainty in all of our levels of discussion now – Kitselas and Kitsumkalum negotiations, it’s certainly a factor for Metlakatla negotiations. B.C. has clearly identified LNG as their primary objective right now … and it’s interfering, I feel, with our treaty negotiations.”

Kitselas and Kitsumkalum negotiators signed off on agreements in principle (AIP) nearly two years ago in January of 2013. By the spring, both AIPs were approved by Kitselas and Kitsumkalum members, with the understanding B.C. and Canada would soon follow.

Earlier this year, the province indicated it had approved the AIP and was ready for an official signing ceremony whenever the federal government was, but the federal government has not yet made an official commitment to a formal signing, with a statement from the federal aboriginal affairs ministry indicating the AIPs are still under review.

“It’s been very frustrating for those two communities,” said Wesley of events so far.

He said the Kitselas and Kitsumkalum had hoped the province would move on officially signing off on the AIP ahead of the federal government, putting pressure on the federal government to follow. But the provincial government backed away from that suggestion, said Wesley.

The province noted it had other issues and wanted all three parties to be ready at the same time, he added.

Meanwhile, LNG negotiations between the province and First Nations with or without treaties have further complicated discussions, in part because the province’s resources are spread thinner than before, indicated Wesley.

“Their plate is probably pretty full in that regard,” said Wesley, who also noted that Kitselas and Kitsumkalum have asked that LNG negotiations and treaty negotiations stay separate.

For its part, the province believes “treaty negotiations with Kitselas and Kitsumkalum are proceeding at a reasonable pace” and “remains committed to advancing treaty negotiations with Kitselas and Kitsumkalum in partnership with Canada,” read a statement from aboriginal affairs minister John Rustad.

Rustad said that treaty negotiations with both are occurring separate from LNG negotiations, and that both streams of negotiations are “rooted in the common goal of reconciliation.”

“The province is committed to furthering the goal of reconciliation with the Kitsumkalum and Kitselas First Nations, whether that reconciliation is project specific, as in the case of LNG, or more comprehensive and forward looking, as is the case for treaty,” he said, noting that “British Columbia is committed to reaching full treaty agreements with all interested First Nations, and is supporting the treaty process to reflect that fact.”

Yet another factor impacting Kitselas and Kitsumkalum treaty negotiations is the overlapping land claims issues the Gitxsan First Nation pushed in August, and have since been negotiating with the province.

“From our side, we continue to work and address overlap or boundary issues with Canada and B.C., at some point we anticipate there’s going to be need for meetings with the Gitxsan and from both communities to see if we can come to any favourable solution,” said Wesley.

“LNG is a factor as far as some of the demands,” he said. “As we understand it, other First Nations are making and using our treaty settlement lands or our AIP agreement as a tool against government.”

The ministry of aboriginal affairs and reconciliation said that “specifics from treaty negotiation tables remains confidential” but that there is “potential for the land package to change” as parties proceed toward a final agreement.

In an emailed statement, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada said “the formal approval process is occurring” and “public information and consultation with First Nations asserting overlapping claims and third parties will continue throughout the process.”

The agreements are under review and the federal government will sign “once the three parties agree to do so.”

“Federal reviews of the agreements are an important part of Canada’s due diligence in arriving at constitutionally protected agreements that will stand the test of time. A precautionary approach to concluding Agreements in Principle is in the best interests of all parties … The federal review involves other federal departments and is an important interim step in ensuring Agreements in Principle that meets the best interests of all Canadians.”

Meanwhile, the province has made good on its promise to transfer parcels of lands to Kitselas and Kitsumkalum as part of incremental treaty obligations.

“Those parcels of land have been formally transferred over to Kitselas and Kitsumkalum, and Kitsumkalum is already accessing one portion of one of their parcels of land to assist in the rock quarry and gravel operation that’s going on,” said Wesley.

Wesley said ideally the federal government would announce it’s ready for an official signing of the AIPs “around Christmastime” and that the official signing ceremony would take place two to three months after that. After that, he believes it would take about two years before negotiators have a handshake agreement they can bring to Kitselas and Kitsumkalum members for the required vote.