The proposed relationship protocol, which is intended to strengthen First Nations and local government relations, includes the acknowledgement that the regional district is on unceded First Nations territory. Lakes District News file photo

Relationship protocol sparks debate

Regional district directors expressed concerns over a relationship protocol with First Nations

A proposed relationship protocol between the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako (RDBN) and First Nations sparked a debate during a recent RDBN board meeting.

The proposed protocol, which is intended to strengthen First Nations and local government relations, includes the acknowledgement that the RDBN is on unceded First Nations territory.

Some RDBN directors expressed concerns over that acknowledgement, saying it could expose the regional district to risks such as having to pay a portion of taxation revenue to First Nations or even being “kicked off the land.”

Although Bill Miller, RDBN Chair and Director of Electoral Area B (Burns Lake rural), was supportive of the protocol, he admitted that the acknowledgement of unceded territories could present some risks to the regional district.

“There is some case to be made for them [First Nations] to be the recipient for some of the taxes that go to the province or to the Crown; so there is that potential that in a legal wrangle that could happen, there’s no doubt about that,” he said.

Telkwa Mayor Darcy Repen said that some concerns could be negotiated.

“We want the security that they [First Nations] are not going to kick us off the land, so let’s ask for that,” he said.

Other directors weren’t entirely sure of what “unceded territory” means, or weren’t sure if they could believe it.

“I talked to the province on a number of occasions [about the issue of unceded territories], and depending on the person I talked to I got different meanings on this,” said Vanderhoof Mayor Gerry Thiessen.

“How do I know what took place 200 years ago?” asked Jerry Peterson, Director of Electoral Area F (Vanderhoof Rural). “I don’t know, so to make that statement saying that I acknowledge it, I don’t acknowledge it because I don’t know.”

Throughout most of Canada, the Crown entered into treaties whereby the aboriginal communities gave up their claim to land in exchange for reservations and other promises, but, with minor exceptions, this did not happen in B.C. In 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada granted a declaration of aboriginal title to the Tsilhqot’in First Nation, one of hundreds of aboriginal groups in B.C. that had unresolved land claims.

Mark Fisher, Director of Electoral Area A (Smithers rural), encouraged directors who were unsure about the history of First Nations in B.C. or relevant Supreme Court of Canada decisions to “find a dictionary.”

“It’s just acknowledgement that there is no treaty,” said Fisher. “It’s pretty clear and I just don’t think we need to spend a lot of staff time on it.”

“If you’re not comfortable with something, so come back with a proposal on how to be comfortable after speaking with people to get a better understanding,” he added. “I think we need to move forward.”

Smithers Mayor Taylor Bachrach said he did not know how to move forward given that directors were not entirely on board.

“I don’t think that we want to move forward with something so fundamental unless there’s strong support for it,” he said. “I can see real value in having a protocol agreement as a region, but I’m not sure that it’s worth it unless we wholeheartedly endorse it.”

Burns Lake councillor John Illes, who represents the Village of Burns Lake at the RDBN board, said that a refusal to acknowledge that the RDBN sits on unceded First Nations territory would harm the regional district’s relationship with First Nations.

Chair Miller said that working through the directors’ fears would be part of building a relationship with First Nations.

“Part of building that relationship is starting to work through some of those things – the fear that they’re going to take the land, fear of the taxation going somewhere else. All those things we need to work on,” he said.

At the end of the discussion, the board carried a motion for staff to reword the protocol to address some of the directors’ concerns and bring it back for discussion at a future meeting.