North of Powell River, B.C., the ancient village of Tees Kwat may not have been occupied for centuries, but on March 15, Tla’amin (Sliammon) Nation’s original settlement hosted the signing of one of B.C.’s few modern treaties and a journey long in the making for the First Nation.
The final agreement with the province includes provisions for self-government, a decade of annual payments totaling nearly $30 million, and 8,000 hectares of fee simple land for the band.
The government boasted the deal would “remove ... constraints of the federal Indian Act” from the Tla’amin. By bringing “certainty to land and resource rights,” B.C. said in a statement, the treaty will “maximize opportunities for economic development and job creation for all British Columbians.”
“It has been a long, drawn out process to get us to this day,” Chief Clint Williams told Windspeaker, “but we’re very pleased.
“We don’t have much choice living under the Indian Act. Our economy in the Powell River area is not exactly booming. Our community is isolated and without land. We have faced a number of challenges. This offers us choices and opportunities.”
But as it moved towards a final agreement, the deal has been high on controversy. Community members opposed to the deal blockaded polling booths in 2012 with vehicles, and gone to court with allegations that elections were marred by irregularities and even deceased people’s names added to the voters list. The results of that disputed vote were 57.5 per cent in favour.
But at its core, the simmering controversy is over B.C.’s modern treaty process itself – and whether the hopes of achieving “certainty” and “finality” risk extinguishing inherent Aboriginal rights and title to the traditional territories.
“It’s such a short-term vision for our people,” Elder Doreen Point told Windspeaker, calling the signing a “sad day” for the nation. “When you sign away 95 or 97 per cent of your land to get us to where we are, how can they say I’m better off or the Sliammon are better off?
“We’re not ready for self-government. Maybe the people benefiting from this are ready, but the community isn’t ... We are not a reserve that generates revenue – there’s nothing for us to fall back on. We may have forestry, but when it comes to the benefit to the community how far does $250 per person take you? Not very far.”
Williams, lauded the deal many years in the making, adding that the fact that the final agreement was signed at the site of Tla’amin Nation’s original settlement, Tees Kwat, was historically “important.” Asked about criticism the pact would extinguish the nation’s rights and title for the future, he said.
“This replaces our aboriginal rights and title with treaty rights,” Williams replied, “but those rights are protected under the treaty.
“Although this does not provide us our entire traditional territories, most of that has been tenured and sold off by the province over the years. At least now we can benefit from some of our lands.”
Now the community has formed three working groups, he said, to plan around issues of governance, finances, and land use. In an earlier interview, Williams argued in favour of the treaty because “business is not exactly thriving” for the remote First Nation.
“We have some great land that could be developed and could open up some doors for the Tla’amin nation,” he said. “The unemployment rate in Tla’amin is fairly high ... Maybe we might be able to inject life into some of these opportunities in the area.”
But Point and other critics of the current leadership said the land was always theirs as a nation, and that urgent matters of economic development, adequate housing and health care can be addressed through other means than signing away their title.
Point tearfully invoked the memory of her late son, Bruce – who was William’s predecessor as chief, and a former councillor of 16 years. Bruce Point passed away on Jan. 4 at age 49, and though his cause of death remains unknown Point said his concerns about the treaty – despite initial support in 2001 – will continue to inspire its opponents who argue it will sacrifice their collective rights.
“When he realized what was at stake for the people, he withdrew his support,” Point said. “I’m not going to sit back, fold my hands and say, ‘Go ahead with a treaty.’ I’ll be there fighting every step of the way too.”
John Rustad, B.C.’s Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation Minister, said the treaty’s signing “marks another significant step along the path of reconciliation” between the province and Tla’amin.
“The time it has taken us to get this far together is a tribute to the importance of what we’re trying to achieve,” he said. “That’s because negotiating treaties with First Nations is the ultimate form of reconciliation.
“This treaty will help provide a solid financial foundation and support the Tla’amin in building a self-reliant and economically viable community.”