The B.C. government's abrupt decision to rescind its approval of a new B.C. treaty commissioner has opened a significant rift with the federal government and aboriginal groups it says it wants to do business with. But the politics and the personalities involved in the reversal have obscured the government's intention: To back away from the treaty negotiation process it sees as a costly endeavour that has produced precious few results over the past two decades.
Six months ago, the province sought approval from the federal government and First Nations to appoint George Abbott, a former cabinet minister, to head the commission. Last week, with no warning to its other partners at the table, the province pulled its support for Mr. Abbott, leading to speculation about old wounds from the BC Liberals leadership contest that pitted him against B.C. Premier Christy Clark.
On Wednesday, however, Ms. Clark said she will not appoint anyone to the position of chief commissioner because she doesn't think the treaty process is working.
"We made a principled policy decision," Ms. Clark told reporters.
"The decision is not to continue with the status quo … In terms of next steps – whether or not the treaty commission will change or whether it will continue to exist – is going to be something we decide together with First Nations."
The tripartite treaty commission was launched in 1993 – ending a 120-year-old policy that B.C. would not negotiate treaties. The process was designed to resolve the festering land question in British Columbia, where few First Nations have settled their claims to aboriginal rights and title.
To date, the commission has spent $627-million on negotiations with more than 50 First Nations, but only four treaties have been completed. Eight others are in the final stages, and those First Nations are now anxious to see whether the province still has a political commitment to see those through.
The province has already subtly pulled back by giving all of its senior chief negotiators at the treaty table additional responsibilities for liquefied natural gas negotiations. But provincial officials continued to assure both the federal government and the First Nations Summit that B.C. was committed to the process.
Mr. Abbott was in Kelowna on March 18 for a transition briefing with the commission when, two minutes before the meeting started, he received a phone call from the B.C. minister responsible for aboriginal relations, John Rustad, informing him that his appointment would not be approved by the provincial cabinet.
Jerry Lampert, the federal government's appointee to the commission, said all parties in the treaty process were blindsided by the province's reversal.
"Canada is not happy, of course; everyone had agreed on a great candidate," he said in an interview Wednesday. "We had all kinds of assurances that B.C. believes in the process, but they have some ideas to make it better."
Ed John, head of the First Nations Summit, said all three parties had agreed in good faith to appoint Mr. Abbott, and the province's surprise change "is very problematic" for its relations with First Nations in B.C.
"They have not acted in good faith," he said. "This government is not interested in trying to resolve the land claims issue. They don't want to deal with aboriginal rights and title."
Sophie Pierre, the outgoing chief commissioner, said Wednesday the province needs to accept responsibility for slow progress at the treaty table. "B.C., we can see you want to pull away from negotiations because you have been removing negotiators from treaty tables – of course that makes those tables less effective."
Mr. Abbott said he now believes the B.C. government changed its mind about him because he was committed to pressing for a revitalization of the treaty process.
He said the province has been unwilling to invest what is needed to ensure the treaty process is working well – something he would have advocated for. "They want to reduce their participation in the treaty process without saying it," he said in an interview.
He said he had agreed to take on the job because he is passionate about the need to reach treaties that would allow First Nations to escape federal governance. "The Indian Act is one of those reprehensible relics of the past that has marginalized First Nations and we need to move beyond that," he said.
He paused, then added: "Maybe I am explaining why I got offed as chief commissioner."