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Vancouver Island band abandons key consultation process


By David P. Ball







Kwakiutl Indian Band has rejected B.C. government attempts to negotiate a “new relationship” with First Nations, saying that talks had failed to respect its right to refuse consent to industrial development on their territories.

Only weeks before the launch of the provincial election campaign, Kwakiutl– located around Port Hardy near the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island–announced its abandonment of both a provincial Strategic Engagement Agreement (SEA), as well as its withdrawal from an alliance of several nations jointly negotiating with B.C., Nanwakolas Council.

“The consultation process established under the SEA framework agreement doesn’t promote accommodation or stopping of what Kwakiutl didn’t want to have happen within our territories,” Casey Larochelle, the band’s Economic Development manager, told Windspeaker. “Not just logging, anything. It could be an airport, mining, parks permits.

“Not one opposition response was ever taken seriously or resulted in anything. It does not promote shared decision-making of the Kwakiutl with their lands, the waters that belong within their territory. That goes against the ‘New Relationship’ here in B.C.”

The decision to publicly criticize the province’s approach could be a setback as the province heads towards a May 14 election, having been preceded by a raft of announcements about new agreements and negotiations with First Nations, hoping to shore up Aboriginal support.

The majority of B.C. is unceded, but Kwakiutl is one of only 14 nations that negotiated a series of agreements collectively known as the Douglas Treaties, because they were overseen by then-governor and fur trader James Douglas, known as the “father of British Columbia.”

Since the band is not part of the government’s push to sign modern treaties with First Nations in the province, much hope was placed in the $2.26 million consultation process under the Nanwakolas SEA.

“The Nanwakolas strategic engagement agreement establishes protocols and procedures that both the Nanwakolas First Nations and B.C. agree meet joint responsibilities for consultation, as defined in Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution,” explained Robin Platts, a spokesperson for B.C.’s Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation. “That is the purpose of the agreement. It results in efficiencies and more effective engagement for both parties.”

And though a Kwakiutl statement complained about provincial Tree Farm Licenses issued to Western Forest Products–allowing the logging company to cut nearly a million cubic metres of timber from Kwakiutl territory, netting $60 million–because the band saw it as a claim of ownership over the forests, Platts replied that 94 per cent of B.C. “is considered Crown land,” managed “on behalf of taxpayers.” Hence, the government’s collection of nearly $1 million in stumpage fees.

But Kwakiutl rejected any claims that their traditional territories are owned by B.C., and now says it is more free to assert its title and rights under the band’s 1851 treaty, as well as demand that logging and resource extraction only proceed with Aboriginal consent.

“The consultation process is very, very faulty,” Larochelle said. “There’s been a failure of the provincial government when it comes to the Kwakiutl treaty of 1851, or to acknowledge and give life to the treaty. It goes against the ‘New Relationship.’

“The two governments – especially Canada, the provincial government, and nations that have pre-confederation treaties – need to sit down and work out how to share decision-making over Kwakiutl title to the lands, their aboriginal rights, and equally important, their Douglas Treaty rights.”

Not only will Kwakiutl now be outside the SEA process and treaty-signing process alike, but Larochelle said that a litany of lawsuits in recent years forcing the government to honour the Douglas Treaties are a sign of hope for the band.

“The series of court victories ... have affirmed that treaty does exist,” he said. “Given that the provincial government did not exist when this treaty was done, [Canada] has a special role to come in on a tripartite basis to discuss how to give this treaty life – to honour the treaty. We’re hoping that those discussions will re-emerge, and will be fruitful.”

Kwakiutl Chief Rupert Wilson offered colourful words against the Nanwakolas process, accusing it of being a “Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare” that had proven itself “compromised” and “too problematic” to ensure First Nations’ interests were respected.

Interview requests to the Nanwakolas Council office – which employs roughly a dozen peope – were not returned by press time, and Platts told Windspeaker he was not authorized to express government opinion on the matter because of election campaign rules.

But the Nanwakolas Council Web site states that its name means “a place we go to find agreement” in the Kwakwala langauge, and asserts that the body “serves as the vehicle through which the member First Nations regionally pursue land and marine resource planning and management and resource-based economic development activities.”

“The member First Nations have had, since time immemorial, a cultural connection with their traditional territories that is critical to the maintenance of their community, governance and economy. This cultural connection gives rise to Aboriginal rights, title and interests throughout their traditional territories.”

Kwakiutl was the only member of Nanwakolas Council that had signed a Douglas Treaty.