The Kitselas and Kitsumkalum First Nations are expecting to see a finished draft of their respective treaties by this year’s end.
“I am fairly certain we will have a handshake agreement by the end of this calendar year,” Gerald Wesley, the chief treaty negotiator for both, said at a recent Kitselas meeting.
A handshake agreement falls under stage four of the six-stage treaty process in B.C., when provincial, federal and First Nations treaty negotiators have agreed a treaty’s draft is ready to be made public and voted upon by those affected.
Once approved, it becomes an agreement in principal (AIP), which marks stage five of the negotiation process.
An AIP is the treaty’s near-final draft, is not legally binding, and can be changed before becoming a final agreement, or official treaty, which is stage six. At the final stage, the new treaty laws are implemented.
Both Kitselas and Kitsumkalum treaties are being negotiated simultaneously, containing identical content in most sections. Should one decide to stop or slow the treaty process, the other can continue.
Wesley initially anticipated a handshake agreement for both this month.
But a cabinet shuffle under new B.C. Premier Christy Clark meant that a new minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, Mary Polak, was catching up on the work of her predecessor.
The May federal election has further slowed progress. Despite this, the provincial Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation is confident an AIP draft will be finished very shortly.
“We are encouraged by the progress to-date and look forward to concluding an AIP in the next few months,” the ministry said in an email.
Also, the Cohen Commission — a judicial inquiry into the disappearance of the Fraser River sockeye salmon — was extended one year past its spring 2011 deadline. This meant a freeze on fish negotiations for both First Nations while the cause of the decline is further examined.
As a result, there will be no section in either AIP drafts about fish, Wesley said.
“It’s the Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans,” said the commission’s media spokesperson Carla Shore. “It is my understanding that at some point after the commission was announced the fisheries ministry said they were going to slow treaty negotiations.”
The Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans didn’t respond to the Terrace Standard by publication deadline.
Regardless, salmon are a fundamental aspect of both Kitselas and Kitsumkalum cultures and economies, and Wesley hopes to add a section about fish after the AIPs are completed.
While much will be covered in the 25-chapter draft AIPs, Wesley identified four main topics covered: expanding land bases, resource management, self-governing authority and money.
He said ideally, he’d like to see the lands expanded back to their traditional territories. Currently, reserves make up a small fraction of the land occupied by their ancestors before colonization. However, Wesley expects the nations will meet the government closer to the middle.
“The land and cash components of an AIP are made public after an AIP is initialed by all parties,” said the aboriginal affairs provincial ministry.
But Wesley said that fairness to surrounding communities is a priority in these negotiations.
“We understand that we need the community of Terrace and that we need to work together,” he said.
Wesley explained this applies to resource ownership and management as well as self-government, noting the importance of economic interdependency between First Nations and their surrounding communities.