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Treaty loans will come back to haunt B.C. first nations

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  • Don Bain
    Treaty loans will come back to haunt B.C. first nations Aboriginal groups signed on the dotted line and began racking up millions of dollars in debt Gary Mason
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 1, 2010
      Treaty loans will come back to haunt B.C. first nations
      Aboriginal groups signed on the dotted line and began racking up millions of dollars in debt

      Gary Mason
      From Thursday's Globe and Mail


      When the federal and B.C. governments encouraged first nations to begin negotiating treaties many moons ago, there was an immediate problem. Few, if any, of the aboriginal groups had the money to finance their bargaining efforts.

      The governments offered to lend first nations the money. Left with little choice, most of the aboriginal groups signed on the dotted line, and began racking up millions of dollars in debt.

      The first loans come due next year. And the chief commissioner of the B.C. Treaty Commission says there are literally tens of millions of dollars in financing agreements expiring in the next few years that many of the first nations groups have no ability to make good on.

      "This is a big, big issue," says Sophie Pierre, the bright, articulate aboriginal face of the commission. "This is something we are going to have to resolve because we are talking about a lot of money and if the governments insist that those loans be paid in full right away we've got a big problem. If you don't have the money you're insolvent."

      Since 1993, the two governments have made $345.6-million in loans of varying amounts to 50 first nations. (Not all of the 60 bands negotiating needed the money.) The governments have also provided their treaty partners with another $86-million in non-repayable contributions to go toward negotiation efforts. Needless to say, the process has made many lawyers incredibly rich.

      Talks are under way about what to do. One option is to forgive the loans entirely. "It's been pointed out quite frequently by first nations here in B.C. that with negotiations going on elsewhere in the country, those loans are forgiven, so they say 'why should we have to repay them?' " says Ms. Pierre.

      An element of the problem is the length of time these negotiations have dragged on. Since the treaty commission opened its doors in May, 1993, only one group, the Tsawwassen First Nation, has signed a treaty. Seven other groups have reached an agreement-in-principle - one of those has been ratified but not implemented. There are 43 other groups in agreement-in-principle negotiations. Then there are nine in earlier stages.

      It is a massively complicated process, of which some first nations have been a part since the commission's inception. Imagine how much money they owe. There are lots of reasons the negotiations have dragged on and plenty of blame to spread around for the delays.

      Talking to Ms. Pierre, though, one gets the impression that many first nations groups believe their loans wouldn't be so sizable had it not been for time lost at the negotiating table because of federal and provincial elections. The treaty process usually grinds to a halt during these periods because government bureaucrats are waiting to see if a new regime will set new rules and conditions.

      First nations communities have their own elections and they, too, can lead to delays at the bargaining table. New chiefs often bring a new tone to talks that can stymie progress that was being made under the old council. Ms. Pierre calculates eight years of negotiating time has been lost because of these outside distractions.

      This, of course, is why talks over the fate of these loans could be as complicated as the treaty process itself. But the bottom line is that until the issue is dealt with, the future of negotiations is up in the air.

      "The whole point of getting into the treaty process is to access resources to create a revenue stream that can support native communities," says Ms. Pierre. "But if at the end of the day first nations groups sign a treaty and all of the money they are supposed to get has to go to pay off their loans, what's the point? It makes no sense at all."

      Some would say first nations groups should have thought about this at the outset. But then, who would have imagined that negotiations for most of the groups would drag on for seven, 10, 17 years in some cases?

      My guess is the governments might be inclined to forgive the loans if there was some kind of quid pro quo attached to the clemency. We forgive the loans . you sign on the dotted line. That might seem crude, and maybe in the end unlikely, but it's hard to imagine governments forgiving loans totalling in the hundreds of millions without getting something out of the deal.

      Either way, it's an ugly dilemma that is going to have to be faced sooner rather than later.

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