B.C. treaty process gets global scrutiny

The Wet'suwet'en First Nation have joined a human rights complaint brougt by six B.C. First Nations to the Organization of American States.

Debbie Pierre

Frustrated by the glacial pace of B.C. treaty negotiations, the Wet’suwet’en have added their voice to a human rights complaint submitted by other B.C. First Nations to the Organization of American States (OAS).

On Oct. 28, a group of six First Nations from Vancouver Island told a Washington, D.C. meeting of the OAS that Canada’s treaty process fails to meet international human rights standards.

That complaint comes on the heels of an Oct. 12 report by the BC Treaty Commission that warned treaty talks have become “just another program of government.”

Next fall, the BC Treaty Commission will turn 20 years old. Only two treaties have been signed so far, with 58 other First Nation treaty claims outstanding.

“Really, it’s not good-faith negotiations,” says Debbie Pierre, executive director of the Office of the Wet’suwet’en.

Negotiators for both the federal and provincial governments have tabled treaty positions that leave no real room to negotiate, she said.

“They are very positional and very narrow in mandate.”

Pierre agrees that the BC Treaty Commission’s recent report was right to single out federal negotiators for foot-dragging.

“They are offloading their fiduciary responsibilities to the provincial government, where rightfully, these are federal issues,” she said. “That’s been a huge challenge.”

For the Wet’suwet’en and the Gitxsan, Pierre said the biggest hurdle is still how to settle the aboriginal title they claimed on 22,000 square kilometres of traditional territory in the 1997 Delgamuukw-Gisdaw’ya court case.

B.C. negotiators have entered the process by selecting only five per cent of those territories.

“That’s not an option for the Wet’suwet’en,” she said. “From time immemorial, the Wet’suwet’en have maintained and protected those territories and the interest in those territories since contact.”

Pierre added that Wet’suwet’en cannot give away title to those lands, even if they wished to.

“Wet’suwet’en today don’t have that right because it’s been passed down generation to generation.”

Although it is not legally binding, a decision in favour of the Canadian First Nations at the OAS would add international pressure to speed up treaty talks.

A group of six First Nations on Vancouver Island told the human rights commission of the OAS that Canada has failed to compensate them for more than 200,000 hectares of traditional territory that were given in 1884 to James Dunsmuir as payment for building a railway across the island.

The Wet’suwet’en, who spent 15 years and $14 million fighting for aboriginal land rights, joined the OAS submission as a “friend of the court” by filing a report in support of the Vancouver Island group.

That report concluded that “the Wet’suwet’en experience provides cogent evidence that recourse to the Canadian courts has not provided an ‘available, adequate and effective remedy’ for the ongoing violations of First Nations peoples’ rights to their traditional lands.”

Pierre said the stakes for treaty talks are high, not only for Wet’suwet’en but for all residents of northern B.C.

“This is becoming a huge issue, especially with various projects like Enbridge and what those impacts would have.”

The Wet’suwet’en oppose the Enbridge pipelines proposal, and maintain that their aboriginal title gives them decision-making power over pipelines and other projects that may have a large environmental impact on traditional territory.

A ruling on the OAS submission is expected in March, but Pierre said she cannot predict when the Wet’suwet’en treaty negotiations will finally get moving again.

“I can’t put a timeline on it,” she said. “It’s all based on the willingness and the good-faith negotiations of all parties—to be able to come to an agreement that is satisfactory, not only to Wet’suwet’en, but to all British Columbians as well.”