Tsawwassen port deal: Issues and spin

The next 100 years of BC’s history will be defined largely by our success in resolving the land title dispute between the Crown and First Nations.

The choices made by First Nations leaders over the next decades will determine whether BC becomes a global model for sustainability or another victim of the globalized economy: just one more region that sacrifices communities and the environment to heedlessly speed the export of commodities.

Another piece of the First Nations puzzle fell into place with the announcement of the Tsawwassen First Nation’s $47 million dollar deal related to past and future development of the ports adjacent to their community.

I would like to address a number of important issues that arise from the deal-and the way it’s being reported.

The Deal itself
No doubt about it, $47 million is a lot of money. Although I know nothing about the terms of the agreement (other than what’s been reported in the media) I noted a couple of issues that deserve analysis:

  • First of all, the agreement will provide “$2 million compensation for past environmental impacts and $2.5 million for [future] impacts.” This is very significant. Historically, the Crown has been very reluctant to acknowledge its obligation to pay “compensation” for past or future environmental damage. The Tsawwassen’s court challenges apparently convinced the Crown to bite the bullet and acknowledge their obligation to compensate for past and future environmental infringements.
  • Secondly, this deal, along with last year’s offer to the Haida, should bury the Province’s posturing that it won’t negotiate with First Nations that choose litigation to enforce their rights. The Tsawwassen have aggressively litigated the damage to their territory resulting from the impacts of DeltaPort and the Tsawwassen ferry terminal.
  • Finally, unlike the compensation being paid to logging companies, the Tsawwassen won’t get the $47 million in one lump sum. Instead it will be parcelled out over time, perhaps as long as 25 years. This makes the present value of the deal worth much less than the claimed amount.

The Spin
Noteworthy in the spin is the government’s and media’s focus on the per capita breakdown of money provided to the Tsawwassen nation. The Vancouver Sun story was similar to other print and radio reports. It highlighted that, on a cash-per-person basis … the agreement is far richer than the most notable cash settlements awarded to aboriginals in other jurisdictions…” The article later noted the deal was “worth about $140,000 per resident.”

This focus on per capita benefits seems to be reserved exclusively to reporting on First Nations issues. I didn’t see one story identifying the per-capita benefits to Shaugnessey, Point Grey, Uplands or West Vancouver residents resulting from the Liberals’ tax cuts.

Nor do I remember seeing any government press releases or stories breaking down the recent $135-million Northern Development Initiative Trust on a per capita basis for the communities in the Peace, Prince George, Northwest and Cariboo-Chilcotin/Lillooet regions that will benefit from the pre-election pork.

Nor do I recall a per capita breakdown of benefits flowing to residents of the airport-Vancouver-Whistler corridor as a result of the billions being spent on the 2010 Olympics.

So why are First Nations’ issues spun this way?
It is a part of Canadian institutions’ inability to deal with First Nations as anything other than victims or lazy good-for-nothings seeking handouts.

These images are continually reinforced, failing to acknowledge the legal reality that nothing is being “given”. Instead, much was taken from First Nations. The current payments are a pittance compared to the damage done to First Nations’ communities and land. Cash settlements are crumbs, compared to the wealth that has been removed from their territory.

To put this in perspective, a study done by Gowgaia Institute determined that $1.9 billion in logs were removed from Haida territory between 1988 and 1998. The Haida received none of this revenue. And that’s just one of many decades of exploitation of Haida Gwaii’s old growth forests.

Whether governments and industry want to acknowledge it or not, business-as-usual activities cannot continue in BC over the objection of First Nations.

Times are changing. Instead of spending enormous energy and resources resisting this change, governments and companies should begin to deal honourably to resolve disputed title.

Unfortunately, they have shown no willingness to do so, unless forced by First Nations and the courts. The upcoming Supreme Court of Canada decision on the Haida/Taku appeals just may give them a shove. We’ll keep you posted as events unfold.

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