Treaty talks lack fish deal

NEGOTIATIONS LEADING toward treaties for Kitselas and Kitsumkalum lack a crucial element – provisions covering the right to fish.

  • Apr. 25, 2012 12:00 p.m.

NEGOTIATIONS LEADING toward treaties for Kitselas and Kitsumkalum lack a crucial element – provisions covering the right to fish.

And while negotiations are continuing without fish provisions, there won’t be any final treaties until fishing rights are included, say those involved in various aspects of land claims negotiations within B.C.

A key player in the effort to negotiate treaties in B.C. says fish aren’t included because the federal government is waiting for the results of the Cohen Commission, which is examining the decline of the Fraser River sockeye fishery.

Whatever comes from the commission’s recommendations and how they are accepted by the federal government will then guide its policy on fishing entitlements, says Sophie Pierre, chair of the BC Treaty Commission, which is a neutral body that oversees treaty talks.

But it’s going on three years since the Cohen Commission was formed and it could be several years yet before the federal government comes up with a fisheries policy once the commission submits its final report this fall, she says.

“It is frustrating,” said Pierre. “It is all well and good to have these studies but in the meantime, negotiations have to carry on.”

She said fish are such an important part of aboriginal history, culture and way of life that it is impossible to consider the idea of negotiating a treaty without including details as to how the fishery will be managed.

“Clearly you can’t have a treaty without fish,” Pierre continued. “When we ask the federal negotiators, they can’t tell us anything except they are frustrated as well.”

What the federal government has done is suggest that fish provisions are carved out and only dealt with after a final agreement has been reached.

And some First Nations are deferring fish provisions as they work they toward final agreements.

But neither option is ultimately workable, says Pierre.

“Sooner or later you will need to address fish,” she said.

Pierre gave credit to negotiators who worked to find ways around the lack of fish provisions in order to keep negotiations going.

The K’omoks First Nation near Comox on Vancouver Island just completed an agreement in principle laying out land, cash and resource provisions that will now form negotiations leading to a final agreement.

The K’omoks agreed to defer detailed fish provisions within the agreement in principle but did set out some general  areas such as the right to fish for food, to fish in specific locations and the need to limit catch quantities in some cases.

“We knew the federal government would not be able to negotiate fish and that was understood,” says Melissa Quocksister, an assistant negotiator for the K’omoks.

“But we’ve been clear there will not be a final agreement without a fish chapter.”

Quocksister said the direction on the fish issue comes directly from the K’omoks membership.

In the meantime, Quocksister said the K’omoks are taking the federal government at its word that it will have a fish negotiations mandate.

“We’ll have to see what happens,” she said. “We will not have a final agreement without fish and that’s where that stands.”

For their part, the Kitselas and the Kitsumkalum are anticipating the federal government will have a fish mandate as well leading up to negotiations for a final agreement.

“It is our expectation that we negotiate fish prior to Final Agreement,” says Gerald Wesley, the chief negotiator for the Kitselas and Kitsumkalum.

“Fish and marine resources are critical to our culture, our needs and our rights,” he said.

Both the Kitsumkalum and the Kitselas are expecting a tentative agreement in principle will be concluded very shortly.

It will then be subject to approval by the membership of each First Nation as well as by the federal and provincial government.

An approved agreement in principle then forms the basis for an eventual final agreement.