Court action, negotiations work together, says Miles Richard

  • Apr. 21, 2003 7:00 a.m.

Court action and negotiations can work together to reach settlements with First Nations in BC, Miles Richardson told an audience of about 100 in the visitor centre in Queen Charlotte last Thursday evening.
“I am definitely not here to talk about treaty making as a preferred option to the courts or litigation”, the chief commissioner of the BC Treaty Commission said, “I really believe that they work in tandem.” As a former president of the Council of the Haida Nation, which has rejected the treaty process in favour or pressing its title case in court, Mr. Richardson is well placed to know how both can work.
Mr. Richardson pointed out that the political will to negotiate with First Nations intensifies after court decisions which, for the past ten years or more, have recognized more and more native rights.
Twenty years ago, Mr. Richardson said “First Nations were insisting on their title, insisting on their rights. The governments of the day continued to deny (those rights). They’d sit at the table but it was business as usual everywhere else,” he said. But following several court decisions in the 1970’s and on, and the entrenchment of aboriginal rights in the Canadian constitution in 1982, Mr. Richardson says, in his opinion, the government decided it had to do more than continue to deny the rights.
“Government made the decision, I think that they just couldn’t push aside these rights forever,” he said, “so they started looking at options.” And one of those options was putting together a task force to look at the land question.
It was that task force that lead to the creation of the BC Treaty Commission, an institution designed to keep the treaty process moving forward.
“It wasn’t forced on anyone. They defined the process by agreement. That was a big step,” Mr. Richardson told the audience, “It was three equal parties at the table, Canada, BC and First Nations.” He added that anyone who wants a clear look at the process can check out the BC Treaty Commission website.
The commission itself, he says, was put in place as a keeper of the process, “Â…an institution to sit amongst the three parties while they are negotiating to constantly remind the parties of their fundamental commitment, and to help them get over obstacles when they inevitably bump up against themÂ…”
Mr. Richardson said treaty talks include governance, not just land issues, something the federal and provincial governments agreed to reluctantly, and that the agreements on ‘interim measures’ were also worked out.
“”Â…while negotiations are unfolding, and they are going to take time, and if there is an issue that comes up that is really bugging one of the parties, that they can’t live with, for example logging in an area that is felt to be sacred, the parties commitment was to come to the negotiating table to resolve that,” he said.
And all the above is movement in the right direction, according to Mr. Richardson. “That was manifesting recognition,” he said. For the first time the government of Canada and British Columbia were recognizing the parallel authority, not agreeing to them fully, but recognizing the parallel authority of First Nations, and vice versa.
While he admits the process is not quick, he believes progress is being made. “We have been at this for ten years, he said, “But I will make the case, that we are getting there. To me, it is better late than never.”
He noted that over the last decade, British Columbians have a better understanding of First Nation rights and aspirations. “And if there’s one thing I’ve observed over the last ten years, we have come a long way in understanding these two solitudes,” he said, We can begin the dialogue. We can begin the reconciliation.”
Mr. Richardson said what First Nations want is power. “This isn’t about transferring a program, where you transfer a bit of money and a bit of land and a few delegated authorities. Really, what we are talking about here is sharing power. The primary objective of treaty negotiations is certainty. What we are trying to do in a treaty is to simply find the rights, responsibilities and authorities of everyone.”
“If the province of BC has jurisdiction over all of the forests of Haida Gwaii and a treaty is going to recognize that the Haida Nation is going to have jurisdiction-I’m just using an example-then let’s recognize that that is what we are doing, and talk that way at the table. And let’s clarify that that’s our objective,” he said.
Mr. Richardson said there have been several positive signs recently, notably that the attorney general of BC has said how important it is to establish good relations with First Nations, as well as in the recent speech from the throne where the government of BC agreed for the first time to share revenue with First Nations. “First Nations thought the numbers were small,” Mr. Richardson said, “but the principle has been established.”
For the future, Mr. Richardson said it is up to each of us. “We could have wonderful new agreements, treaties, across this province if we put our minds to it. These are big, big stakesÂ…whether we have made enough progress to conclude a treaty depends on your vision.”
And while court action may drive the process forward-and rapidly-from time to time, sitting down and negotiating is always going to be important.
“So I have that hope,” he said in closing, “Â…whatever you do, we are going to resolve this issue at the end of the day, we are going to do it at a negotiating table. The issues are too complex to have some arbitrator sit there and resolve them all. That’s where we are going to do it, at the negotiating table, and I believe we are making strong progress towards that,” he said.
Mr. Richardson’s talk was third in a series sponsored by the Gowgaia Institute.