BC Business recognizes unresolved Aboriginal issues create uncertainty

Ideology and politics aside, corporations care primarily about making money. The recently released Business Council of BC report, The BC Treaty Process: A Roadmap for Further Progress underscores that the ongoing failure to resolve First Nations issues is costing BC businesses money, significant money.

And if First Nation’s continue to pursue litigation, financial strategies and increasingly aggressive political action, costs could soar and profits plummet. It is clear that the business lobby is worried about the growing trend of First Nations’ litigation. The historical summary in the report acknowledges that the direct action and blockades of past decades “put increased pressure on the two levels of government…to make advances in treaty negotiations.” Clearly, business in BC wants to avoid a return to this era of confrontation at all costs.

The very existence of the report highlights that the powerful BC business lobby believes the current approach to resolving Aboriginal issues is worse than what has gone before.

In the past, legal obligations could be safely ignored, and there were no financial risks to business-as-usual on First Nations’ land and resources.

Now, however, the failure to finalize treaties has created a cloud of economic uncertainty that is interfering with business and impeding investment into BC.

The report contains 26 recommendations as well as an overview of the current status of the law, policy and political situation in the province. Surprisingly, the overview is relatively incisive with an accurate assessment of the uncertainty about resource tenures and corporate obligations resulting from recent First Nation court victories.

While the recommendations cover a wide range of subjects, it is clear that creating “certainty” is at the top of the business agenda. Five of the recommendations come under the “certainty” heading and three more deal with streamlining consultation and accommodation.

The report was written before the recent Title & Rights Alliance political events in Victoria so the rapidly growing Alliance is not mentioned in the report.

Concern about the potential impact of collective First Nations actions and recent legal victories lurks below the surface throughout the report. Clearly the Title and Rights Alliance’s efforts to challenge certainty have the attention of the powerful BC business lobby. In fact the entire report is an attempt to redirect First Nations’ momentum away from confrontational tactics.

Seasoned campaigners know the value of confrontation. It creates controversy and increases risks. Investors are wary of both. And BC’s First Nations are fast becoming expert campaigners.

The 26 recommendations are primarily intended to create “greater certainty” for business by suggesting improvements to the treaty process and resolution of the “land question”. Not surprisingly, the focus of the Business Council is to make things easier for corporations to continue “business as usual,” in First Nation territories.

Predictably the recommendations focus on what First Nations, the Federal Government and the provincial Crown need to do to get things moving, with little attention to actions that corporations, particularly resource corporations, could take to improve the situation. Like most successful corporate lobbies, the Business Council is trying to externalize costs and force others (Aboriginal People, governments, etc.) to bear the cost of fixing their problems. That is what amounts to “good business” in the globalizing economy..”privatize the profits and socialize the costs”.

Some of the recommendations are such self-serving attempts to externalize costs that it is difficult to take them seriously. For example, the Business Council suggests that both Crowns should “assess the validity of claims” and give those assessments to private interests wanting to operate in claimed territories.

This absurd recommendation is just another attempt to undermine recent First Nation court victories that imposed duties on third-party tenure holders. Business wants to return to the bygone days when the Crown had all the responsibilities and corporations reaped all the profits.

What is most interesting about the report is the Business Councils’ surprisingly frank assessment of current status of the law and political situation in BC. For example, they indicate that:

  • Recent First Nation legal victories “have not led to greater certainty for businesses in BC”;”
  • That discussions should be re-opened about funding treaty negotiations “to ensure that [they] are a more fiscally attractive option for First Nations than litigation;” and
  • That business in BC is “very frustrated” with the treaty process.;

The recommendations focus primarily on process based mechanisms. The report identifies what business wants First nations to do for them, but offer little that business is prepared to do to address long-standing aboriginal concerns. Not surprisingly, they suggest business interests be fully included included and have a seat in many of the new processes recommended. Many of these proposals will be rejected by Aboriginal People who have been buried by process and are awaiting results.

One concern is the report’s treatment of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC). While the conclusion includes an invitation for UBCIC to meet with the Business Council, elsewhere it recommends that the Crown and other Aboriginal groups correct the UBCIC position that some of the Agreements in Principle reached to date would result in “extinguished of Aboriginal Title {and] Rights…and the replacement of these rights with severely limited modern day treaty rights.” The Council suggests that the Crown and other Aboriginal organizations actively counter these UBCIC messages.

Below are some of the recommendations:

  • Rec. 1: Develop a “new, practical and common approach to consultation and accommodation”
  • Rec. 2: Establishing a “clear mechanism” of consultation and accommodation “with timeliness, financial obligations and outcome expectations”
  • Rec. 3: “Establishing an Aboriginal Consultation and Accommodation panel” with power to compel parties, mediate, and levy penalties;
  • Rec. 6: The Treaty Commission and both Crowns should force First nations to address overlapping claims;
  • Rec. 7: First nation should develop make make publicly available areas of primary, secondary and tertiary interest with their “claimed” territories;
  • Rec. 8: the Crowns should dedicate “adequate resources” to treaty and consultation and accommodation negotiations;
  • Rec. 18: The BC government should separate the roles of Attorney General and treaty negotiations;
  • Rec. 20: First Nations and the two Crowns must “develop and agree on the legal technique for achieving certainty and this technique must be used in all treaties to ensure consistent legal regimes and a stable legal environment throughout BC”.

The battle for the hearts and minds of investors is just beginnin
g. Title and Rights Alliance supporters have agreed on a number of actions that will put a big “un” in front of “certainty” this summer and fall. The Business Council has read the writing on the wall and released this report. Business, particularly resource industries, will continue to try to co opt the direction of the discussion.

Nice try, Business Council. At least you aren’t buying Forest Minister Mike de Jong’s spin that the Title and Rights Alliance is just “a group who have always found it more attractive to yell and scream and shout.”

BC’s First Nations are in control of their own destiny, and the future of BC will be defined by the choices they make.

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