Chief Leah George-Wilson of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation has been at the treaty-negotiating table for 12 years. She’ll likely be there for some years to come.
The North Vancouver–based First Nation, the federal government, and the province have been working on an agreement in principle—the fourth of the British Columbia treaty process’s six stages—since the parties signed a framework agreement in 1997 setting out the issues to be resolved. George-Wilson told the Georgia Straight she expects government negotiators to put a tentative package on the table in as soon as a month.
“We haven’t finished drafting chapters or anything like that. So, it’s not anything that people will vote on or anything,” George-Wilson, who became the first woman to hold the office of elected chief of the Tsleil-Waututh in 2001, said during a telephone interview. “It’s just so we can get an idea about: what kind of land are we talking about?”
Negotiators have drafted chapters on a number of procedural matters, such as how the First Nation’s eligible citizens will be defined and how a treaty would be ratified and implemented. But tougher issues—including culture, finance, governance, lands, and resources—remain far from settled.
“I think if we know, for example, what land we’re talking about, it would be easier to talk about things like access, for example,” George-Wilson said. “So, we’re looking forward to having a better idea of what would be in a land package, so that we would know where we should be going in some of the chapters that have to do with land. It’s kind of like trying to talk about something and you don’t really know what it is, but you’re supposed to write down some rules for it.”
The Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s traditional territory covers a 190,000-hectare area, which extends from the north arm of the Fraser River to Mamquam Lake, northeast of Squamish, and includes Vancouver, Burnaby, Port Moody, North Vancouver, West Vancouver, and lands in other municipalities. The band has 444 members.
George-Wilson, who is also cochair of the First Nations Summit, is hopeful that a proposal to bring multiple First Nations together at a common negotiating table with the federal and provincial governments will help settle some of the issues that haven’t yet been resolved to her satisfaction at her band’s talks. The feds and the province agreed in December to consider joint negotiations, and the chief is a member of a working group of First Nations’ negotiators charged with laying the groundwork.
“I think things at the higher-up level are moving, for the provincial government,” she said, referring to the 2005 New Relationship accord between B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell and top First Nations leaders. “But it’s not making its way down to what’s happening on the ground or at the tables. So while, for example, on recognition of aboriginal title, the provincial government may say they recognize it, that doesn’t happen. None of the mandate has changed at the table.”
As well, Tsleil-Waututh members have read the Tsawwassen and Maa-nulth treaties, which are in the process of government ratification, and the Lheidli T’enneh final agreement, which was rejected by that First Nation’s members last year, and aren’t entirely satisfied with what they see, George-Wilson said.
“Our people certainly aren’t saying that we don’t think that those groups didn’t do well for themselves,” she said. “We think they did in their own circumstance. But their own circumstance is going to be different than ours.”
George-Wilson said she doesn’t expect to reach an agreement in principle for at least a year.
“I don’t see this being wrapped up anytime soon,” she said of the prospect of a treaty.
Reached by phone, George McRae, B.C.’s senior negotiator at the Tsleil-Waututh table, said he couldn’t comment on the talks. The provincial minister of aboriginal relations and reconciliation, Michael de Jong, was on a trade mission in India until February 4 and unavailable for an interview, a ministry staffer said.
While the Tsawwassen First Nation’s treaty will likely be ratified by Parliament this year and implemented in 2009, it could be several years or more before another final agreement is reached in the Vancouver area.
“There really is nobody that I would describe as close,” Jack Weisgerber, a B.C. treaty commissioner, said by phone.
But Weisgerber, the province’s first minister of Native affairs from 1988 to 1991, said four First Nations and tribal councils in other parts of B.C. that have signed agreements in principle are working hard toward final agreements and could conceivably get there within the next few years. Of those, the closest to Vancouver are the Yale First Nation near Hope and the In-SHUCK-ch Nation in the lower Lillooet River valley.