Yedlin: Federal government’s policy shift only a stop-gap in dealings with First Nations

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The federal government’s latest attempt to break the log jam that exists in obtaining First Nations’ consent for resource development in British Columbia looks more like a Hail Mary pass from a football playbook than a longlasting solution to what remains a very complex problem.

And once again – just as when the federal cabinet granted approval to Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline – Monday’s announcement aimed at winning support for natural resource projects in B.C. was done via a government news release, without access to the cabinet minister involved.

Given the importance of resolving First Nations’ issues regarding resource development, that lack of opportunity for further clarity is nothing short of cowardly.

For those who have closely watched the Harper government’s modus operandi, however, the announcement was another example of its divide and conquer approach to governing – playing one side against another – instead of working toward a consensus on something as contentious as First Nations’ treaty rights.

This is a government, after all, that won’t hold First Ministers meetings. No one, therefore, should expect it would be willing to do something along those lines with First Nations groups.

While some are pleased the announced policy changes represent an attempt to address the barriers to agreements outside the treaty process – including interim agreements – the more likely result is that it will only serve to make things even more complicated, not to mention promote an atmosphere of oneupmanship.

There are 198 First Nations bands speaking 30 di erent languages in B.C., with 57 groups currently involved in a treaty negotiation process. It’s therefore di cult to envision real progress being made, in real time.

Monday’s announcement isn’t the only development muddying the waters in B.C.

The B.C. government previously showed it’s playing favourites in terms of the resource development projects it’s chosen to support when it signed a revenue-sharing agreement with two north coast First Nations in exchange for access to lands deemed important for the development of export access for liquefi ed natural gas terminals.

One surmises – particularly given the Grassy Lakes ruling handed down July 10 by the Supreme Court which upheld the rights of the Ontario government to permit industrial logging on traditional First Nations lands – the B.C. government could become similarly involved with respect to oilsands transportation infrastructure, but is choosing not to, for political reasons.

What was interesting about the LNG revenue agreement were the remarks of Metlakatla Chief Harold Leighton, who said the status quo for his people was no longer an option and that the nation wanted to be part of the opportunity presented by economic development in northwest B.C.

A similar message was heard this week in Alberta, when the Stoney Nakoda First Nation signed a joint venture agreement with a Chinese company – Huatong Petrochemical Holdings – to explore and develop oil and natural gas on the Stoney Nakoda lands.

Again, one of the chiefs involved said the deal was important because it brings the Stoney Nakoda Nation closer to self sufficiency.

It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that the underlying factor driving the signing of these agreements is that these First Nations leaders envision a better future for their members and are prepared to take the necessary steps to realize it.

Seeing other First Nations achieving a measure of economic success because they chose to sign an agreement or enter into a joint venture has the potential to be more effective in breaking the impasse around resource development and the building of transportation infrastructure.

Even better, involving First Nations leaders who have taken that leap of faith on behalf of their members to meet with those who are stalled would also be helpful. It defies logic to think taking a piecemeal approach will be at all timely. And last anyone checked, the clock is ticking. Fast.

What the federal government is proposing is nothing more than a stop-gap measure and the furthest thing from a long-term solution. It also didn’t come with any information about the resources – both dollars and people – the government was prepared to provide to achieve its objectives. What’s likely to happen is that certain projects will be put on a priority list. The question is what happens to those that aren’t deemed as critical, even though the issues are no less complicated? What’s really needed in all of this is a willingness (and commitment) to apply the law, which continues to be defined and refined through rulings such as what the Supreme Court has handed down in recent months. Just as parents often tell their children, there are no shortcuts, the same applies in this situation.

The federal government might want to reflect on that.

Deborah Yedlin is a Calgary Herald columnist

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