North Coast MLA Bill Belsey says he was as surprised as anyone else last week when the provincial government offered the Council of the Haida Nation a chunk of the islands.
Mr. Belsey told the Observer that he was briefed on the 200,000 hectare offer just before it was made public. The provincial Attorney-General’s office had been working on the issue for several months, he said, although he knew nothing about it until last week.
“They’ve been doing a lot of work on it,” he said. “We’re trying to get back to the negotiating table instead of going through the courts.”
Part of the provincial government’s position is that if the CHN accepts the land, it must abandon its BC Supreme Court lawsuit, in which it claims aboriginal title and rights to all of Haida Gwaii.
“The offer was made to the Haida in hopes that we could sit at the table,” Mr. Belsey said. “It is a real tangible offer, it is a sincere offer on the part of the province.”
The government was spurred to action by the deteriorating economic situation on the islands, he said. Large forest companies and small business loggers are finding it increasingly difficult to get permit approvals due to the “long, slow process” of consulting with the Haida Nation and undertaking requirements like culturally modified tree surveys.
“These are all issues that those fellows trying to scratch out a living in the forest are trying to deal with,” he said. “There’s few on the islands that don’t understand how the economy is suffering.”
Mr. Belsey also said the fact the province is trying to get an offshore oil and gas industry in place by 2010 has “no bearing in this whatsoever, has nothing to do with the land offer.”
The Haida Nation already controls a significant section of the Charlottes through its co-management of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site on Moresby Island. Combined with last week’s offer, this would give the CHN control over about a third of the islands, Mr. Belsey said.
The province’s offer is based on the philosophy that negotiation is the best way to solve First Nations issues in BC. The alternative – pursuing the Haida claim in court – will be enormously expensive for both the CHN and the province, and the government wants to avoid it, he said.
Asked how the provincial government obtained its control over the islands, given that the Haida have lived here for thousands of years and have never signed a treaty or surrendered the land, Mr. Belsey replied: “I don’t have an answer for that. I don’t know if anyone can answer that… I guess in the end we have to figure out how live on this land together.”
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