Aboriginal Relations Minister John Rustad (left) meets with Tsilhqot'in chiefs Roger William and Joe Alphonse (right) at his legislature office

Pivotal year ahead for aboriginal relations in B.C.

Aboriginal Relations Minister John Rustad on the implications of the Tsilhqot'in land claim ruling, Site C dam and industrial development

Tom Fletcher’s year-end interview with Aboriginal Relations Minister John Rustad.

TF: Can you tell me about some agreements with First Nations you have in the works for 2015?

JR: On the liquefied natural gas front, we have agreements with approximately 20 nations that we have signed and we’ll be announcing some time into the new year. I can’t give you more details than that, but they include the coast, some of the sites where LNG facilities will be, and some of them of course are also pipeline benefit agreements.

It’s been a good year for us with LNG negotiations. We have another 20 nations that we’re working with and with a few exceptions, most of those are moving along relatively well.

TF: One of the agreements signed recently was a benefit agreement with the Wet’suwet’en First Nation. At the same time we have one or two hereditary chiefs at the Unist’ot’en camp (accessible by logging road from Houston), with support from professional environmentalists, and they’re adamantly opposed to gas or oil pipelines. Have I got that right?

JR: I wouldn’t characterize it that way. Here is how the Wet’suwet’en people are divided. There is the office of the Wet’suwet’en, which is all of the hereditary chiefs from the Wet’suwet’en areas. And then there are six elected bands, four of which have asserted their territory, working with their hereditary chiefs, and those are the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, the Skin Tyee First Nation, the Nee Tahi Buhn Indian Band and the Ts’il Kaz Koh First Nation (Burns Lake Band). And then there is Moricetown and Hagwilget, which have not asserted their territory but work under the Office of the Wet’suwet’en.

The Unist’ot’en is one hereditary chief, and the Unist’ot’en family is involved in the blockade. So I’m hopeful, we’ve been working with them. I’m optimistic that in the new year we may be able to find a resolution to that particular issue.

TF: Another highlight of the year, the Site C dam announcement on the Peace River. We’ve got Treaty 8 First Nations who remain opposed. They signed their treaty in 1899, it surrendered the territory east of the Rockies and it protects their traditional hunting, trapping and fishing. The joint review panel on Site C said there are impacts here that really can’t be mitigated. What’s the duty of the Crown in that situation?

JR: Obviously we have a duty of consultation, and where appropriate accommodation. We’ve done a lot of work with those nations to date, and we will continue to be engaged with the Treaty 8 nations.

But certainly, particularly for West Moberly First Nations, who are arguably most impacted by this project, it’s going to be challenging. It has significant impact on them directly as a people, so we’re going to need to find ways to mitigate. You can’t mitigate the fact that the valley will be flooded, but find some other things that we can do with the nation.

We’re engaged with them as well as the other Treaty 8 nations. BC Hydro still has a lot of work to be done. We have to find some way to bring some agreement if we can.

TF: Some of those groups have logging and construction companies that could realize a benefit from a project like that?

JR: There will be hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business and economic opportunity for the people in that area and specifically First Nations. Some business units already have contracts with BC Hydro. My hope is that those companies and bands have opportunities to fully participate.

TF: Can those opposed stop Site C?

JR: Obviously there are some legal challenges out there. I would say Site C has probably been the most studied major project in British Columbia’s history. There have been conversations that have gone on for 30-plus years and a lot of engagement with First Nations on it. I can’t say what a judge will say.

And not to forget that there are 10 [non-aboriginal] landowners that will be significantly impacted, and it will certainly be difficult for them as this project advances.

TF: The Tsilhqot’in court decision recognizing aboriginal title was a big event in 2014. Are people reading too much into that as a precedent for other First Nations, or is that territorial claim really unique?

JR: It is unique. There has never before been a declaration of aboriginal title in Canada. It’s also unique as a very long court case that led to that decision. One thing that isn’t unique, we know that aboriginal title exists, it’s in the Canadian constitution. The courts have said that it exists but they have never defined exactly where it was. When you look at how the definition was applied for the Tsilhqot’in decision, that was known as well, in terms of the continuous occupation prior to 1864 [Chilcotin war], their continuous and exclusive use.

This is the first direct title award. It certainly has raised expectations, and from our perspective, we want to do as the courts have said, and that is sit down and negotiate. What does this mean? How do we work with First Nations to define their aboriginal title for those nations who want to do that.

Through the letter of understanding that we entered into with the Tsilhqot’in people, we’re working through a lot of technical issues, to get a protocol agreement in place by the end of March. For example, who ploughs the roads? How do you take care of the day-to-day things that need to be done?

TF: That decision was based on the jurisdiction of the forests ministry, and what the Supreme Court of Canada decided was that the province still has jurisdiction to go in and put out forest fires if that’s required, but not much else. Is there a sense of unfairness among the non-aboriginal population about how this has come out?

JR: I’ve certainly heard from people who are wondering, where does this go. When you look at what the constitution and the court says, it’s a reality for us in British Columbia. It’s something I think we need to embrace and find ways to work within it.

More importantly for the Tsilhqot’in people, how do we create an economy for them? How do you help them build a future in today’s world and economy? I think [former Nisga’a Nation president] Dr. Joseph Gosnell put it well when he was at the legislature not long ago. He said aboriginal people, economically, are 100 years behind non-aboriginal people and that needs to change.

And that means aboriginal people need to be engaged in the economy, and there need to be benefits that flow from where aboriginal people have title on the land base.

TF: Your party was strongly opposed to the Nisga’a treaty when it was signed by the previous government. It’s been quite a journey since then, hasn’t it?

JR: It truly has been. When you look at where relationships between the province and First Nations have gone over that period, it has been a similar journey. When we decided to take the path of the New Relationship back in 2005, things have changed dramatically.

We went from having virtually no agreements between the province and First Nations to today, where just in the last four years alone, we’ve signed more than 200 significant revenue sharing agreements. We have hundreds of other agreements, on education, social services, health, capacity funding, etc. We’ve come a long way in really what’s been a relatively short period of time, but we still have a lot of ground to make up.

When you look back on Nisga’a and where the province was, and how the relationship has transformed and evolved, it is the direction that we need to go. And that means governments need to be flexible and find paths forward, following the courts and the constitution. And more importantly, find ways to build respectful relationships. It’s critical for our economy.

TF: What are your goals in 2015?

JR: Over this past year when I’ve had the honour of being the minister, we originally had a goal of 10 non-treaty agreements by 2015, and then when I came in we added an additional 10. I think we’re now over 50 non-treaty agreements.

We’ve signed a significant number of incremental treaty agreements, we have four treaty agreements in principle that are on the table, and we have moved forward with two other treaties that will be fully implemented by 2016.

But I think looking forward, the conversations that we’re going to be having with regards to mining, the work we’ll be doing with the Tsilhqot’in, the need we have to go out and have conversations around things like forestry and title … I think it’s going to be an exciting year.

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