Arthur Manuel: Beware of B.C.'s proposed Recognition and Reconciliation Act

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.



Just Passing Through

Jul 24, 2009 at 2:40pm

Arthur Manuel's perceptive viewpoint perfectly complements the latest news that two of three main first nations supporters of the proposed Act, UBCIC and BCAFN, have walked away [] from it due to concerns of local first nations. This abandonment is surprising. Moreover, it is quite revealing on at least two counts as it pertains to native politics in this province.

First and foremost it shows that underneath the "unity" veneer often expressed by provincial and local native leaders there is instead a rift serious enough to derail a considerable initiative like the Recognition and Reconciliation Act.

Second, this derailment confirms for better or worse local first nations as opposed to their provincial representatives are doing the actual steering when it comes to finalizing high-level "sign here" agreements with the provincial government.

On both scores this realization no doubt vexes the shit out of provinical government, especially Premier Campbell who personally expended a lot political capital in his dealings with the provincial first nations leadership council, which on the native side was the leading principle behind this now failed or at least seriously floundering legislative bid.

And so, if they aren't already, local first nation leaders might consider asking themselves why or how was it that their provincial brethen were so out of touch with their collective mindset going into this thing.

This dysfunctionality is surprisingly but very clearly illustrated by none other than the new AFN national chief Shawn Atleo in his Georgia Straight editorial [] last March, when as the AFN's BC Regional Chief he openly and brazenly promoted the proposed Act as it currently stood then, the very one which first nations would soon come to reject so convincingly that he himself was compelled to abandoned it.

It would be instructive to know why he was so out of step with the people he was representing. And the greater pubic also deserves to hear that answer since the "land question" in this province certainly involves them, as well. That said, Atleo isn't the only one who should account for this exercise in futility and road to false hope, since many were involved on both sides.

Or to put it another way, first nation and provincial government leaders have to answer why, as one northern chief recently put it in regards to the legislation's pending failure, "we go back to square one."

Hopefully some intrepid journalist will stick a microphone in these people's faces and start asking the right questions.

carol louie

Jul 25, 2009 at 12:03pm

I agree with art manuel. Gordon campbell can go to hell