Six years ago, anyone who said that the provincial Liberals would try to forge a “new relationship” with First Nations would have been laughed out of the room.
Yet that is precisely what has happened. Though they began by opposing the Nisga’a treaty and unabashedly aligning themselves with opponents of native rights, the Liberals have made a significant turnaround. In just a few years they have managed to sign more than 120 forestry agreements with First Nations, agreements in which cash and timber are flowing to First Nations like never before.
The government has touted each successive agreement as evidence of a newfound commitment to providing “viable” economic opportunities to the province’s native communities, many of which are among the poorest in Canada.
But there are plenty of reasons to question whether this is the case. Comparatively little money is actually on the table. And the timber on offer is far from sufficient to build meaningful economic enterprises in communities plagued by staggeringly high unemployment rates.
What, then, is required to build a truly fair and lasting “new relationship” between the province and First Nations people?
Before answering that question, it is important to reiterate that something significant has occurred over the past few years. Some may wish to dismiss it as a cynical attempt to buy “peace in the woods” in time for the 2010 Olympics. But the fact remains that our government finally has accepted that “accommodating” First Nations means more than interminable talks at the treaty table. Forced by court cases to move in this direction, the province has made 35 “direct awards” of timber to First Nations, totaling 7.3 million cubic metres. And it has signed close to 100 additional agreements in which First Nations are receiving approximately $35 million per year and have been granted the opportunity to log up to 3.3 million cubic metres of timber each year.
Such numbers become less impressive, however, with context. On average in the past decade, BC collected $1 billion annually in stumpage fees from forest companies logging public lands — the same lands claimed by First Nations. The cash so far offered to First Nations amounts to just 3.5 per cent of that revenue stream. A new relationship, perhaps, but not a fair or meaningful one.
As I discovered in talking to many First Nation leaders during the course of several weeks last year, such inequity is inexorably giving rise to resentment. A major source of friction is the province’s cookie-cutter template for arriving at its cash and timber offers. At first blush, the approach may seem equitable: all First Nations are treated the same, with offers based on head counts. The more members a First Nation has on federal Indian Band lists, the more cash and timber it gets — an annual per-person amount of $500 in cash and between 30 and 54 cubic metres of timber.
But on closer inspection, the formula is badly flawed. First, those First Nations with small populations are automatically penalized. Second, First Nations whose forests are being liquidated by logging companies are treated exactly the same as those whose lands are relatively pristine. It’s as if the province sees all First Nations as alike — an idea as offensive as the suggestion that Canada and the United States are one and the same.
Third, the offers are time limited, five-year deals. In the few cases where First Nations already have sizeable forest industry experience, this helps to augment existing operations. But in the vast majority of cases, it is unlikely to attract the kind of serious investment needed to create meaningful long-term jobs in logging and manufacturing. Instead, fleeting one-time forest tenures may force First Nations to export raw logs because they see this as the only economically viable option under the circumstances – hardly a recipe for social and economic renewal.
With their geographically isolated communities and limited opportunities to build healthy, vibrant economies, First Nations need much more. A lasting new relationship would see First Nations:
- Receive half of every dollar the province collects in stumpage fees, with individual nations compensated on the basis of how much logging occurs on their lands (a similar 50-50 arrangement already exists in nearby Washington State for the sharing of salmon resources);
- Become active partners or co-managers in land-use planning, something that is already happening to a limited extent between the Gitanyow hereditary chiefs and provincial Ministry of Forests officials in northwestern BC; and
- Be given the same opportunities as forest companies; in a nutshell long-term access (not one-off, five-year agreements) to defined areas of land. And they should have such access before treaties are settled, given the glacial pace of those negotiations.
Once again, the province has made welcome advances in its relations with First Nations, breaking a longstanding and troubling impasse. It has taken baby steps. But it’s time to acknowledge that bigger strides are needed if the new relationship is to amount to something approaching a partnership of equals.
Ben Parfitt is the CCPA-BC’s resource policy analyst. Copies of his latest report, “True Partners: Charting A New Deal For BC, First Nations and the Forests They Share” is available at www.policyalternatives.ca.