In what chief negotiator Robert Morales is calling a “significant step” the Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group (HTG) on Vancouver Island announced Wednesday that the documents have been signed to move to Stage 5 — the “final agreement” step of BC Treaty Negotiations.
The move comes after nearly 20 years stalled at Stage 4. The Treaty Group represents the First Nations of the Cowichan Valley area.
“The B.C. Treaty process, when it was established in ‘93, developed six stages and the first three stages were fairly quick, but Stage 4 was the ‘agreement in principal’ stage and that’s where we’ve been stuck for 20 years now,” explained Morales. “Moving into a ‘final agreement’ stage means that we’re able to negotiate to enter into what I would term ‘real’ negotiation. We’re no longer talking about what might be, we’re now developing the final agreement, final treaty language and dealing with a lot of the issues we’ve had in the past. It’s a significant step in the overall treaty process to be able to enter into the final treaty discussions and negotiations.”
Though it’s taken two decades to arrive at this point, Morales believes the process will now move forward more swiftly.
“We set a goal of four years,” he said. “In the transition document itself there are a number of commitments that are made by the two levels of government [federal and provincial] and the HTG and their member nations.”
Also, the set of guiding principals created for moving forward “is a vast improvement” over the way negotiations have been conducted up to this point, Morales noted.
“The new policy is a very significant improvement and a policy agreed to by both Canada and B.C.,” he said. “The transition document makes reference to a number of different commitments by Canada and B.C. that really set the stage for the final agreement negotiations. If we’re able to implement all of that, I think it speaks to being able to move much more quickly.”
Morales credits the willingness of both the federal and provincial governments to work with the HTG for being able to escape Stage 4.
“We have for the first time some fairly congruent positions between the federal Liberal party and the (B.C.) NDP party so that made it a lot easier in terms of both levels of government being more agreeable to moving forward,” he said.
As well, the member nations of the HTG (Cowichan Tribes, Halalt First Nation, Penelakut Tribe, Lyackson First Nation and the Ts’uubaa-asatx (Lake Cowichan First Nations) are all in support of moving forward so the time that would have been spent on community votes was saved.
The communities will have to vote on ratification of the final agreement eventually.
Federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett said “this new relationship is based on a recognition of rights. A rights recognition approach explicitly recognizes that Aboriginal rights are inherent and will not be extinguished or surrendered, and seeks to build a collaborative government-to-government relationship that is flexible and able to adapt to changing circumstances over time.”
Cowichan Tribes is the largest band in B.C. with more than 5,000 members.
“After being in the treaty negotiation since 1993, this is a major step forward for our Hul’qumi’num Nations,” said Cowichan Chief William Seymour.
Other member First Nations chiefs agreed.
Chief Georgina Livingstone (Ts’uubaa-asatx [Lake Cowichan] First Nation) stated that she looks forward to continuing the work.
Chief Joan Brown of Penelakut Tribe said “This signing represents an important step in the reconciliation process and hopes it is the beginning of a strong, respectful relationship in the future.”
Chief Richard Thomas (Lyackson First Nation) said he “was overwhelmed by the length of time it has taken to get here.”
Chief Robert Thomas (Halalt First Nation) said “We never relinquished our title to the land and that this treaty is for our future generations of children and grandchildren.”
Morales, too, is pleased with the milestone and looks forward to the work ahead.
“It all speaks to a very much improved relationship between Canada, B.C., and First Nations.”