'Time outs' urged to help focus treaty talks
Tuesday, September 10, 2002
VICTORIA - Federal, provincial and native officials are proposing to
wring better results from the treaty negotiation process by putting most
sets of talks on hold and pushing harder at a handful of remaining
The all-eggs-in-fewer-baskets approach is set out in some confidential
memos, now being circulated among all three parties to the complex and
The memos arose from so-called "blue-sky discussions" on the future of
the treaty process following a report last year in which the B.C. Treaty
Commission lamented the lack of progress The process has been unfolding
at about 50 bargaining tables, each with representatives from the
federal and provincial governments and a First Nation or tribal council,
working their way through a six-step treaty process.
To date, the results are nine years of negotiation, half a billion
spent, no treaties.
Moreover, as one of the memos concedes, "it does not seem likely that
many First Nations will have concluded treaties by 2006," the year when
they have to start paying back the money loaned them by the federal
government to finance negotiations.
Hence the need for a new approach.
As the officials envision it, the parties at the various tables would
engage in "frank discussions" about the state of their particular set of
What progress has been made to date? Where do the gaps remain? What are
the chances of closing those gaps within a reasonable time, given the
positions taken by the three sides and the resources available?
"The purpose is not assign blame," cautions a passage in one of the
memos, mindful that the assignment of blame has given rise to a whole
cottage industry around these talks.
Rather, the object would be a candid assessment of the chances for
success within a reasonable time frame -- I'm guessing 18 months to two
years, through the memo doesn't specify.
Most tables will be rated as doubtful in any fair and frank assessment.
In most instances the parties have made little progress, in some
instances they do not even share the same vision for settlement, and a
significant number of First Nations (through no fault of their own) lack
the capacity to reach a comprehensive treaty.
For those tables, the new approach calls for the parties to consider a
The proposal for "time outs" is a controversial one with some First
Nations, perhaps because it sounds like punishment for having failed to
adopt a more realistic position ("Do you want to go sit in your room? Is
that what you want?")
But the officials who proposed it say: "A time out is not the same as
suspension of treaty negotiations." Rather, First Nations would be urged
to devote their efforts to developing bargaining positions and exploring
incremental agreements to manage programs and share resources.
As an incentive for native leaders to consider a time out, the new
approach would offer relief from the looming problem of indebtedness.
First Nations have borrowed almost $200 million to finance their share
of negotiations. Absent treaties, those loans start to come due in 2006.
And most bands will be in no position to pay interest, never mind
The debt burden is being "exacerbated," officials warn, by the emerging
view that agreements should be negotiated on an incremental basis,
meaning the final treaty will take longer to conclude.
Governments have the power to extend the due date on those loans to 2010
and they are urged to consider doing so in the memos from their
But the time outs would not be open ended, and each would include a
specific timetable for restarting the clock on both negotiations and the
loan repayment schedule.
In return, by relating most sets of talks to the status of "time outs,"
governments would be able to concentrate their efforts on the remaining
For those talks, there would need to be a "work plan," focusing on
"deliverables," meaning specific items to be settled and a timetable for
a final agreement.
The work plans, like the schedules for time outs, would be registered
with the treaty commission, allowing to monitor progress and push the
parties to keep their commitments.
The officials don't say how many realistic work plans they are
But the initial drive would probably concentrate on about half a dozen
tables, probably including the few that were approaching settlement
under the previous New Democratic Party government.
The goal, the officials say, "is to add to the credibility of the
process in the eyes of the public."
The public will know, at least, that a revised treaty negotiation
process cannot underperform the one it replaces.
© Copyright 2002 Vancouver Sun