B.C. premier calls on First Nations to drive economic and social ties

VANCOUVER – Leaders of British Columbia’s First Nations came looking for a home run but left meetings with Premier Christy Clark and her cabinet wondering if they even made it to first base.

At least a year will have to pass before the leaders will know if they cleared the fence or hit a sacrifice bunt while trying to resolve historic land rights with the government, said Grand Chief Ed John of the First Nations Summit, one of B.C.’s largest aboriginal groups.

Hundreds of First Nations’ leaders approved on Thursday a 12-page reconciliation document that is being billed as a guide for future economic, social and legal relations between aboriginals and the province.

“The commitment is really there,” said John who called the talks constructive and positive. “Now we need to dig down and do the actions that are necessary to followup. Last year we kind of fell apart.”

“We are going to have our disagreements and that is absolutely true, and that disagreement fundamentally is about the land itself and the right of First Nations to the land,” he said.

Clark said her government supports the document.

She called on First Nations to become the driving force behind the wide-ranging agreement that forges a stronger economic and social partnership between First Nations and British Columbians.

“I have heard from you loud and clear you see reconciliation as something unique to your communities,” she said at the conclusion of a two-day gathering in Vancouver. “We need to go down the path of reconciliation.”

The document states the goals and objectives of reconciliation include “Achieving predictability and stability in the economy, and closing the socio-economic gap that persists between First Nations and non-First Nations.”

Clark said reconciliation involves improving the lives of families, especially children. She said the images of the dead Syrian boy on a beach hit her as a parent and hit the parents of First Nations even harder.

“In seeing Alan Kurdi there, we saw our own children,” she said. “Every parent knows that sense of fragility. The number of First Nations’ children who find their way into government care is a problem across the country.”

She pledged to hold a meeting to discuss aboriginal children’s issues in the coming months and vowed to ensure the federal government will send representatives to next year’s chiefs’ gathering.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said the government is currently at Strike 2 when it comes to reconciliation, and if there is no significant movement over the next year, First Nations will return to legal challenges and protest camps.

“Today was a step,” said Shane Gottfriedson, B.C. Assembly of First Nations’ regional chief. “This gathering gave me the confidence there is a way forward.”

Aboriginal relations Minister John Rustad said he could not put a deadline on reaching reconciliation.

“It’s not about a destination,” he said. “It really is about a journey.”

First Nations — buoyed by the Supreme Court of Canada land rights victory in central B.C. — want more say and revenue sharing on proposed resource projects on land they consider their territory.

Most of B.C.’s major development projects, including the Site C hydroelectric dam and the Kinder Morgan and Northern Gateway pipeline projects, already face court challenges from First Nations.