Aboriginal title at risk in British Columbia

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Almost all of British Columbia in Canada is unceded indigenous territory. Its land and resources have not been given up by treaty, but occupied and stolen. In recent decades, a growing sovereignty movement, especially among young people, has offered fierce resistance to the continued theft and corporate development that threatens Native peoples’ means of survival and existence as nations.

So, in the early 1990s, the federal and provincial governments began a heavily promoted process that they hoped would result in a “final solution” to Aboriginal land claims. Treaties to be negotiated between the roughly 200 First Nations in the province and the British Columbia Treaty Commission (BCTC) would bring “certainty and stability” to future government control over indigenous territory and natural wealth – and retroactively legitimize past theft.

Most of the First Nations of B.C. are reluctant to climb aboard the government’s treaty bandwagon. Many band members clearly see that the government wants to recognize Aboriginal land title and rights only so that tribes who sign the proposed treaties can officially surrender these rights. In other words, the purpose of the agreements is to extinguish indigenous nations as they now exist.

Native elder and activist Wolverine, of the Shuswap nation, told this writer that the pacts are “nothing but fraud” contrived to strip indigenous people of their land and culture and to further drive them into poverty.

Beads and trinkets for forced assimilation.
The lures offered by the BCTC treaties to the Native bands include money from the Canadian government, small amounts of land (never ceded away by the tribes in the first place), and increased access to some resources, mainly fish and forests (ditto).

All the land of the affected Native people, both their present reserves and any territory given back by the province, would cease to be commonly held by the bands. It would be allotted to tribal members and become private property that could be sold, bought, leased or seized for delinquent taxes or other debts.

For very poor band members, the prospect of getting some cash in hand by selling their allotments might be enticing. But the long-term result – the disappearance of communal reserves – would be devastating.

Another lure is the promise of self-governance, with Native areas run essentially as municipalities. But the government’s scheme is a far cry from real sovereignty. While it would increase the power of band councils on the local level, the tribes would remain subject to federal and provincial laws.

Moreover, they would assume the burden of providing education, healthcare, housing, water, and roads as well. After 8-12 years, bands would lose their tax-exempt status, and Native councils would become the tax collectors for B.C. and Canada.

Included in the agreements are multimillion-dollar settlements that are supposed to help tribes take on these responsibilities. But they only begin to cover what would be needed for community administration, services, and development. Some of the money would be doled out over as many as 50 years, with the amount partly dependent on how much revenue is generated through resource exploitation.

This road leads not to the advertised goal of self-sufficiency for Native groups, but to growing debt, increasing pressure to sell off remaining tribal assets, and an exodus of desperate people abandoning their traditional lands.

Tribes divide over offers.
Because the proposed treaties would negate Aboriginal title to land and resources, more than 60 bands have refused to enter into the treaty process at all. And, after 15 years of negotiations with B.C.’s other First Nations, the BCTC has reached the stage of a tribal vote on a Final Agreement with only three bands, all in this year.

One of these nations, the Lheidli T’enneh, rejected a pact in March. But treaties were approved by the Tsawwassen in July and the last of five bands of the Maa-nulth in October. The treaties will be official once the provincial and federal governments sign off on them.

The three Final Agreements all included concessions from the tribes that the governments have been pursuing for a century or more. But these concessions were worded in legalese in documents that ran to 250 or 350 pages plus appendices.

The complexity of the treaty offers is so great that tribes must hire lawyers in order to understand them. To afford this and to pay the expenses of their negotiators, many have been forced to take out huge loans from the BCTC.

These quick and easy loans have become a form of criminal debt entrapment, akin to gifts of infected blankets, designed to leverage tribal acceptance of the bad deals. Some loans already exceed the amounts of cash settlements offered in the treaties, and the government is charging interest – which it will waive for First Nations who ratify the agreements!

New wave of Native warriors. A number of articulate indigenous activists are doing a tremendous job in educating people, both Native and white, on what a sham these treaty offers are. Information for this article came from the writings of Blackfoot Native Mike Krebs and Shuswap Native Arthur Manuel (Amanuel@telus.net), publisher of the First Nations Strategic Bulletin.

Writers like Krebs and Manuel call on tribes in British Columbia to completely reject the current BCTC negotiation process and treaties in order to go back to the drawing board and develop proposals that respect the sovereignty of First Nations and are in their interests. Instead of spending what is already nearly a billion dollars to abrogate Aboriginal title, the Canadian and B.C. governments should work to eliminate racism and provide access to good jobs and quality healthcare and education for all.

For Aboriginal First People bludgeoned into accepting the current treaties, the loss of their culture, history, and very essence of who they are will be like dying and waking up in living hell. Given this genocidal reality, First Nation members who are organizing against these agreements deserve the solidarity of every supporter of Native rights.

Chippewa elder Ann Rogers, 80, a veteran organizer against fascist mobilizing in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, can be reached at shadordr@comcast.net.

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