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While his critics will say it was court more than conscience that prompted B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell to redefine his government's relationship with first nations groups in his province, there is no question it has become his central cause.

Mr. Campbell is in Western and Central Canada this week visiting with some of his provincial counterparts in an effort to sell them on his vision and encourage them to embrace it nationally.

"First nations and aboriginal people have been the third solitude in Canada," the Premier said in an interview before departing on his trip.

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"They have been isolated for far too long in terms of transportation, in terms of services, jurisdictional disputes. The whole thrust of what we're trying to do is to include first nations groups in everything we do -- end the isolation."

The Premier acknowledges that two significant rulings handed down by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2004 resonated with political leaders across the country. The judgments, on the Haida and Taku River Tlingit cases, made it clear that governments must consult with first nations about decisions involving Crown land and resources that could have an impact on existing aboriginal rights and titles.

The old way of dealing with native groups was no longer good enough.

There are two aspects to the B.C. plan that Mr. Campbell is having his provincial colleagues consider.

The first concerns the sharing of resources.

"In the past, if there was a proposal for an economic development project in a certain area of the province the various parties would go off, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on studies and at the end of the process approach the first nations community in the area that maybe has 1,200 people in it and say: 'Here is 14 pounds of paper. Do you agree or disagree?' "

It was an approach that inevitably led to bitterness and resentment on behalf of the native groups. It is also an approach that is taken far too often elsewhere in the country.

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Under the new direction, the government or company proposing a project for a certain part of the province will include any native groups in the area from the outset. Potentially, an aboriginal group could become a partner in the project itself.

As it was explained to me by officials in the recently created Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, there could be a number of these so-called partnerships in a certain area that could ultimately form the foundation of a treaty down the road.

Mr. Campbell has made it clear he is not giving aboriginal groups veto power over land-use decisions. However, the government will try to address any concerns a native group might have about a project before going ahead.

What's different about this process is, government and native groups are no longer waiting to negotiate a formal treaty before entering into an economic development partnership. Treaties, as it's been shown, can often take years to finalize. To wait for that to happen robs aboriginal groups of years of revenue (and jobs) that might be generated through a resource-sharing agreement.

These types of arrangements are already in place in various parts of the process and include partnerships in things such as golf courses. Thanks in large part to the new atmosphere of trust and co-operation the B.C. government is attempting to foster, native groups are no longer throwing up barriers to development the way they did in the past.

"They just want to make sure their rights and titles are respected," Mr. Campbell said. "They want to make sure their right to share in economic development is respected. I think it's a big shift for the government to start thinking this way. But ultimately it will build a better future for all of us."

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And this leads to the second part of the New Relationship that the Premier is preaching.

Mr. Campbell said the gap between native and non-native people in areas such as health care, education and economic opportunities needs to be closed right across the country. As such, he said his government's much-touted Five Great Goals for the Future, which includes making B.C. the best-educated, most literate jurisdiction on the continent, leading the way in healthy living and creating more jobs per capita than anywhere in the country, must include aboriginal people.

"Or we won't have reached our goal," the Premier said.

A 2001 census showed that 18.9 per cent of non-aboriginal people in the province between the ages of 25 and 54 did not graduate from high school. The same figure was nearly 40 per cent for the aboriginal population. Meantime, the unemployment rate among that same age group of non-aboriginals was 6.8 per cent, while it was 21 per cent for natives.

Recently, Mr. Campbell announced a $100-million fund to, in part, help aboriginal organizations start closing those gaps. How? Well, in the spirit of their new relationship, Mr. Campbell has asked native leaders to come up with some proposals, rather than having the government do it as it might have in the past.

"I don't even like to think of the different ways they could do this," the Premier said.

Mr. Campbell believes the often deep socioeconomic chasm that divides aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities in Canada needs to be addressed. He is hoping his provincial colleagues agree. He says the Prime Minister has said he wants this to be a transformative time for native people.

"The time is now," Mr. Campbell said.

And he's willing to lead the charge.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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