Election, part 3: Aboriginal Rights can't be ignored anymore

[Part of a set of four bulletins about land reform and the 2005 BCelection. Shorter versions of these articles appear in the April issueof Lands & People.]

One of the most difficultsubjects on which to get a clear position from BC’s political partiesis the Aboriginal land question. Yet, as our readers will know, thequestion is increasingly critical to meaningful land reform. Wetherefore encourage you to pin your candidates down on the issue.

Lastelection, the NDP said nothing new, relying on the almost moribundtreaty negotiation process as its response to Aboriginal rights andtitle. For its part, the Liberals concocted a risible set of referendumquestions that gave false hope to those who wrongly think FirstNations’ constitutional rights can be wished away by the electorate.The Green Party offered the strongest commitment to reconciling Crownand Aboriginal title, but was short on specifics.

And what arethe records of the last two governing parties? Back in 1991, the NDPcame to power with good intentions of dealing fairly with FirstNations. Those intentions soon caved in under the weight of politicalpressure from industry and a bureaucracy unwilling to change. As thetreaty process, instigated by the Social Credit government, began, theNDP government failed to make the tough decisions required to reconcileCrown title with Aboriginal title to land. Treaty negotiators followeda fixed formula for determining treaty offers, and allowed the processto bog down while Crown agencies insisted on continuing business asusual.

In the four years since the Liberal government tookoffice, the situation has, if possible, worsened. Despite half-heartedtalk of co-management and a slight increase in the “negotiatingenvelopes” for treaty–an increase that falls far short of a justsettlement–Crown agencies continue to do everything possible to denythat First Nations have Rights and Title to land in British Columbia.

Insteadof opening negotiations that could result in creating true certaintyabout land interests, the government has pursued shortcuts tocertainty. Under the guise of cutting red tape, the Liberals haveaggressively passed laws that remove government oversight of forestry,mining, and energy tenures and land use. The real goal of these laws isto give more control to companies, and to eliminate the bureaucraticdecisions that require consultation with First Nations. Despitedirection from the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in the Haida caselast November, the government continues to find schemes to avoidconsultation.

It is exceptionally brazen of the government tostand by its decision to remove more than 90,000 hectares of forestlandfrom government oversight, handing complete control over to forestrygiants Weyerhaeuser and TimberWest, within months of the SupremeCourt’s Haida judgement. But such hand-overs are just the beginning.They have enacted new resource laws that allow corporations to rapidlyincrease their control of land without any consultation. At the sametime, the government is pressuring impoverished First Nations to signboiler-plate agreements such as “Forest and Range Agreements.” Thesedocuments give a modest amount of revenue to First Nations, in exchangefor a virtual free rein for government in managing forest operations.

So much for notions of co-management and sustainable development.

Asthe election period gets under way, and you assess the party platformsand guess how they will be implemented, these are some of the questionsyou might want to ask your local candidates for MLA from all parties:

Willyou take steps to revoke forestry, mining and energy legislation thatviolates the constitutional duties set out in the Haida judgement?

Do you acknowledge that government can’t override First Nations’ rights by legislation, policy, or referenda?

What approach would you take to advancing treaty negotiations or other avenues to resolve the land question?

Inyour opinion, are the current Forest and Range Agreements a reasonableapproach to accommodating First Nations, or are they just more of thesame approach of minimal pay-offs to avert Aboriginal opposition tocorporate resource extraction?

Do you agree that First Nations should be part of any plans to manage lands and resources more sustainably?

Ifyour party holds power, will it institute initiatives that will allowfor co-management and shared jurisdiction of land, in treaty agreementsand in interim measures?

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