BC, Loans to natives to negotiate land claims climb high as potential settlements
- Loans to natives to negotiate land claims climb high as potential settlements
Amy Carmichael canada.com
Tuesday, December 30, 2003
VANCOUVER (CP) - Government loans to some B.C. aboriginal bands to negotiate land claims are climbing as high as any potential settlement they might eventually win - and many are far from settling their cases.
"Negotiation loans have increasingly become an albatross around the neck of First Nations," says B.C. Attorney General Geoff Plant.
Aboriginal communities are starting to really worry about the bills their bands are racking up, agrees Tsawwassen First Nation Chief Kim Baird.
She has convinced her people to continue with the expensive process by insisting that whether the Tsawwassen will actually pay the final tab is still up for negotiation.
"We've maintained all along that we should not have to pay to negotiate for our land," she says, declining to say how much the band has spent so far.
Dozens of B.C. First Nations are negotiating land claims under a decade-old treaty process. So far no new treaties have been signed except for the Nisga'a agreement that was hammered out separately.
Plant says the idea behind giving First Nations money to bargain with the federal and B.C. government was to level the playing field and make sure they had access to resources on par with those at the fingertips of government.
But Plant said much time was wasted by First Nations in the early years of the treaty process because they didn't have a clear vision of what they wanted.
"I'll try to put this as nicely as I can. I'm not sure the best way to reward inefficiency at the table is to simply forgive several hundred million dollars in negotiating loans."
The federal government will ultimately decide whether to forgive the loans that have gone out to bands across British Columbia.
After 10 years of negotiations, the bills for aboriginal bargaining tables now total hundreds of millions of dollars without a single treaty.
Five bands, including the Tsawwassen, have signed agreements-in-principle with the government but are still years of expensive negotiations away from a final agreement.
Jonathan Rayner, a spokesman for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, said the federal government is aware of the financing problem.
"When the treaty process was first set up and the formula was determined for the loans and contributions to First Nations, the idea was that First Nations would pay back the loans as part of their settlement," he said.
"How that is changing now, it's a little early to say. There are discussions because we do recognize that is a big issue for First Nations."
Grand Chief Ed John, an executive with the First Nations Summit, said the bargaining tables have always known exactly what they wanted and have been focused on their goals from the outset.
The problem, he said, is that the government keeps coming back with offers that aren't acceptable.
To make matters worse, he said, government drags its heels in the talks because it can afford to, giving little thought to how much a break - for an election for example - might cost a band whose lawyers' meters continue running.
"They can afford to drag on negotiations for as long as they wish and be as obstructionist as much as they want in the negotiation process," said John. "The whole table is tilted toward them."
While a handful of bands have pulled out of the treaty process, John said most will forge ahead because they want to get mining and forestry initiatives off the ground, which investors won't touch until land claims are resolved.
But some, including the Haida, are turning to the courts to settle the claims as a way to save money, he said.
"The courts have become an attractive avenue for First Nations," John said.
He said he is worried progress will slow even further at the negotiation tables under cuts to the Indian Affairs Department
"The government is only sending chief negotiators to 15 of the 42 tables," said John. "We need negotiators to make progress."
© Copyright 2003 Canadian Press
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