VICTORIA – Why did the B.C. government suddenly slam the door on their old friend George Abbott, after spending months recruiting him to head up the B.C. Treaty Commission?
The instant media narrative, embraced by a shocked Abbott and then by NDP leader John Horgan, was that this was payback for grievances nursed by Premier Christy Clark from the 2012 B.C. Liberal leadership contest.
Done on a whim, Horgan said after a week grilling Clark and Aboriginal Relations Minister John Rustad. Clark is suddenly a sore winner, lashing out, wrecking two decades of careful and costly treaty-making.
Like many instant media narratives, this one makes no sense and is almost certainly wrong.
If Clark was resentful about the roasting she received from leadership rivals Abbott and Kevin Falcon, she had an odd way of showing it. She appointed Falcon as finance minister to drive a stake into the harmonized sales tax, and Abbott as education minister to fashion a pre-election truce with the ever-hostile teachers’ union. Both completed their unlikely tasks and retired as heroes of the party in 2013.
Outgoing chief treaty commissioner Sophie Pierre was as dismayed as anyone at the news of Abbott’s demise. While the two were in transition meetings, Pierre learned that she was not being replaced, leaving the federal-provincial-First Nations Summit partnership of 22 years in a shambles.
Clark went further when questioned by reporters about the sudden reversal. The future of aboriginal relations in B.C. may or may not include the B.C. Treaty Commission.
“There have been some results, but four treaties in 22 years for $600 million is not enough result,” Clark said. “We have to be able to move faster, and we have to find a way to include more First Nations in the process.”
That $600 million is mostly loans, from the federal government to First Nations to finance treaty talks. Of every $100 spent trying to honour the century-old duty to sign treaties across B.C., $80 is a loan from Ottawa, $12 is a grant from Ottawa and $8 is a grant from B.C.
The plan was for First Nations to repay their loans out of cash settlements made to them for 100-odd years of uncompensated resource extraction, which is now accepted as being contrary to British and Canadian law.
It was the blunt-spoken Pierre who first acknowledged this hasn’t worked. Some of the 50 First Nations stuck at the treaty table have borrowed too much to go on, she said last year, calling for an “exit strategy” that forgives debt.
The probability of the B.C. government making this decision without talking to the federal paymaster is exactly zero. I’m told the province’s clumsy timing had something to do with Ottawa’s demands.
I asked Clark if her plan to settle land claims faster was anything like the 2009 attempt by Gordon Campbell’s deputy minister Jessica McDonald to negotiate a province-wide deal declaring aboriginal title. Clark sidestepped the question, saying only that the 150 B.C. First Nations not at the treaty table need a say and a solution too.
(McDonald now faces a similar legal gridlock as the Clark-appointed CEO of BC Hydro, trying to build the Site C dam.)
Pierre, a veteran administrator from the Ktunaxa Tribal Council in the Kootenays, made a prophetic statement when her term as chief commissioner was extended three years ago. She said if Ottawa isn’t prepared to give federal negotiators a realistic mandate on compensation and sharing of salmon rights, they should “shut ’er down.”
Her advice may have been heard after all.
Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc