A brief history of B.C. treaty talks

The slow march to aboriginal title recognition started with Social Credit, and included a referendum still misunderstood today

Former premier Mike Harcourt changed the province's legal position to recognize aboriginal title in the early 1990s

Former premier Mike Harcourt changed the province's legal position to recognize aboriginal title in the early 1990s

VICTORIA – A few weeks before the landmark decision declaring aboriginal title proven by the Tsilhqot’in Nation, I picked up a used university textbook that looked like a handy reference.

Geography in British Columbia: People and Landscapes in Transition, by Brett McGillivray (UBC Press, Second Edition) is a good reference, except where it strays from geography into politics.

This 2005 edition came out not long before the B.C. Treaty Commission started producing agreements, notably with the Tsawwassen First Nation. It recounts the establishment of the Ministry of Native Affairs by the Bill Vander Zalm government in 1990, and the election the next year of Mike Harcourt’s NDP, who reversed the province’s historical legal position and tried to accept the existence of aboriginal title.

At this point the textbook departs from the facts and leads its freshman pupils into left-wing dogma.

McGillivray writes: “When the Liberal Party won the 2001 election (with all but two seats), it launched a province-wide referendum on treaty negotiations, prompting commentators to suggest the government was ‘trying to impose 19th century ideas on a 21st century problem’.”

“Commentators” in the above quote is of course only one commentator, veteran lefty Vancouver columnist Stephen Hume.

This quote was indeed representative of the media consensus at the time. On TV, aboriginal leaders burned their ballots while denouncing the referendum as racist and divisive. The public, and later university students, were taught that Gordon Campbell’s government was exploiting racism for political gain.

In fact, this referendum was one of a long series of efforts to untangle the legal knot left by Canada and B.C.’s failure to complete historical treaties after 1900.

Seven of the eight questions in the 2002 referendum were simply to confirm the existing position of B.C. treaty negotiators. The purpose, then as now, was to settle treaties.

The first question asked if private land should be exempt from expropriation for treaty settlements. Private property rights are not so much a 19th century idea as a 17th century one, defined in 1690 by John Locke.

What remains true today is that no society has made significant social and environmental progress without individual property rights. See the woeful state of most of Canada’s communally owned aboriginal reserves, where individually owned property isn’t permitted.

When their appeal reached the highest court, the Tsilhqot’in dropped claims of private property held by non-aboriginal residents in the region. This was a wise move considering that pushing people from their homes would lead to violent confrontations.

Other referendum questions related to preserving public access to Crown land for hunting, fishing and park use. All were endorsed.

The only new question asked if aboriginal self-government “should have the characteristics of local government, with powers delegated from Canada and British Columbia.”

Arguably, that’s what has emerged from the Tsilhqot’in case, which upholds provincial jurisdiction over public forest policy on environmental and fire protection on aboriginal title lands.

By 2009, frustrated with a lack of progress, due to Ottawa’s inaction as well as inconsistent leadership from aboriginal communities, the Campbell government tried to cut the knot. Its proposed Recognition Act would have accepted a form of aboriginal title across the province, based on 30 historical “indigenous nations.”

That idea originated not with the province but with the First Nations Leadership Council. It was rejected by a broader group of aboriginal leaders later that year.

The best way forward, also endorsed in the 2002 referendum, is sharing land use planning. B.C. has also begun sharing resource revenues.

The most likely path, however, is back to court for years to come.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc

 

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Dasher is back home with mom Christine Girvin thanks to some help from BC Ferries staff. Photo supplied
The cat came back, with help from Comox ferry staff

After Dasher made a dash, ferry staff found her and got her home safe

A rendering of the Denman Green plans for the Kirk Road site. Image, DHA/Ronan Design
Denman Green finds new site for housing

Facing COVID delays, the project reached expiration date on initial site

A fawn stands in a field. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
MARS hoping to build fawn complex for rehab

Their goal is to raise $20,000 in a relatively short period of time.

Aspen Park in Comox is the latest school reporting a COVID-19 exposure. Screenshot, Google Maps
Fifth Comox Valley school reports COVID-19 exposure

Exposure at Aspen Park in Comox was reported for Feb. 22

Cumberland Brewery is looking to expand its patio space temporarily for the summer. Photo by Mike Chouinard
Cumberland Brewery looks for temporary patio expansion

Move would allow business to spread customers outside in summer months

Abbotsford’s Kris Collins turned to TikTok out of boredom when the provincial COVID-19 lockdown began in March 2020. She now has over 23 million followers on the video app. Photo: Submitted
Internet famous: Abbotsford’s Kris Collins is a TikTok comedy queen

Collins has found surprise stardom alone with a phone

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver on Tuesday December 11, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C.’s compromise on in-person worship at three churches called ‘absolutely unacceptable’

Would allow outdoor services of 25 or less by Langley, Abbotsford and Chilliwack churches

Photo: Lt. Sandy Pridmore, MARS Darlene Banerd, MARS, Warren Warttig and Captain Rob Stevens show the new automatic external defibrillator (AED) that will be located at the MARS facilities located at 1331 William Beach Road, Black Creek. Photo supplied
Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society adds AED to Williams Beach Road location

Submitted Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS) has collaborated with the Comox Firefighters… Continue reading

Baldy Mountain Resort was shut down on Saturday after a fatal workplace accident. (Baldy Mountain picture)
Jasmine and Gwen Donaldson are part of the CAT team working to reduce stigma for marginalized groups in Campbell River. Photo by Marc Kitteringham, Campbell River Mirror
Jasmine’s story: Stigma can be the hardest hurdle for those overcoming addiction

Recovering B.C. addict says welcome, connection and community key for rebuilding after drug habit

A Vancouver restaurant owner was found guilty of violating B.C.’s Human Rights Code by discriminating against customers on the basis of their race. (Pixabay)
Vancouver restaurant owner ordered to pay $4,000 to customers after racist remark

Referring to patrons as ‘you Arabs’ constitutes discrimination under B.C.’s Human Rights Code, ruling deems

BC Ferries experienced heavy traffic on Feb. 27 following cancellations the day before due to strong winds and adverse weather. (Black Press Media file photo)
BC Ferries sailings fill up quickly after Friday cancellations due to high winds

Waits expected on Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen route, Horseshoe Bay-Departure Bay route

1957 photo shows Six Mile House-sponsored #4 1932 Ford stock car with Frank Morris (from left), Ted Mackenzie, Bill Sim and driver Gerry Sylvester. (Bud Glover/Victoria Auto Racing Hall of Fame)
Memories race as Western Speedway approaches its finish line

‘It was life to us:’ Vancouver Island racers, crew will never forget what the track gave them

Most Read