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COLUMN

Uncertain Land Ownership Limbo Needs To Be Resolved And Soon 

By Jim Stirling 

Foresters and logging contractors in British Columbia will be encountering the CMT phenomena more frequently. Culturally modified trees, or CMTs, are stems that have been used by aboriginal peoples for a variety of uses. In coastal regions, it might include testing a tree's suitability for canoe building. In the interior, it could mean bark stripping to extract sap in the springtime. Whatever the purpose, properly identified CMTs are excluded from a forest company's harvesting development plans and usually require protective buffer zones around them. 

The significance of CMTs to aboriginal groups is becoming increasingly politicized. It's not the heritage value of the tree that is of paramount importance, although some types clearly hold more anthropological interest than others do. CMTs are relevant because they indicate two critical elements within the native land claim issue: occupancy and use. A tree's age is readily verifiable and marks upon it can help prove a sustained and vested use in a land area. 

CMTs older than 1846 are protected by law. But aboriginal groups are keen to maintain all CMTs while land claims talks drag on, thus emphasizing the occupancy and use aspects with the two senior levels of government participating in the negotiations. And CMTs are also useful in inter-band squabbles surrounding boundaries of traditional lands claimed. Currently, aboriginal bands claim well in excess of 100 per cent of BC's land area, with some claims overlapping. Seasonal and occasional use of areas like fish camps complicate boundaries. 

Times of famine caused band members to wander far away from traditional areas and incursions from the more aggressive and war-like bands regularly re-defined boundaries. Despite the fluidity of which band was where and when, there is no dispute land was used and occupied prior to the arrival of the first Europeans. But somewhere along the line, use and occupancy have become merged and interchangeable with ownership. 

This puts forest companies and all other Crown land users in a state of uncertain limbo. And it complicates hugely the entire land claims debate. It seems from this perspective that ownership is more of an adopted European concept. It appears pre-contact aboriginal groups in BC led communal lives, based on the mutual support and co-operation necessary to sustain communities during what must often have been terribly harsh and demanding conditions. A sort of survival-driven pro bono publico approach for the good of all. 

Understandably, aboriginal groups developed intricate relationships with the environment that provided the essentials for life. That's reflected in the spiritual bonds with the forces of nature and living things that intertwined the most mundane tasks of daily living and influenced the rules and activities of communal groups. Without doubt, land was revered and respected. Its bounties gratefully consumed. 

But does that constitute ownership? Ownership within the context and definitions of the 21st century within which, like it or not, we're all consigned to operate? So while historical signposts like CMTs are mapped and aboriginal groups plot their strategies, frustrations grow on all sides with the apparent failure to define satisfactorily the fundamentals upon which land claim issues can be determined. Many observers feel slow progress is being made and recommend patience. Meanwhile, the more militant aboriginal groups where patience is no priority use protests and demonstrations to keep up pressure on government and maintain land claim issues in the public spotlight. 

While BC has adopted the treaty claim process, other templates for settlement exist. In Alaska, the approach was none too subtle but proved effective. Qualified aboriginals received a cash settlement, a one-time buyout. Some invested the windfall wisely, others frittered it away, while most were somewhere in the middle. But after the buyout settlement, there were no land claim issues or allowances made to aboriginals as a special interest group. All Alaskans were to be treated equally. The provincial Liberal government has much on its plate right now. 

They range from the frightening impacts of the pernicious US duties on commodity lumber and value-added wood product industries to a crumbling health care system, unhappy teachers and outdated infrastructure. And all these issues demand attention not only when the provincial economy is stagnant, but at a time when the US and other jurisdictions with which BC trades are in an equally moribund economic state. But when it comes to kick-starting the provincial economy, there are few issues more fundamental or pressing than solving the land claims issue. 

One way or another, all aboriginals need and deserve the same social and economic opportunities as everyone else. Investment dollars are not going to be attracted when something as basic as land ownership is in dispute or subject to dispute. It does nothing for BC's already bruised business reputation. Everyone in the province needs to know-and soon-who owns what, once and for all, and then that needs to be communicated effectively with the rest of the world. Only when that is achieved can the province begin to move ahead with any degree of confidence and assurance. Doesn't that just make sense?

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