Why is Canada Negotiating Treaties in BC?

Treaties have been called the great unfinished business of British Columbia. Through the 19th and early 20th centuries, the federal government signed the majority of treaties with Aboriginal people across the rest of Canada. However, very few treaties were negotiated or concluded in BC.

Today, Canada, BC and First Nations are negotiating modern treaties to resolve questions of uncertainty with respect to ownership or use of land and resources and the application of laws. Modern treaty negotiations flow from the agreement of Canada, BC and First Nations to establish a new relationship based on trust, mutual respect and understanding.

Unfinished Business

Treaty making in Canada began soon after European settlers landed in the Americas. The British government, favouring cooperation with Aboriginal people, declared that only the Crown could acquire land from Aboriginals. This set the stage for the negotiation of treaties with Canada's indigenous people. This approach was generally respected across the country.

In BC, however, very few treaties were signed. The Douglas Treaties, completed in the 1850s, covered part of Vancouver Island and, in 1899, Treaty 8 was extended to include part of northeastern British Columbia. That agreement was made between First Nations and the federal government. The Province of British Columbia, created in 1871, did not recognize Aboriginal title. Its policy stated that all issues relating to "Indians" were the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government.

Canada stopped treaty negotiations in 1921, but resumed in 1973 in response to a ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada. In 1990, the province joined negotiations, paving the way for the current BC treaty negotiation process.

Canada's Constitution Act (1982) – the supreme law of the land – states that "the Aboriginal and treaty rights of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed." The Supreme Court of Canada has also affirmed in several cases that Aboriginal rights exist in law.

However, neither the Constitution nor the Supreme Court have defined or described the nature, scope and extent of Aboriginal rights and title across BC. In fact, the courts have repeatedly encouraged governments and First Nations to settle the question of rights through negotiation, rather than litigation.

Treaty negotiations will allow us to fairly and fully resolve legal questions about Aboriginal rights and title through respectful negotiations. Negotiated resolutions are essential to avoid protracted and expensive legal disputes and related economic disruptions.

Closing the Gap

The socio-economic conditions of First Nation communities lag behind other communities in BC. British Columbians and other Canadians have said that they would like to see improvements in these conditions.

Treaties will provide First Nations in BC with the economic and social tools to promote self-reliant communities, and with the capacity to identify and implement their own solutions to difficult economic and social problems. As well, the province's overall economic and social well-being will benefit from strong, self-reliant First Nation communities.

A Stronger Economy

Ongoing questions about Aboriginal rights and title in BC cost potentially billions of dollars in lost investment. Economic activities are sometimes delayed or disrupted, and court cases over rights and title have consumed millions of dollars.

Negotiated treaties will provide the certainty BC needs, and help create a strong economic base for First Nations communities and their neighbours.