OTTAWA The federal government is changing the way it negotiates treaties and self-government agreements with First Nations.
The government said last week it will focus on negotiations with the greatest potential for success, but some third-party negotiators and First Nations say negotiations will continue to stall unless the government speeds up its own internal processes and comes to the table more willing to bargain.
Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development John Duncan announced his plan to implement a results-based approach to negotiations in response to a decades-long process in which some communities have been mired.Â According to department data, it can take up to 30 years to reach an agreement, and the average negotiating time is 15 years.
Grand Council Chief of the Union of Ontario Indians Patrick Madahbee told Postmedia News that negotiations typically fall down when the federal government comes to the table with a take it or leave it offer on issues such as a self-government agreement or an education plan.
The Union of Ontario Indians, which represents 39 communities spanning the north side of the Great Lakes, has been negotiating education and self-government agreements with the federal government since 1993 and 1997 respectively.
Some of the offers are so blatantly bad that we cant even look at them.Â (This announcement) is their way of saying Well, weve come to an impasse, were not going to be able to move on this one, so well move on to somebody else, said Madahbee.
A spokesman for Duncan said that under the new approach, if the parties cannot agree, we would consider suspending those discussions, but that the government plans to engage with aboriginal groups and provincial and territorial partners in the coming months to figure out where the government should focus its resources to achieve faster results.
Canada will also look at ways to speed up its internal processes, said a government press release.
The federal government is involved in 93 separate negotiations, 44 per cent of which have lasted 16 to 20 years. Most of those negotiations are in British Columbia, where there are fewer treaties than in other parts of Canada.
B.C.s arms-length treaty commissioner said the federal government must do two things in order to forge ahead on most agreements:Â streamline its own cumbersome internal processes and allow government negotiators to come to the table with more power to make a deal.
On the first point, chief commissioner Sophie Pierre said once all parties (the First Nation, the province and the federal government) have agreed to a certain point, the treaty currently has to go back into the federal system to a dozen different ministries for approval. Everybodys on a different agenda and it kinda gets lost, she said.
On the second point, Pierre said negotiations sometimes break down because the First Nation doesnt agree with the amount of money or land the government is offering. In British Columbia particularly, a main sticking point has been that federal negotiators arent allowed to offer fishing rights as part of a deal.
There are B.C. First Nations that are never going to be able to reach a full treaty agreement if they dont have access to fish . . . and the fact that the federal government doesnt have a mandate to negotiate on fish makes it impossible to finish those agreements, she said.
In Ontario, where some communities have been negotiating for almost 20 years, land use restrictions and a federal demand that communities pay taxes once they achieve self-government, are mostly likely to be the issues that stall talks, said Madahbee.Â Thats part of their strategy: they send in negotiators and bureaucrats with no authority to make any decisions to prolong or disengage the discussions, said Madahbee.
Liberal Aboriginal Affairs critic Carolyn Bennett said the onus is on the federal government to come to the negotiating table prepared to make a deal.
The government is refusing to move outside their initial position.Â Thats not a negotiation.Â If you put something on the table and say this is it and you dont allow your negotiator to go outside that, then I think most people feel the fault lies with the government for how long this is taking because theyve not been prepared to listen.
Under the new approach, if the government decides an agreement is impossible, other options can be explored, said a spokesman for Minister John Duncan in an emailed statement.Â Jan ODriscoll said that, for example, some aboriginal groups could get federal funding to help build capacity for future negotiations.Â Others will be invited to access other options outside the negotiation process, such as exploring the admission to the First Nations Land Management Act.
However, while Pierre said such an exit strategy is an important feature of the new approach, in her opinion true self-government and a real sustainable economy for First Nations can only be achieved with a full treaty.Â You have total access to your land and its not governed by anybody else except your own regulations.
Back in Ontario, Madahbee said he views these sorts of announcements with caution because history has taught us that talk is cheap.
If theyre genuine about accelerating negotiations with groups that are ready to move, thats great.Â But, we havent seen anything like that happen so far.
The Union of Ontario Indians is currently at a Final Agreement stage on both its self-government agreement and a deal on education.Â Were waiting for some fiscal offers from the federal government and they keep getting delayed, he said.Â Were ready to move and weve got plans in place specifically on education but now the government is talking about their own model so I dont know why they spent years working with our community to develop something.
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