By Arthur Manuel
Premier Gordon Campbell is trying to use the proposed British Columbia Recognition and Reconciliation Act to overcome the economic uncertainty that B.C. has been experiencing since the Supreme Court of Canada recognized aboriginal title. Aboriginal title is an exclusive property right of indigenous peoples. This is the Achilles’ heel of B.C., as the provincially created property rights, like fee simple or forestry tenures and mining leases, are put in question because they fail to take into account aboriginal title.
Aboriginal title could even operate to oust provincial control over lands and resources, so what the province is really seeking through the proposed act is recognition of Crown title by indigenous peoples.
The much advertised recognition of aboriginal title is contingent upon recognition of provincial Crown title in return. This position has historically been rejected by indigenous peoples insisting that their relationship is with the federal Crown and not with lower levels of government. The Gordon Campbell strategy is to plug the “First Nations leadership council”—consisting of the executives of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, the First Nations Summit, and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs—into existing provincial government business schemes. The result will be benefit-sharing agreements under existing provincial resource law. This will undermine aboriginal title and indigenous efforts to protect the environment from increased resource exploitation.
This has created a backlash against the First Nations leadership council, headed by Grand Chief Ed John, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, and Assembly of First Nations B.C. regional chief Shawn Atleo (who was elected AFN national chief on Thursday [July 23]). There has been a groundswell of opposition by indigenous peoples to the Recognition and Reconciliation Act at regional sessions around the province. The chiefs’ council of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs even defeated a resolution to allow further work on the act.
Indigenous peoples collectively are the proper title and rights holder. Aboriginal title over entire territories is held by indigenous nations with a common language, customs, traditions, and history. The people have made it very clear that the First Nations leadership council and the federal Indian Act chiefs and councils are not the proper title and rights holders and have no right to negotiate about aboriginal title with Campbell. From an indigenous perspective, the proposed Recognition and Reconciliation Act does not recognize aboriginal title. It is an attempt to secure increased corporate access to our territories. It is also a major public-relations campaign in the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics so the government can pretend it is dealing with indigenous issues. Canada and B.C. have been criticized by international human-rights bodies for their failure to address indigenous rights, and we will continue to raise this.
The economic uncertainty that B.C. has been experiencing by not resolving the indigenous land question should not be underestimated. Since the judicial recognition of aboriginal title, the province has had to report it as a contingent liability in the B.C. financial statements every year. The government has been pointing to the B.C. treaty process as its mechanism for extinguishing aboriginal title. The B.C. treaty process is a major failure, given that it only produced two small treaties after the government negotiated for more than 15 years and spent over $1.5 billion.
Indigenous peoples are worried about economic certainty too, but we want economic certainty based on the full and true recognition of our aboriginal title. We want to build a new economy that values indigenous knowledge and our relationship to the land. The failure of the B.C. treaty process and community-level opposition to the proposed Recognition and Reconciliation Act indicate that indigenous peoples want to be on an equal footing with the provincial government. Indigenous peoples do not want to continue subsidizing the B.C. government and corporations by having aboriginal title not recognized or marginalized, as under the proposed act.
What happens to the British Columbia Recognition and Reconciliation Act over the next few months will determine if Campbell gets economic certainty at the expense of indigenous peoples.
Former Neskonlith chief Arthur Manuel is spokesperson for the Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade.