The uncertain quest for certainty in Lillooet

After many delays the Campbell government finally released their Lillooet Land and Resource Management Plan on July 22. The provincial government’s spin indicated a desire to create certainty on the land.

But the recent St’at’imc Chiefs’ Council press release objecting to the province’s land use plan indicates that the desired certainty is far from certain.

The St’at’imc stated “There will be no land use certainty until our continuing title and rights have been dealt with honourably by the Crown“. Given their recent blockading of the BC Rail line it doesn’t appear the St’at’imc believe that is happening.

For example, in a recent press release Chief Garry John warned that attempts to extract resources pursuant to the government’s land use plan will be considered “infringements” of St’at’imc Title and Rights. Chief John concluded by saying that “it is our expectation that our land use designations will be respected”. This doesn’t sound like a commonality of interests.

Pundits, activists and First Nations from across the province eagerly await the release of the St’at’imc Land Use Plan, which will get its firsty public viewing in a presentation to industry, government, NGO and community representatives on July 30.

To understand the significance of the St’at’imc plan, we need to do a quick review of the Lillooet story. As some readers will recall:

  • The “LRMP table” of business, government, environmental, and community representatives who had been working on the regional plan were unable to reach a consensus in 2000 on a plan, but agreed to a dispute resolution process;
  • Under this process, the NDP government of the day was presented with two options: a somewhat “green” community, recreation, tourism plan, and one that industry preferred;
  • The NDP government dilly-dallied, and then, shortly before the election, adopted the community plan;
  • At election time, the Liberal party claimed this decision was not final, and that a Liberal government would not be bound by this last-minute decision; and
  • Those of the SHARE-BC persuasion took heart, expecting the Liberals to sweep aside the greener community plan, and allow mining and forestry in ecosystems that were to be protected.

Although mining and logging interests ultimately recieved many concessions in the Liberal plan, they had a long wait. There are various reasons why the Liberal government has been slow to act in Lillooet. By the spring of 2003, however, it seemed likely the government would step in and open the door to eager logging and mining companies. It didn’t happen then, however.

What changed? Aboriginal Peoples whose territories are affected by the LRMP wrote to Premier Campbell and then Minister of Sustainable Resource Management Stan Hagen in June 2003 objecting to the release of the land use plan. With case law dictating that First Nations must be consulted and accommodated in land use decisions, the government had to tread softly.

As demonstrated by their recent communique, Nations like the St’at’imc, including the Tsilhq’otin, Nlhkap’amux, Secwepemc and St’at’imc, are acting strategically, asserting their title carefully, laying the foundation for legal claims if the government goes ahead with its plan and rejects thiers.

The St’at’imc Chiefs Council also took an important poactive step: it developed its own land-use plan.

The St’at’imc plan, has the potential to be a precedent for the kind of plans that support Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities, with sustainable jobs and a livable environment for generations to come.

The St’at’imc plan is also just the thing the Liberal government fears. Courts shy away from negative attacks on the status quo, with no alternative to put in place. The St’at’imc are taking the first steps to fill that void and present an alternative, a solid plan that will dispense with government’s usual argument that irreparable harm would ensue if the First Nation’s approach were implemented.

It’s easy to see why the Liberal government has been going slow on Lillooet. The government has instead been courting the Chiefs Council to begin government-to-government talks. A protocol has now been put in place to reconcile the two plans, but the recent announcements and direct action on BC Rail indicate that these will be difficult negotiations.

Efforts to reconcile these two plans have the potential to produce a land use plan that respects Aboriginal Title and Rights and sustains communities and the land. However, the jury is still out on whether this process will be successful.

There is still a danger here. As we wrote previously, the BC government is not without its own agendas and strategies. In Lillooet and on the coast, the government has spun its recent land designations as big steps forward. However, these announcements are being heavily criticized by enviromental and First Nations groups.

A similar “spin” approach is likely in Lillooet in the upcoming government to governement process with First Nations. On the coast, the target of the spin is the international business community–for example, buyers of wood products from the coast. In the case of Lillooet, the target audience is the courts. The government will want to do the minimum necessary to appear to have accommodated the First Nations.

Despite the risk posed by the government’s minimalist approach, the St’at’imc has a good chance to win this battle of spin–if they continue to act strategically and promote the reasonableness of their plan.

They have won the first skirmish, having long-delayed the government from announcing a pro-industry plan. And they recently recieved a major boost, when research uncovered that Ainsworth Lumber, (the biggest logging coproration operating in their territory) is financed by Bank of America. As we wrote previously, the bank recently adopted a policy to not provide financing to companies operating on unceded indigenous lands. The opportunities to use financial pressure against Ainsworth will no doubt help in the upcoming negotiations.

We will see if they can maintain the pressure as the government-to-government negotiations proceed.

The Lillooet process has the potential to be a major precedent for land reform. We will keep you posted as the story unfolds.

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