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December 2006 / January 2007 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal



First Nations reconciliation process
seems more divisive than unifying

By Jim Stirling

Christmas began last October for the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation. The band’s 320 members, with a reserve near Prince George, British Columbia, were showered with provincial largesse.

The Lheidli T’enneh received $914,000 and a pledge of 1.2 million cubic metres of timber infested by the mountain pine beetle, to be delivered during the next five years.

The beetle wood is not surprising. The provincial government has been handing out sizeable volumes disproportionately to native bands for a few years. The ubiquitous beetle wood in the province’s Interior is viewed by Victoria as shrewd political currency to promote economic activity and curry favour in the Liberal’s self-styled era of reconciliation with native peoples. But the timber was just the beginning for the Lheidli T’enneh. It got much better.

The province bequeathed $8.4 million to a First Nations Forestry Council. The money will be administered from a new office on the Lheidli T’enneh reserve. It will be available to other First Nations in central and northern BC and the funding is good for two years. The natives have already made it clear the $8.4 million is for planning only, not action.

More money is expected. “The funding is going to help preserve the way of life for many First Nations communities whose traditions and customs have depended on forests for a millennium,” Forests Minister Rich Coleman was quoted as saying. “Only by working together will we be successful,” added the minister.

Now there’s an interesting statement. In April 2005, a grass roots organization called the Cariboo-Chilcotin Beetle Action Coalition received an $800,000 grant from the provincial government. The money was to kick start creation of the community-based group to work with the government in ensuring the future of regional communities during and after the mountain pine beetle epidemic. The coalition’s goal was to involve everyone, including native groups. The coalition has been busy developing its plans and seeking feedback through community input meetings.

In September 2005, the Omineca Beetle Action Coalition received its $800,000 from the province for its version of the Cariboo-Chilcotin coalition. While the Omineca group hasn’t been as busy as its southern counterpart, it, too, sees the participation of native groups as essential. The group says its key challenge to success is to “work together as a region, effectively blending individual community needs and preferences with our collective interests.” And specifically that includes collaboration between First Nations and other communities on common interest areas like jobs, economic diversification and infrastructure “regardless of any differences over land title issues.”

So let’s see now. Quite apart from any debate on whether these types of groups should be funded in the first place, the government demonstrates something less than an even-handed approach. We have two community groups, which include everyone regardless of race, getting $800,000 each to begin post-beetle survival strategies. Native groups, inclusive of race and with a comparatively tiny population base, get $8.4 million to pursue traditions and customs in their post-beetle interests. As Minister Coleman says: “only by working together will we be successful.”

The reasons for sweetening the Lheidli T’enneh’s pot became much clearer in November. The band leaders met with senior representatives of the provincial and federal governments to initial a treaty agreement on land and natural resources valued at an impressive $76 million. The agreement is the first proposal reached under BC’s Treaty Process. It’s therefore politically significant for Premier Gordon Campbell and establishes a template for other native groups waiting in the wings.

Many of them will be rubbing their hands in glee, given extrapolation of the Lheidli T’enneh proposal. The treaty includes cash, an allowable annual cut of 107,000 cubic metres, an annual catch of 18,000 sockeye salmon and rights to an unspecified hydroelectric power development. The band also gets 4,360 hectares of land, at least one third of which lies within Prince George city limits.

The deal needs 70 per cent support from Lheildi T’enneh members. And that’s not a given. Before the ink was dry, other native groups expressed concerns about treaty land boundary overlaps. And some band members feel the deal is just plain inadequate.

Years back, the State of Alaska also bought out their natives but they did it in a one-shot cash deal that settled the matter in perpetuity. In Canada, by contrast, the federal and provincial governments have established a tradition of paternalism and throwing money at native issues hoping they would miraculously disappear. They didn’t and they haven’t. Now, because of that, there’s a highly focused native political machine in BC. It’s the Lheidli T’ennehs of the province that call the shots and quite understandably push their agendas. Where it will all lead and at what ultimate cost is unclear.

But an uneasy feeling lingers: Why is it BC’s reconciliation process seems more divisive than unifying?


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